People tend to think that fat is just excess stored energy in the form of tissue that sits there waiting to be used. However, fat is actually busy actively releasing several hormones, one of which is called leptin. I refer to leptin as the starvation defense system because it is the reason mankind was able to make it through winter thousands of years ago. Leptin is constantly communicating fat store levels to the brain. If there are sufficient fat store levels, then leptin tells the brain via the hypothalamus to speed up the metabolism and decrease the appetite. When fat store levels begin to decrease, then leptin decreases, which tells the brain to slow down the metabolism and increase appetite. From a survival stand point, this makes perfect sense. When there’s plenty of food around, your metabolism can function at a high rate because it’s not afraid you are going to die of starvation. However, it wouldn’t make much sense for your metabolism to keep cranking at the same level if you started to run low on food. Instead, the body uses an ingenious survival tactic of slowing the metabolism to preserve fat and match the limited food supply. Understanding how humans survived times of feast and famine is critical to understanding how to achieve fat loss, and avoid another failed New Year’s Resolution.
The typical weight loss resolution starts off entirely wrong. It goes a little something like this, “On Monday, I’m going to start back up at the gym, stop eating junk and start tracking everything I eat. I’ll cut back on my calories and hit cardio super hard…” Sorry to break it to you, but you’re already doomed. Here’s why…
Drastically decreasing your calories could be compared to someone entering a time of food shortage. The body doesn’t know that there’s a grocery store five minutes away, so it reacts the same as it would if you lived 4000 years ago. Your metabolism slows and your appetite increases, motivating you to eat. Now regardless of how much will power you may have, you’re not going to overcome your body’s alarm system saying “Mayday,” “Mayday,” I’m starving feed me.” This is why people can’t stick to their New Year’s Resolutions! You may last a couple of weeks at most before hitting a weight loss plateau. Then, it happens… daily Thanksgiving kicks in. You make it all day following your diet, right up until about the time you get home from the gyms in scottsdale. Then, you binge eat everything in sight. This isn’t due to a lack of will power, this is pure survival. Not only are you telling your body to react this way because you decreased your calories, but you also just ran on the treadmill for an hour. How much sense does that make from a survival standpoint? More on that later…
Now after sending your body into panic mode, when you do finally get your hands on some food, guess where it goes? That’s right, straight back to your fat cells. Not only will your body automatically replenish your fat cells, but it will always add a little extra before speeding the metabolism back up just to be safe. This is why diets fail and people gain the weight back and then some.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Shouldn’t overweight people make a ton of metabolism-increasing, appetite-reducing leptin due to high fat stores? Unfortunately, many people in our society today suffer from leptin resistance. In other words, the body is producing tons of leptin, but the brain isn’t receiving the signal. Instead of increasing the metabolism and suppressing the appetite, the brain thinks its dealing with a rail-thin person on the verge of starvation. Leptin resistance has been attributed to overeating (not so uncommon these days), frequent blood sugar surges (from our Standard American Diet), high triglycerides (ditto), excessive fructose consumption (the stuff is in everything!), and chronic stress (got some?).
Now here is where the situation goes from bad to worse. When leptin levels are low (or the brain thinks they are low because of leptin resistance), the stress hormone cortisol skyrockets. Cortisol tells your body to increase fat stores and begins feeding on your muscle tissue. Doing excess amounts of cardio (more than 30 minutes a day) and suffering from vast amounts of stress will also increase cortisol. This is the reason why high cardio, low calories diets are not only impossible to stick with long-term, but often result in gaining the weight back plus some.
In addition, reduced leptin or leptin resistance also triggers an increase in an appetite-regulating hormone in your stomach called ghrelin. When ghrelin is up, so is your appetite. And just to make you even more motivated to binge eat, Neuropeptide Y (NPY)—a hunger signal produced by your brain—surges when leptin is down. NPY drives you to crave carbohydrates and not the good kind. It’s the sweet stuff that drives up your insulin levels, which also causes you to store fat.
As you can see, taking the wrong approach to dropping those lbs can turn into a vicious hormonal storm. It’s no wonder that only 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s Resolution. The good news is, that it’s not too late to save your Resolution. Here’s what to do:
- Don’t Starve – Duh! If you don’t understand why, go back and reread the article.
- Increase Quality and Food Intake To Decrease Calories – Eating healthy food will naturally decrease your calorie intake. For instance, a Big Mac and medium fry contains approximately 930 calories, but so does 2 eggs, 1 bowl of oatmeal, 1 protein shake, an 8 oz chicken breast, 1 large salad, and 2 cups of broccoli. Consume less, by eating more healthy food.
- More Iron, Less Pavement – Spending too much time doing cardio will increase your cortisol levels which as we saw, results in fat storage and muscle wasting. Lifting weights helps increase your muscle mass, contributing to fat loss and a speedy metabolism.
- Reduce your stress – Ever wonder why all you want to do after a stressful day at work is hit the drive thru. Stress not only increases your cortisol levels, but also causes you to be leptin resistant, which sends your cravings into overdrive. But good news, lifting weights is a proven to decrease stress. So after work, be sure to head straight to the gym; you’ll feel differently about the drive thru after your workout.
- It’s more commitment than motivation – Nobody gains weight overnight and shouldn’t expect to lose it after a couple of weeks of eating right and exercising. The start of a new year may have you motivated, but it’s going to take commitment to continue eating right and working out. Don’t be a resolutioner. Make a commitment for the next year and work on changing your lifestyle, success will be sure to follow.