The following post was written by guest blogger and dietitian, Mary Ellen Williams, from MaryEllenRD.com.
With each year that passes, Americans’ waistline gets larger and larger. It is no secret that we have a weight problem in this country. The basic, textbook explanation for weight gain is eating more food than is necessary for our bodies. Our body will store excess calories in our fat cells. Research shows our risk of chronic disease, like heart disease or cancer, may increase with excess body fat, especially in the abdominal area.
Are there other factors at play in our bodies that contribute to weight gain, making it increasingly difficult for us to lose weight regardless of what we eat?
In this month’s article, we will spend time exploring other factors contributing to weight gain: specifically, hormones. It’s important to understand that this is not the “gold at the end of the rainbow” in your search for weight loss. Eating within your calorie requirements, consuming balanced meals, and exercising regularly are still MAJOR factors in weight loss. This article is intended to explore ADDITIONAL factors contributing to weight gain. You can’t get off that easily. Trust me, if weight loss were easy, everyone would be successful, and I would probably be out of a job.
Now that you understand the parameters, let’s jump right in. We will cover:
The key role of hormones is to regulate, or control, different bodily processes that must occur so we can function properly as humans. The body is filled with hormones, housing about 50 different ones. Each one does something different. There are a lot of hormones that may affect your weight, but we will focus on a few that involve the process of eating and digestion: ghrelin, leptin, and cortisol.
Ghrelin (or, as I like to call it, gremlin) is your hunger hormone. This little guy is what lets us know when it’s time to eat! Ghrelin acts quickly, and is a rather strong hormone. How strong? I equate my ghrelin strength to those moments when I would come home from school and immediately head for the snack drawer that my mother kept filled with 100% organic, all-natural snacks…NOT. Usually, it was Little Debbie Cakes (dietitians are humans too!). Those times when you cannot speak, talk, or think until you eat something. That is the ghrelin talking! If you skip meals, ghrelin levels continue to rise until eventually all you can think about is food. Rather than Little Debbie Cakes (sorry mom, I still love you), keep apples and string cheese around as a better option for those moments when you must eat.
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Researchers discovered the link between ghrelin and hunger a long time ago. However, more recently we have learned that ghrelin levels also rise with stress. This relationship between our hormones and stress impact our ability to burn calories and contribute to weight gain. They also impact the types of calories we consumed. When stress is high, so are the fat and sugar content of our meals, especially in women. Yes, there is a scientific reason why you want a tub of ice cream after a break-up!
Ghrelin and leptin go together like salt and pepper. If ghrelin tells us we are hungry, then leptin tells us we are full. Leptin is made in our fat cells and tells the brain when we have had enough food. Leptin levels ebb and flow with our sleep patterns, rising during the night, and falling when we wake. This allows our bodies to go all night without food.
The more fat we carry on our body, the more leptin we carry as well. But rather than using that increase in leptin to keep us fuller longer, our body becomes resistant to, or unaffected by, the leptin. Weight gain can then spiral out of control because the ability to feel full is not working properly.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone, meaning it helps control inflammation, salt and water balance, and immune responses. Typically, when we hear the term steroid we think of the synthetic form called hydrocortisone. But, our bodies produce steroids all on their own. Cortisol is released by the body in situations of stress and low blood glucose levels. Also, cortisol stimulates stomach acid production which helps metabolize fat, protein, and carbohydrates. When cortisol is chronically elevated (usually from poor sleep, trauma, or chronic stress), it may lead to weight gain.
The activities we do in our daily lives can have an impact on our cortisol levels. Dancing, massage therapy, and even laughter can lower cortisol concentrations! Yes, laughter truly is good for the soul.
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Incorporating well balanced meals (fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, portion sizes) and regular physical activity remain the number one treatment for sustainable weight loss. However, it is important to identify other habits contributing to weight gain including meal patterns, stress management, and sleep. These practices must be included to help meet your health or weight loss goals.