While my books and lectures often focus on weight loss, I never tell my patients to lose weight. I simply help them restore health, and the magic of biology does the rest. Your goal might be to lose weight; my goal is to get you healthy. Either way, we both win.
The key becomes focusing on your food quality, not your calories. That well-worn notion—that as long as you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight— is simply dead wrong. It is antiquated and while some experts still espouse this viewpoint, it does not work.
Newton’s first law of thermodynamics states that the energy of an isolated system is constant. In other words, in a laboratory, or “isolated system,” 1,000 calories of broccoli and 1,000 calories of soda are, in fact, the same.
Here’s the thing. It’s true that when burned in a laboratory setting, 1,000 calories of broccoli and 1,000 calories of soda would indeed release the same amount of energy. But sorry, Mr. Newton; your law of thermodynamics doesn’t apply in living, breathing, digesting systems.
When you eat food, the “isolated system” part of the equation goes out the window. The food interacts with your biology, a complex adaptive system that instantly transforms every bite.
I’ve illustrated how this works elsewhere, following the same number of calories in soda versus broccoli once they enter your body. The next time you hear someone say “a calorie is a calorie,” please refer him or her to this blog.
Most of us have learned that if we just cut our intake by 100 calories a day, or increase our exercise a little bit over the long haul, we will lose weight. We’re continually told that it’s all about the calories in, calories out. But as you learned in the broccoli versus soda comparison, biology and metabolism are far more complex than that.
Just going with the math, if you burned an extra 100 calories a day (walking one mile) or consumed 100 calories less per day over 35 days, you would lose a pound. (Remember, 3,500 calories equals one pound.) In theory, over five years you would lose 50 pounds.
Yet studies show that in reality you’re more likely to lose only 10 (not 50) pounds in five years. Why? Because of changes in your metabolism and caloric needs that occur as you lose weight.
You’ll need to consume even fewer calories, or burn even more of them, just to keep losing at the same rate. For most people, this pace of progress is totally demotivating, which is why they generally abandon their small-scale diet and exercise attempts early on.
The Insulin – Weight Gain Connection
If monitoring calories isn’t the answer for weight loss, then what is? While calories do matter to some degree, hormones matter more.
To provide just one example about why hormones – not calories – are the key players in weight loss, let’s briefly look at insulin. When you eat sugar of any kind, your pancreas produces this master metabolism hormone.
Insulin’s job is to help sugar get into your cells. Once sugar is in the cells, it can be turned into energy by your mitochondria (the energy-burning factories in your cells). So insulin is designed to help you use the sugar you eat, or, if you eat more than you need, store it for later use.
At its best, the interaction between your insulin level and the sugar in your blood is a finely tuned machine. You eat some sugar, and your body produces just enough insulin to metabolize it. Later you eat a little more sugar, and the same thing happens again. It is a smooth, harmonious cycle that the healthy body carries out every day without your slightest awareness.
However, problems can occur when there is too much sugar in your diet. When you regularly eat a lot of sugar, especially sugars that are quickly absorbed, the insulin levels in your blood become elevated. Over time, you can become resistant to the effects of insulin and thus need more and more of it to do the same job. This insulin resistance has some very serious health implications as well as a direct impact on your appetite.
Insulin resistance is very much like a drug addiction. When you are addicted to a drug, you develop a tolerance to it and hence need more and more of it to produce the same effect. When you consistently have a high level of insulin in your blood, you develop a tolerance to it. As a consequence, your body’s tissues no longer respond normally to the hormone. Hence, your pancreas produces more of it, elevating your insulin levels even more in your body’s attempt to overcome this resistance.
This turns into a vicious cycle very quickly. When you have more insulin in your blood than you do sugar, your body tells you to eat some sugar to even out the balance. But every time you eat the sugar you cause your insulin levels to go up even more, causing you to want more sugar, and on and on the cycle goes.
In the meantime, you are storing all the excess sugar as fat, slowing down your metabolism, and promoting heart disease, dementia, and cancer. This is a condition known as pre-diabetes. It is also called metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and syndrome X.
The key to weight loss, then, becomes focusing on foods that normalize blood sugar and lower insulin levels. If you eat the same amount of calories from broccoli rather than cookies, you will lose weight.
Food is information that controls your gene expression, hormones, and metabolism. The source of the calories (and the information carried along with the calories) makes a gigantic difference in how your genes, hormones, enzymes, and metabolism respond.
If you eat food that spikes your insulin level, you will gain weight. If you eat food that reduces your insulin level, you will lose weight. This is true even if the food contains exactly the same number of calories or grams of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and fiber.
The Only Diet That Science Shows Works
Low-glycemic-load diets are the only diets that have been proven to work— these diets don’t spike blood sugar and insulin.
In a landmark large-scale study, only one diet showed the capacity for maintaining the most weight loss over time. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the easiest diet to maintain, and the one that had the biggest impact on preventing weight gain after people had lost weight, was the low-glycemic-load, higher-protein diet.
After looking at all diet studies, the Cochrane Database (an independent group of scientists who reviews all available literature), found that low-glycemic-load diets help you lose weight faster and most importantly, keep it off.
When you focus on real, whole, unprocessed foods, you will automatically create a meal that has a low glycemic load. The glycemic load of a meal tells us how much of and how quickly a fixed quantity of a specific food will raise your blood sugar and insulin levels. The slower these levels rise, and the lower they are, the better.
Controlling the glycemic load of your meals isn’t very hard.You need to combine protein, fats, and whole-food, fiber-rich, low-starch carbohydrates from vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and a limited amount of whole grains and low-sugar fruit.
10 Strategies to Lose Weight without Reducing Calories
I mentioned at the beginning I never tell patients to lose weight. I simply provide some effective strategies that help them choose the right foods while eliminating the wrong ones. This has nothing to do with calories, counting, measuring, “points,” or otherwise scrutinizing what you eat.
Becoming a qualitarian might be the most important thing you do to reduce your risk for diabesity and lose weight. When you focus on the right foods, you automatically eliminate excess calories in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and other added sugars, trans fat, and other undesirable ingredients.
Simply eat the right foods in the right quantities, and for almost everyone, weight loss will take care of itself. And, you will automatically eat a low-glycemic load diet.
Rather than focus on what you can’t have, I want you to focus on these 10 things to lose weight.
- Avoid sugar in all its many forms. Carbohydrates, especially those with a high glycemic load, turn to sugar very quickly. When you eat sugar, you unconsciously trigger a vicious cycle of sugar cravings, increased insulin production, increased appetite, more sugar intake, and more insulin production, until you are in a cycle of cravings, bingeing and crashing all day long. Eventually this leads to insulin resistance, which is a major contributor to weight gain and rapid aging.
- Eat more fiber. Fiber is the secret key to a low glycemic load. It’s like a sponge that soaks up sugar, thus making it burn more slowly in your digestive system. Eating fiber is advantageous for a lot of reasons. The higher the fiber content of a single food or a meal in total, the harder and longer your body has to work to digest it. You burn more calories, stay full longer, and reduce your appetite.
- Choose real food. Avoid highly processed, factory-manufactured Frankenfoods. Choose fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and lean animal proteins such as fish, chicken, and eggs.
- Eat breakfast. The easiest thing you can do to lose weight and increase longevity is to eat breakfast. Studies repeatedly show that eating a healthy protein-containing breakfast helps people lose weight, reduce cravings, and burn calories. Good proteins are eggs, nuts, seeds, nut butters, or a protein shake.
- Slow down and be mindful. When we eat unconsciously, we eat more. It takes 20 minutes for your brain to register that your stomach is full. The practice of slow, mindful eating is a powerful way to better enjoy your food, lose weight, and improve your metabolism. Before meals, “Take Five”: Take five breaths in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth. Slowly count to five on each in-breath and again on each out-breath. Offer gratitude, and then bring your attention fully to the food.
- Sleep better. The research is clear: Lack of sleep or poor sleep damages your metabolism, causes cravings for sugar and carbs, makes you eat more, and drives up your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and early death. Getting enough sleep and sleeping well are essential for health and an easy way to maintain blood sugar balance and lose weight.
- Stay consistent. Eat early, starting with a big breakfast, and eat often. Keep the fire of your metabolism burning all day, rather than slowing it down during periods of “mini-starvation.” After breakfast, eat every three to four hours, and try to schedule meals at the same time every day. Your metabolism will work faster and more efficiently. You will lose weight, have more energy, and feel better.
- Reduce stress. Chronic stress makes your body pack on the pounds. If you want to lose weight, start by soothing your stressed-out body and mind. Find something that works for you and do it. That might be yoga, meditation, or deep breathing. My UltraCalm CD helps melt away stress, anxiety, and tension.
- Drink up. Drink at least eight glasses of clean, pure water throughout the day to help with appetite control and flush out metabolic and environmental toxins through your kidneys. Try drinking two glasses of water before you eat; that alone has been proven to help you lose weight. In fact, researchers found that drinking water before meals increases weight loss by about 44 percent.
- Exercise regularly. People who consistently exercise are able to lose weight better and even more importantly, maintain that weight loss. Even 30 minutes’ vigorous walking can help, and if you want something more intense, try high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or weight resistance. Click here for a comprehensive, easy-to-apply fitness plan (as always, remember to check with your physician before beginning a new or drastically changing your current fitness routine).
I hope you’re able to see why calories are far from the whole picture for weight loss, and how eating more of the right foods can stoke your metabolic fire so you stay lean and healthy.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD.
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