It is officially swimsuit season. And, for many, losing weight is top of mind.
If there is one weight loss strategy that has been driven home by mainstream media, your doctor, or most weight loss programs, it is some variation of:
Eat less + Exercise more + Willpower = Weight loss.
What if I told you that, in order to lose weight…
–You would not have to starve yourself.
–You would not have to count calories.
–You would not have to count “points”.
–You would not have to weigh your food.
–You would not have to eat miniscule, spa-sized portions.
–You would not have to “go to the gym more”.
–You would not have to take up CrossFit or train for a marathon to get results.
–You would not have to rely on having iron-clad willpower to succeed. (To be clear, being mindful and patient matters; willpower, less so).
Trust me…I’ve tried it all. Until 2013, the year that I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune thyroid disease, I often struggled with bloating, all-over body puffiness, and extra pounds (especially during the summer) that I could not shed despite being disciplined about:
- 3 day juice fasts, where I drank ONLY freshly made, organic green juices or “detox” juices. At the same time, I ran 7 miles each of those 3 days. The result? I was irritable, quick to anger, hungry and exhausted. Yes, I would lose 3-4 pounds, but I also instantly regained it within a day or two!
- Ramping up my cardio and running 35 to 40 miles a week.
- Going to the gym MORE…as in 2 to 3 hours 5 to 6 days a week!
- Counting calories. I have several years worth of notebooks, itemizing the calorie count of every meal I ate!
- Doing 500 to 800 crunches 4 to 5 times a week.
- Weighing my food religiously.
- Avoiding red meat altogether and eating mostly “vegetarian”.
The end result of my efforts? A very temporary weight loss—and, sometimes, not at all!
Truth? Counting calories (or points) in order to achieve some variation of the “eat less, exercise more” approach to weight loss often results in short-term weight loss that is NOT sustainable.
A study published in the International Journal of Obesity drives this point home: when researchers assessed how successfully study participants—845 men and women, aged 20 to 45—were able to successfully maintain their initial weight loss long-term, they found that only 5% of those who had successfully lost weight were able to keep that weight off over a three year period.1
A high-profile case in point: The reality show, The Biggest Loser, which ran from 2004 to 2016, featured obese or overweight contestants, competing for a cash prize. The winner? Whoever lost the highest percentage of weight relative to their starting weight. Some contestants lost as much as 100 to 200 pounds through severely calorie-restricted diets and, literally, hours of exercise. In 2015, when researchers conducted a follow-up study of Season 8 (2009) contestants, they found that 13 of 14 contestants had regained weight; in fact, 4 contestants were now heavier than before the competition.2,3
Contrary to popular belief: your body does not operate like a calculator (e.g., eat less calories + burn more calories = weight loss). Instead, it functions more like a thermostat, constantly adapting, reacting and changing to internal and external cues. In other words, your metabolism fights back. This is why rebound weight gain is common with rapid weight loss. Virtually all of The Biggest Loser contestants now have slower metabolisms and burn fewer calories at rest than before they began the competition, researchers discovered.4
What many people, trying to lose weight, fail to understand is that taking an eat less, exercise more approach affects your HORMONES in a way that can lead to urgent or insatiable cravings, intense hunger, low energy, poor sleep and unstable mood.
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers in the bloodstream that, literally, run your body. They are produced by your endocrine system, a network of glands that regulate bodily functions through the hormones they produce. Hormones control everything, from metabolism and digestion, to sleep, mood, libido, immune system and brain health. In turn, your everyday food and lifestyle choices affect your hormones. So, too, does aging; hormonal transitions, like perimenopause, menopause and andropause (male menopause); disease; stress; toxins; thoughts you think; and emotions you feel (e.g., anger, anxiety, fear) .
Hormones affect your ability to lose weight—or not
The cumulative effect of hormones will always be more powerful than your willpower.
For example… You have a demanding job, to which you commute two hours every day. You are usually in bed by midnight and up by 6:00 AM. You have committed to losing weight by eating a 1,500 calorie low-fat diet and running 30 miles a week. Initially, you lose weight. You also feel beyond exhausted, irritable and have intense cravings for sugar and salt. Suddenly, you stop losing weight; instead, you start gaining weight. Why?
The cumulative effect of multiple stressors—work, long commute, sleep deprivation, dieting (which stresses both body and mind) and exercising an already overtaxed body, creates an inflammatory stress load that often results in weight gain—not weight loss.
In this hypothetical, yet, unfortunately, all-too-common scenario, the hormones that are affected by lack of sleep alone—and exacerbated by additional stressors—are insulin, ghrelin, leptin, cortisol, growth hormone, thyroid and adrenal.
Cortisol. Stress, of any kind, raises this fight-of-flight stress hormone cortisol. Elevated levels of cortisol increase appetite, raise blood sugar, promotes fat storage and burns muscle.
Insulin. Insulin is a hormone that unlocks the cells in your muscles and tissues so that glucose (from the food you eat) can be used for energy. Insulin resistance happens when your body’s cells become resistant to the effects of insulin (this often happens when you are consuming too many calories from sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed foods, unhealthy fats, or alcohol). That excess glucose ends up being stored in your fat cells, mostly visibly, around your mid-section. Too little sleep and/or recovery time between workouts can raise insulin levels, which makes you store more fat.
Ghrelin. Lack of sleep increases ghrelin, the hunger hormone. You feel hungrier, eat more and store more fat. High levels of ghrelin are also associated with cravings.
Leptin. As the “satiety” hormone, leptin acts as an appetite suppressant. It messages the brain: “No more food!” because you feel satisfied. Unrelenting hunger may be a sign of leptin resistance, which happens when your brain is unable to receive the leptin signal; and, because you don’t feel full, you keep eating and gain weight.
Growth hormone (GH). Optimal levels of GH keep you lean and energized. GH also enhances muscle growth, fat-burning, body composition, exercise performance and a healthy immune system. Inadequate sleep lowers GH, which translates into more belly fat and less lean body mass.
Thyroid. Think of your thyroid as a metabolic engine: it sets the pace at which your body operates. If it’s low or “hypo”, you may feel sluggish, tired and draggy; if it’s high, or “hyper”, you may feel wired, anxious and overheated. It greatly affects energy levels. The thyroid plays an important role in weight management, regulating metabolism and how quickly you burn calories. The thyroid is also exquisitely sensitive to stress, including the stress of dieting, over-exercising, too little sleep, food sensitivities, environmental toxins, etc.
Adrenal. Your two adrenal glands produce cortisol and have an interdependent relationship with your thyroid. Both low and high cortisol can worsen symptoms of hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s, which include fatigue, low energy, weight gain and mood issues.
Pay attention to hormonal cues
Hormones are complex. The simplest way to understand whether your hormones are in balance is to pay attention to three “clues”: hunger, energy and cravings.5
To optimize hormone balance for weight loss, you want to eat in a way that:
1. Satiates hunger
2. Stabilizes energy
3. Reduces or eliminates cravings
Hunger. Hunger is that empty, gnawing sensation you feel in your gut.6 Are you constantly hungry? Then, your leptin and insulin may be out of whack. Maybe you have been restricting your food intake too severely (e.g., eating a very low calorie diet). Or, maybe you are eating too much of the wrong foods (e.g., processed foods, refined carbohydrates, sugar, flour, soda, too much fruit).
Rx: Eating enough Protein + Fiber + Water is your best offense for keeping hunger at bay. Protein influences the release of hormones that control appetite and food intake. Fiber, in the form of non-starchy vegetables, should fill at least 50% of your plate at every meal. Eat just enough fat (not too much, not too little). Hydrate well. Enjoy high-water foods, like lettuce or any leafy green, cucumbers, celery, zucchini and radishes, in unlimited quantities.
Energy. Balanced blood sugar is key to having stable energy. All of your hormones affect your energy level, but insulin and cortisol are the primary drivers since they have the biggest effect on blood sugar. Low energy and a slow metabolism can also be indicative of a sluggish (underactive) thyroid.
Rx: Again, eat enough protein! Focus on smart carbs: mostly non-starchy vegetables. Once upon a time, muffins, multi-grain toast and Greek yogurt with blueberries, unsweetened cranberries, dried figs and a drizzle of raw honey were my go-to breakfasts. No more. At my first meal of the day, protein and fiber are non-negotiables. Breakfast might be: eight ounces of poached wild-caught salmon with scallion pesto; roast chicken with broccoli; ground turkey ragu with mixed greens, or a cauliflower and grass-fed collagen smoothie. Think outside the standard American breakfast box! Check out my Instagram feed for ideas. Keep in mind that stimulants, like caffeine and sugar, create false energy spikes and crashes that can trigger increased appetite, intense cravings or overeating later in the day.
Cravings. The stress hormone cortisol is the main culprit behind cravings.
Rx: The best way to lower stress hormones and tame cravings is to incorporate daily activities (start with 10 to 15 minutes) that emphasize rest and relaxation. Slow, leisure walking (not power walking!), hot Epsom salt baths, massage, meditation, journaling, sipping herbal teas, listening to music, spending time in nature, naps, or time with pets.
A word about exercise
Those closest to me know that, a decade ago, I used to LIVE at the gym: we’re talking 2 to 3 hours, 5 to 6 days a week. I was a hard-core runner. It made me feel good. It made me look fit. It was my only stress release. Working through all of my life stressors at the gym, however, eventually crashed my hormones, especially my thyroid and adrenal glands. Despite my disciplined workouts, I eventually began gaining weight; I struggled with recurrent, long-lingering viral infections; and I had zero energy. After my Hashimoto’s diagnosis, I shifted to an anti-inflammatory eating and movement plan that supports my thyroid and adrenals.
These days, I am at my ideal weight, achieved 80% through my food and lifestyle choices, and my willingness to tackle uncomfortable emotions head-on instead of mercilessly pounding my body. Because I have a very busy schedule, I hit the gym 2 to 3 times a week for 30 to 60 mins. (max), do an occasional 20-minute HIIT run, and I focus mainly on weight training. I walk 10,000 to 15,000 steps daily. Will my workout regimen change in the future? It might.
The important thing: It keeps me in the happy weight zone right now. It’s doable. And it’s sustainable.
How to keep hormones in balance
1. Adjust your expectations and your mindset. Think tortoise, not hare. Slow and steady wins the race. Rapid weight loss has metabolic consequences: rebound weight gain is one of them.
2. Get consistent, restorative sleep: 7 to 9 hours for optimal hormone balance. Yep, sleep trumps a “perfect” diet. Lack of sleep creates a cascade of negative, inflammatory hormonal effects, including increased appetite, more fat storage, more cravings, poor mood, low energy, etc.
3. Pay attention. How frequently do you feel hungry? Is your energy level low, high or unstable? Are your cravings through the roof? Listen to your body and adjust your protein, fiber, healthy fat and water intake accordingly.
4. Eat fresh, unprocessed and organic whole foods. You may want to rethink eating takeout every day or most days. Reducing your exposure to canned foods or foods, packaged in plastic, can substantially reduce your exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals, like bisphenol A (BPA) and pthalates, a 2010 study found.8 Classified as environmental obesogens, BPA and pthalates are linked to weight gain.
5. Eat enough clean, high quality (organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed or wild-caught, non-GMO) protein at every meal.
6. Eat at least 8 to 12 servings of organic, non-starchy vegetables, especially leafy greens (cooked or raw) every day.
7. Minimize or eliminate sources of inflammation linked to weight gain. These include medications: birth control pills; synthetic HRT; antidepressants; prescription drugs, including regular use of antibiotics, corticosteroids, even diabetes medications; food sensitivities; refined vegetable oils (e.g., corn, soybean, canola), GMO foods; toxins (exposue to viruses, cigarette smoke, pesticides, plastics, etc.); chronic digestive issues; sugar; caffeine; and alcohol.
8. Move vs. “Exercise”. Exercise stresses the body. And it’s usually considered a “good” stress. But…when you eat less AND exercise more, you create negative stress on the body. A better strategy? Eat less and exercise less or choose to move more (for example, walking at a relaxed pace) over doing “more” cardio or longer, more vigorous workouts.
9. Connect with nature. With weight management, all roads lead back to stress. A 2018 study found that spending time outdoors can help reduce the stress response, with improvements in blood pressure and heart rate.9 It’s summer! Get offline and find your green space, whether it’s the woods, ocean or the nearest park.
1 International Journal of Obesity.24, pp. 1107–1110 (2000)
2 Obesity. May 2, 2016
3, 4 New York Times. May 2, 2016
5, 6, 7 Lose Weight Here. Rodale. 2015
8 Environmental Health Perspectives. 2011 Jul 1; 119(7): 914-920.
9 Health Place. 2018, May; 51:136-150