To be published July 1st in Healthy Planet’s Aspen Edition:
So you are feling a little softer than you’d like. Sugary treats have become part of your daily life, most of your solid food intake is crunchy and comes in a shiny bag (with either a Cheetah or a picture of Paul Newman on it), and you’re suspicious that the antioxidants in that dark chocolate may not be helping your cause. Exercise, once a habit, has fallen by the wayside. Even the thought of it sounds like torture.
You bump along for a while in this mode, getting ever more disgusted with yourself, and then one day you shout, “that’s it! I’m not gonna take it anymore!” In a fit of self-loathing you decide that you hath sinned and it’s time to repent. “No more indulging in junk, and no more overeating!” you shout. Then “Eye of the Tiger” starts playing in the background of your mind as you picture a glistening, ripped version of yourself training like the elite athlete you always wished you could be. The next day you begin with your self-imposed boot camp, with endless amounts of intense exercise and a diet of mostly salad and steamed vegetables. “It’s gonna work this time I know it! Just Do it!”
The diet industry leads us to believe that doing these things will guide us to healthy, vibrant salvation. In actuality, the diet industry is putting the “die” in “diet.” Trying to eat less and exercise more, creating a calorie-deficit-induced weight loss, is one of the worst things we can do to improve our metabolism and therefore our health.
Our brains are easily misled, but our bodies and the Eons of evolutionary wisdom packed into our design are certainly not. When we expel more energy (calories) than we ingest, we are signaling famine, which to the body means death if no action is taken. In a nutshell, the body’s response to a calorie deficit is to save the fat (for protection), lower the metabolic rate (to require less calories for maintenance), and increase the appetite for what allows you to store fat most effectively – calorie-dense sweet foods.
The body has a whole system for making these changes transpire. The adrenals become overactive and the thyroid underactive, which dissolves muscle tissue to lower your overall caloric requirement (body temperature is lowered as well). The hormones leptin and prolactin as well as a biochemical called Neuropeptide Y work to increase your appetite, particularly for sugar which raises insulin high enough to divert energy directly into fat cells. The pancreas also becomes hyperactive to carbohydrates, secreting far more insulin per carbohydrate than normal, and thus turning your metabolism into a more efficient fat-storing machine. To that add ever-declining levels of mood-controlling serotonin, making you increasingly more emotional until you get your serotonin-spiking sugar fix. All these things transpire at once when you undereat and overexercise. There are endless ways of losing weight by achieving a calorie deficit or eliminating a food group, but don’t let the initial appearance of success fool you. The end result is always the opposite of the desired outcome, because the body is too smart to starve without noticing.
There is a solution: eat well. Eating well offers a long-term path to healing the metabolism and reconfiguring the composition of your body to include more muscle and less fat. I have yet to see it fail in those with the patience and discipline to eat frequent, balanced meals with no sugar or alcohol. If your body has plenty of unadulterated carbohydrates, protein, and fat available at all times throughout the day, then it, through a chain of hormonal events mirrored to the ones listed above, releases fat stores without sacrificing muscle tissue. So for the purposes of fat loss and healing from other related disorders, make no mistake – hunger is your worst enemy.