The one most common piece of advice we still hear when trying to lose weight is "to eat less and exercise more". It’s based on a ‘calories in, calories out’ approach, which suggests that all you need to do is to deliver less and burn more calories. Research shows that this is not a successful, long term strategy. Although it works at the beginning, most people reach a plateau and then regain the weight again. It’s often very frustrating, especially when it requires a lot of commitment and willpower. The ‘victims’ are also often blamed or feel bad about themselves. The feeling that they failed.
Metabolic studies show what really happens to people put on the ‘eat less and exercise more’ routine. Their metabolism starts to slow down with time, the body's defence mechanism in time of starvation. Even though they keep restricting calories, they start gaining the weight back. Additionally, they often have lower energy, feel cold and don’t feel great in general.
It’s important to understand what happens when we eat a normal meal containing some carbohydrates, fats and protein. The hormone insulin goes up, which tells the body to store sugar and fat. We store sugar in form of glycogen (limited amounts only) and if that’s too much, the liver produces fat. So, we don’t just store calories in one big container. This is a two-compartment model. Glycogen is the preferred source of energy, easier to access. We can store much more energy as fat but it’s harder to get to it. We do that only if we have to, when the glycogen is depleted. Insulin is the hormone regulating access to this stored energy. When we don’t eat, the insulin goes down and we are able to pull energy out from the storage, glycogen first and then fat. This is a normal function of insulin.
To summarise, this is a process controlled by hormones. When we only reduce calories, but don’t do anything about hormones, we enter starvation mode and lower our metabolic rate. It becomes difficult to lose more weight or maintain our current, lower weight. Obesity is most often a hormonal disease. It’s important to address insulin levels and function for successful, long term weight loss. If you lower your insulin levels, you are able to empty your glycogen stores and access fat storage. Elevated insulin prevents you from burning fat for energy.
There are strategies to help to achieve optimal weight, based on what we know about our metabolism. Counting calories rarely works. It also demands lots of mental energy and it’s difficult as we constantly feel deprived. Proper balance of the macronutrients, timing and frequency of the meals, or even fasting (if appropriate) can help balance insulin levels, achieve the optimal weight and to sustain it.
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