Human nature craves simple answers to complex questions. One of the most complicated and debated health questions is how to reach and maintain a healthy weight. But, for the last century, ever since the publication in 1918 of Diet and Health with Key to the Calories — one of the first modern diet books to introduce calorie counting — mainstream dieting advice has focused on the relatively simplistic idea of calories in versus calories out. (The idea of a calorie was so novel back then that the author had to explain how to pronounce the word.)
“If weight loss was that simple,” says Marcelle Pick, MSN, OB/GYN, NP, author of The Core Balance Diet: 4 Weeks to Boost Your Metabolism and Lose Weight for Good (Hay House, 2010), “we’d be a nation of skinny-minnies.”
Pick and her colleagues in functional medicine say it’s time to reframe the weight-loss debate. Instead of obsessing about the visible impact of extra pounds, we should see them as warning signs that a mechanism inside our bodies needs attention. “If you are 10 to 20 pounds overweight, and if you feel lethargic, moody and sick most of the time, there is a good chance something is biochemically broken,” says Pick. “No amount of willpower will help you lose weight until you identify and resolve the underlying health issue.”
In situations like these, evaluating your food primarily by its calorie counts, rather than its nutritional and metabolic merits, can actually make matters worse and lead to more weight gain.
We talked to leading nutritionists and integrative physicians about the various factors inside our bodies that matter more than simple calorie counts. Here’s their take on the five health-boosting priorities that really matter when it comes to losing unwanted weight and keeping it off for good.
1. Metabolism: Dial It Up
The body’s metabolism, which directly affects the rate at which we burn calories, slows as we age. But it also slows any time our health is compromised, when our biochemistry is out of whack, and when we don’t eat enough healthy food.
“Food has calories, but it is not only calories,” says Elson Haas, MD, founder and director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, Calif., and coauthor of More Vegetables, Please! (New Harbinger, 2010). The rate at which our bodies burn calories, he notes, is directly influenced by the quality of the calories we consume, and whether they stoke or smother our metabolism. “If you combust something, it burns energy in the form of calories,” says Haas. But some calorie sources rev your metabolic engine, while others cause it to idle.
Moreover, not all calories burn the same way. Generally, Haas explains, “the more nutrient-dense a calorie is, the longer it takes to burn.” That’s why, calorie for calorie, proteins and complex carbs (like those found in vegetables and legumes) are much less likely to cause weight gain than simple carbs, like those found in sodas, cookies and crackers, which are quickly snatched up by the bloodstream. (For a list of nutrient-dense foods, see “Count Us In!” sidebar.)
Equally detrimental to metabolism is eating too few calories. When you don’t eat enough calories in relation to your resting metabolic rate, says Pick, “your brain sends a message to your body to slow the metabolism. As a result, the cells cling to calories, rather than burning them quickly, and your metabolism downshifts.”
2. Inflammation: Cool It
Chronic inflammation (the kind that festers deep within the body’s tissues) doesn’t just lead to elevated cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It also leads to weight gain, and is then cyclically worsened by it, in a number of ways.
For example, when the gut is inflamed, calcium and sodium enter cells, which causes the cells to attract and hold water.
“The extra water causes bloating and lowers the function of the cells’ energy centers, or mitochondria, which makes the body feel sluggish,” says Haas. Weight gain and lethargy follow.
So, what causes inflammation? One common culprit is processed foods. And ironically, most reduced-calorie and so-called diet foods fall into that category.
“So many food products presented as a means of weight control are highly refined and full of chemicals that the body doesn’t recognize,” says Annie Kay, MS, RD, lead nutritionist at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, and author of Every Bite Is Divine: The Balanced Approach to Enjoying Eating, Feeling Healthy and Happy, and Getting to a Weight That’s Natural for You (Life Arts Press, 2007). “The standard American weight-loss menu is a diet soda and a frozen, low-calorie entrée,” she says. “It’s an inflammatory nightmare.”
The good news is that eating healthy whole foods helps reverse inflammation. And, as inflammation calms, the body often recalibrates to a healthy weight. To help it along, reduce your intake of processed foods, and eat more anti-inflammatory whole foods, such as berries, leafy greens and coldwater fish.
3. Mood: Boost It
We often think of comfort foods as starchy and processed-carb-laden indulgences. But, in fact, some of the best mood-soothing and -boosting foods are those that nourish the brain. And many simultaneously support weight loss. Take, for example, foods that boost your brain’s supply of the happiness chemical called serotonin.
Serotonin, says Pick, is a neurotransmitter critical to weight gain and loss. It’s made up of amino acids (the building blocks of protein), the most important of which is tryptophan. The body can’t make tryptophan on its own; it must be obtained from your diet. The best go-to foods for tryptophan are turkey, flaxseeds, pork, lentils and peanuts.
Countless studies show that people who don’t eat enough tryptophan are more likely to feel depressed. This works against weight loss, says Pick, because the lower your mood, the more susceptible you will be to cravings. Many people — women in particular — experience significant carbohydrate cravings when they are deficient in serotonin, she notes.
While eating healthy foods can help boost your mood, eating too many unhealthy ones can lead to deficiencies that send it — and your metabolism — plummeting. “Mood is one of the first places nutrient deficiency shows up,” says Liz Lipski, PhD, a certified clinical nutritionist and author of Digestive Wellness: How to Strengthen the Immune System and Prevent Disease Through Healthy Digestion (McGraw Hill, 2011). “Processed foods give our bodies information that says, ‘Be sluggish. Be in a bad mood.’ Wholesome foods make your moods more vibrant and help you to feel more alive.”
4. Blood Sugar: Keep It Balanced
Simple carbohydrates are a bigger factor than calories in driving weight gain for most people. Why? Because they lack fiber and protein, which are nutrients that slow digestion and balance blood sugar. “The refining process strips grains and natural sugars of their chewier, more nutrient-dense casing and leaves a simple carbohydrate chain that the body mainlines as glucose,” says Pick.
When glucose enters the body rapidly, blood sugar soars. In a mad attempt to rebalance blood sugar, the pancreas shoots out insulin, commonly known as the body’s fat-storage hormone. Blood sugar momentarily stabilizes, but insulin is overproduced, energy levels fall and hunger rises. Then, you reach for another simple-carbohydrate-based snack, and the cycle begins again. The upshot? Weight gain, as well as insulin-related metabolic syndrome, which can lead to a host of other chronic diseases.
To even out blood sugar and maintain a healthy weight, eat plenty of healthy proteins, fats and fiber-rich vegetables, and reduce your intake of sugar and grains. And avoid diet sodas. Their super-sweet taste can trigger the body to release insulin even if the actual sugar never arrives, says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of Beat Sugar Addiction NOW! (Fair Winds Press, 2010).
Teitelbaum also recommends eating nutrient-dense foods to stave off cravings. But enjoy in moderation. Cap your nut intake, for example, at a half-cup daily. “At that pace, you don’t have to worry about the calories. Many studies show that eating 2 to 4 ounces of high-quality nuts per day does not cause weight gain and actually lowers bad cholesterol.”
5. Your Gut: Heal It
Healing your intestinal tract can go a long way toward helping you achieve a healthy weight, both because it reduces inflammation in the body (see No. 2) and because it supports your body in properly digesting and metabolizing food.
A 2010 study published in Science magazine found that mice with an overgrowth of bad intestinal bacteria were more likely to gain weight and develop insulin resistance.
The first step to improving gut health, according to experts: Identifying and avoiding foods to which you may have an intolerance (the most common culprits include gluten-containing grains and dairy).
The second step: Reducing your intake of nutrient-poor foods like crackers, chips, baked goods and breads, as well as sugary and fast foods, and anything containing artificial ingredients and preservatives, all of which can contribute to disruptions in gut flora. Most processed foods are also packed with ingredients, like trans fats, that increase inflammation and can lead to weight gain.
To build a healthy gut, give the green light to a wide variety of whole foods, including berries, dark greens, nonstarchy vegetables and legumes, all of which are also rich in gut-clearing fiber.
Lipski also advises eating a variety of raw vegetables, which are loaded with living enzymes. Living foods help our guts amp up their good flora, she explains, which in turn helps us keep our weight under control.
Taking a good probiotic supplement can also help, but its effectiveness will be limited unless you first clear your diet of irritants that are causing your underlying gut problems.
Catherine Guthrie is an award-winning health writer and a contributing editor at Experience Life.