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I get it, it’s been a tough year and a half. When we first went into what was supposed to be a three week lockdown (“to flatten the curve”), I thought, what’s the harm if my patients self-soothe with an extra snack here, a glass of wine there, a little extra sugar for comfort. In fact, I was advocating being gentle with oneself. After all, it’s not everyday we are in the middle of a global pandemic, right?
Now it’s been sixteen months and counting…and most people are starting to feel the effects of all of those extras. If the pandemic has taught us only one thing, it is that being overweight worsens health outcomes – not only for infectious disease, but for chronic disease in general.
There are a number of reasons that may have contributed to weight gain – the added stress, the lack of routine, lack of movement, increased snacking or simply turning to food for comfort. No matter the reason, here are some tried and true ways to get your metabolism back on track.
1.Manage your stress. During periods of elevated stress, your body makes a hormone called cortisol, to signal the impending danger to your body’s organs to prepare for the fight or flight response. If you are more apple-shaped than pear shaped, you can be sure your stress levels are impacting your middle. Effective ways to reduce cortisol levels include going for a walk outside, taking a bath, connecting with a loved one or meditating. Take care with high intensity exercise, as it can actually heighten your stress response and make things worse. Refer to this great list from The American Institute of Stress to find an activity that resonates with you (though you might want to skip the suggestion to stress bake, unless you plan to give away the result of your efforts ?).
2. Increase your protein intake. Protein is a weight loss hero. It is undoubtedly the most important single nutrient to support your weight loss efforts. It boosts your metabolism, it increases satiety levels and it impacts several of your body’s weight-regulating hormones.¹ It also helps to reduce appetite, decrease sugar cravings and helps to maintain your lean body mass (which in turns helps to further increase your metabolic rate).²
One study showed that simply increasing protein to 30% of total caloric intake, without changing or restricting any other parameter, led to an average loss of 11 lbs in 12 weeks.³
Need I say more? For best results, aim to get a minimum of 1g per kg of body weight, more if you are an athlete or heavy exerciser.
3. Get into a routine. It’s important to maintain a regular schedule, not only for eating, but for optimal health in general. Our body follows its own rhythm and works better when we follow its rhythm (as opposed to the other way around). It is important to go to sleep and rise everyday at the same time. By the same token, it is important to have periods of the day when you eat, and other periods of the day when you don’t. Working and studying from home means you are never very far from your kitchen and may lead to grazing all day long. Frequent feedings puts your body into a constant state of digestion and calorie storage. It is much easier and better for your metabolism to have distinct meals throughout the day. Some people do well with intermittent fasting, i.e consuming all of the day’s calories during an 8 or 10 hour eating window. Otherwise, aim to consume 2-3 meals/day (depending on your hunger) with periods of no eating in between.
4. Eat real food. Skip the takeout and cook at home, from scratch, whenever possible. Ultra processed foods are not real foods, but rather food-like products. They are defined as multi-ingredient industrial formulations and include sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs), packaged breads, cookies, savory snacks, candy, ice cream, breakfast cereal, and pre-prepared frozen meals.⁴⁵ They aren’t eaten for health, but rather for pleasure or convenience. Their consumption leads to higher rates of obesity, elevated blood lipids and metabolic syndrome. In high income countries like Canada and the US, about 50-60% of all calories are comprised of ultra-processed foods and beverages.⁵ A good rule of thumb is to buy the majority of your foods from the circumference of the grocery store and skip the middle aisles, where all of the processed foods are located.
5. Be carb conscious. Carbs are not the diet villains they are made out to be. In fact, they are a good source of energy and nutrients. It is more how much and when they are eaten that wreaks metabolic havoc for many. Blood sugar levels rise in response to any foods, but it is most pronounced with the intake of starch and sugars. When your blood sugar rises, your body produces insulin – a hormone that facilitates the (excess) sugar to move from the bloodstream into the cells. In the absence of physical activity, that sugar then gets converted to fat for later use.
When there is continuous insulin in the bloodstream, the receptors become less sensitive to it and it can cause insulin resistance. The Standard American Diet (SAD) lends itself to an overconsumption of carbohydrates. Starchy foods, because they are so filling, often replace other more nutrient dense foods. For optimal weight loss, reduce your starch intake to one serving per day (as a maximum, this is optional) and consume it after you eat your protein and veggies. Start your day with a a savory meal, not a sweet one. Pair starch with protein, fat or fibre, to help mitigate the insulin secretion that will follow. If you are going to eat dessert, always have it at the end of a meal (not on an empty stomach).
Of course, this article would not be complete without mentioning the importance of physical activity. However, when it comes to weight loss, it really does boil down to 80% nutrition and 20% exercise. Exercise alone is an ineffective strategy for weight loss. Exercising as penance for eating is sure to backfire, and can lead to unhealthy relationships to both food and exercise. Exercise not only helps to support a healthy metabolism, it also impacts almost every other system in your body including your cardiovascular system, your bone density, your sleep quality, your mood, your self-image, your sex drive, your ability to detox, your hormonal health and your strength. Exercise benefits nearly every aspect of your health from the inside out. So I encourage you to choose an activity or activities that you enjoy and can incorporate into your life as part of your routine.
Hopefully, one, or some, of these strategies will empower you to take charge of your weight and your health and that before long, you start to feel more energetic, more optimistic, leaner and lighter. Have a happy, healthy summer.
1.Weigle DS, Breen PA, Matthys CC, et al. A high-protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;82(1):41-48. doi:10.1093/ajcn.82.1.41Copy
2. Astrup A, Raben A, Geiker N. The role of higher protein diets in weight control and obesity-related comorbidities. Int J Obes (Lond). 2015;39(5):721-726. doi:10.1038/ijo.2014.216
3. Weigle DS, Breen PA, Matthys CC, et al. A high-protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;82(1):41-48. doi:10.1093/ajcn.82.1.41
4. Poti JM, Braga B, Qin B. Ultra-processed Food Intake and Obesity: What Really Matters for Health-Processing or Nutrient Content?. Curr Obes Rep. 2017;6(4):420-431. doi:10.1007/s13679-017-0285-4
5.Poti JM, Braga B, Qin B. Ultra-processed Food Intake and Obesity: What Really Matters for Health-Processing or Nutrient Content?. Curr Obes Rep. 2017;6(4):420-431. doi:10.1007/s13679-017-0285-4