I remember learning of a very famous osteopath in the United Kingdom, who wouldn’t treat obese patients unless they lost weight. Turning people away on their waistline is not how I run my practice, however, I do think it is important to get clear information out on how we can keep weight under control. There is no hiding that the more weight we’re carrying around the harder it is on our joints. This is not just from the added weight, but because it changes how we walk and how we load our joints, which leads to increased strain in a way joints weren’t meant to work over a long period (for example, loading the inner portion of our knee joints).
There will always be a genetic component to weight management, but even those genes can be silenced when put in the right environment. From an environmental standpoint, it often comes down to hormone control. Insulin in particular, as it is the only known hormone in our body that can convert sugars in our blood into stores of body fat.
Just a little disclaimer that this is does not constitute medical advice, just a lot of reading and a bit of an understanding of how the body works on my part to hopefully lead you to some better answers. I believe in treating the whole person, not just the symptom (increased weight), so this may be more holistic than you’re used to. Without further delay, here are what, in my humble opinion, can lead to increases in body weight:
1) Too Many Carbohydrates
Almost every processed food is sweetened in some way. Even “zero-calorie sweeteners” have been shown to be ineffective in weight control in real life because they seem to trigger us to eat more. Low-carbohydrate eating (Keto/Atkins), leads to a lower insulin response, which leads to less of what you’re eating being stored as fat. For some people who have genetically higher insulin responses to carbohydrates, this may be the only way to manage body fat.
Recommended Readings: Good Calories, Bad Calories or The Case for Keto by Gary Taubes
2) Lack of Sleep
We see it in people who begin shiftwork, either evenings, nights, or a mix of everything. They may eat the same diet as they did before they started, but they end up putting on weight over time. Sleep is a tremendous healer when done right, as it has a massive role in our daily hormone cycles. Here are 3 important roles it plays in weight management:
1- Better Appetite Control. We are less likely to have, and to give into cravings the better rested we are. These cravings usually involve carbohydrates, given how easy they are to find in our world.
2- Helps improve our emotional/psychological response to stress. We are much calmer and less affected by stressful situations happening around us. We’ll get into what happens in our bodies with chronic stressful situations in the next section.
3- Improved Insulin Response: With better sleep, our hormones are much better regulated through the nervous and endocrine systems. With poor sleep, our insulin resistance is higher, leading to an increased insulin response which can send more of our blood sugar into fat storage.
Recommended Readings on how to improve sleep: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker and Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson
3) Too much psychological stress
This usually involves a poor work:life balance. It may be highly stressful work over multiple short periods or lower-level stress over long periods. What this does is increase the level of stress hormones within our body, the most popular culprit being cortisol. Cortisol and glucagon pull sugar out of our cells and into our blood for use. In the past this was necessary to fuel our muscles for action, however, with most stress coming from mental threats these days, insulin has to spike to restore normal blood sugar levels, which can slowly add to the waistline over time. Increases in blood sugar aren’t only from our diet!
4) Poor emotional support
A nice supportive environment at home and at work, and a good relationship with ourselves go a long way in how we handle life on an emotional level. Generally the less supported we are through our environment and by our own beliefs, the higher levels of cortisol we carry around. This is a very underlooked area when it comes to weight management, and is a big reason why group therapy through groups like Weight Watchers or Crossfit can be so successful in weight loss.
5) Lack of Movement
I left this for last on purpose. Calories in does not equal calories out. This whole concept is highly flawed seeing that calories were measured in a machine, not actually in the human body, which has to digest, absorb and metabolize the foods we eat. Which can vary greatly in individuals. We all know a skinny person who can eat far more than someone struggling to lose weight, while not gaining weight. In short, “You can’t out-exercise a bad diet”. Plus we typically eat more the more we exercise.
HOWEVER, exercise DOES play a huge role in managing psychological and emotional stress, lowering cravings, and improving our sleep. Based on everything we’ve touched on above, it has a massive role to play, but not necessarily through burning of calories. Even a body heavy in muscle doesn’t actually burn that many extra calories per day than one that doesn’t have the extra lean mass. So choose exercise that you enjoy and spend your focus on the above 4 categories!
BONUS** There seems to be a massive shift in hormone levels in the world today. Increasingly, females are becoming infertile or unable to carry through an entire pregnancy, and males on average have seen their testosterone levels drop by 50% over the past 50 years. Sex hormones not only impact fertility but also how we store the calories we eat. Generally the higher the levels of sex hormones, the more we store the calories we eat as muscle, and the lower the levels, the more weight stored as fat (in particular abdominal fat). The greatest concern seems to be the level of plastics in our environment, and in the foods we eat/the water we drink. Check out a video here if you’d prefer a scientist explain.
Another Bonus** Here is a great breakdown of 3 strategies you can work with to improve weight control.