If you think losing weight is only about moving more and eating less, then think again. In fact, hunger hormones — tied to metabolism — are a significant factor in weight gain and loss. And controlling them may be the best way to safely shed pounds, experts say.
“Most people can lose weight,” says endocrinologist Dr. Scott Isaacs. “Keeping it off is the challenge.”
That’s, in part, because your body is probably working against you, if you’re trying to lose weight. Here’s why: For most of human existence, losing weight was a potentially life-threatening condition. So once you start shedding pounds, your body instinctively adapts by going into starvation mode, unleashing hormones that boost your appetite and conserve your fat.
The two primary hormones that control appetite are ghrelin and leptin. They serve as biological on/off switches. Ghrelin is mainly produced in the lining of the stomach and switches on appetite. Leptin is secreted by fat cells and turns off appetite by signaling when you’re full. It doesn’t work alone as other hormones produced in the gut also signal satiety, but less is known about them because they are more recent discoveries.
“What we know from the science is that when you lose weight, your hunger hormones go in the opposite direction,” says Isaacs, a weight-loss specialist based in Atlanta, Ga. “The hormones that make you feel full all go down while ghrelin, the only hormone that stimulates appetite, goes up.”
One of the biggest problems is leptin resistance. People who are overweight or obese have more fat, which produces more leptin. In theory, that should make them feel full. But what happens is similar to insulin resistance in that their bodies become less sensitive to the hormone.
“Leptin doesn’t work to turn off appetite as it should be because the brain has become resistant to it,” explains Isaacs. “So anything people can do to reduce leptin resistance is helpful.”
The best way to do that is to eat the right foods.
“You want to eat a diet high in antioxidants.” says Isaacs, author of the book “Hormonal Balance: How to Lose Weight by Understanding Your Hormones and Metabolism.”
“You want to eat fruits and vegetables with a lot of different colors. You want to eliminate inflammatory things like sugar and proceeded foods. You want to eat consistently rather than going for long periods of time without eating. All of these things will help fight leptin resistance.”
Whereas leptin levels ebb and flow like tides, ghrelin spikes before meals and drops off rapidly afterwards. But when you’re overweight, ghrelin doesn’t drop as fast and far as it should, so your brain continues to get signals that you’re hungry.
“The best way to normalize ghrelin levels is to eat filling things,” says Isaacs, a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.
“Eat protein and foods that have high volume but are low in calories, like vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. Crunchy and chewy things take longer to eat and digest, and that will help with ghrelin. Eat slowly, and dilute high-calorie foods with low-calorie foods.”
Isaacs adds that exercise and sleep are both vital to weight loss, in part because they help regulate leptin and ghrelin levels.
“Appetite is magnified when you are sleep deprived,” he says. “If you’re not getting a good night’s sleep, weight loss is going to be next to impossible.
“Exercise is also important, but it’s a relatively small component in weight loss compared to calorie intake. Exercise is a bigger factor when it comes to weight maintenance. But people can’t lose weight just by exercising more. They also have to reduce their calories.”
According to Isaacs, research shows that no particular diet — whether low-fat, low-carb, or something else — is more effective than others. The key is to eat fewer calories, and to find something you can stick with.
And don’t blame yourself if you fail.
“I see a lot of people who are really frustrated and have a huge amount of self-blame,” says Isaacs. “They are successful at losing weight, then they put it back on and feel like a failure. They think it’s a lack of willpower, but it’s the hormones driving their cravings. It’s not their fault. It’s just biology.”
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