In Part 1 of this topic, I discussed how the “move more, eat less” strategy for weight loss backfires and slows the metabolism. Research has proven that this method doesn’t work, yet the mainstream health and fitness industry continues to recommend moving more and eating less for weight loss. The bottom line is that hormones (i.e., insulin, leptin, and ghrelin) are the driving force behind whether or not we gain or lose weight. What we eat and don’t eat can have a radical impact on the process.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is comprised of low quality processed foods, unhealthy fats, and sugar. These foods are devoid of nutrition, facilitate addiction, work against our fullness cues, and throw our weight-controlling hormones out of whack. How does this happen?
Food is information for our bodies, sending signals that affect burning/storing fat as well as hunger/fullness cues. For instance, sugar causes insulin to spike, signaling our bodies to store fat rather than burn it. Given the processed nature of these foods, it is extremely easy to overeat on the SAD. It has little to do with willpower. Millions of dollars are spent to increase the “craveability” of this food –the more we eat, the more we want. The same applies to sugar; it is intensely addictive, which is a topic I’ll tackle in another post. When we eat these types of foods, we find ourselves eating when we aren’t even hungry because our fullness cues are completely messed up (hormones!). Have you ever found yourself double-fisting chocolate chips until the bag was empty, saying to yourself when you got to the bottom, what just happened?! Or…maybe that’s just me.
Not all calories are created equal; it’s about quality over quantity. “Whole foods” like broccoli contain vastly more nutrition than a bagel. The bagel is going to signal fat storage while the broccoli is going to energize and protect the body from disease. Research repeatedly shows that when people eat high quality food, they have balanced hormones, their weight is much easier to manage, and they actually burn more fat than their imbalanced counterparts. How do we know if we are eating high quality foods?
This is my litmus test for high quality foods: if it comes in a box/bag/can, reconsider your choice. The ingredient list should be extremely short; if you don’t recognize something on the list, your body won’t either. That’s where hormone imbalances come from. Our bodies were not created to digest and manage overly processed “frankenfoods”—which is what we call food-like products that are created in a lab and end up on store shelves. A lot of manufactured low-calorie and “healthy” products fall into this frankenfood category, so don’t be fooled by clever marketing. We need to strive to eat foods in their most natural state.
Non-starchy Vegetables are at the top of the list of high quality foods. Organic is more expensive, but preferred because chemicals and pesticides (otherwise found in non-organic options) disrupt our hormones. I completely understand the cost struggle; one option is to purchase only the highest risk produce that you eat the most often. Here is a website (imbed https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php) with the highest pesticide-containing fruits and vegetables, if you feel you must pick and choose. Research shows that we need at least 7 servings of vegetables a day (and closer to 10 is ideal), in order to get the maximum health benefits. This is why veggies should be a part of every meal, preferably 2-3 options per meal. I know that is an overwhelming number for most people. I used to detest vegetables and now I eat 8-10 cups/day by practicing a “veggie-centered mindset.” If I can do it, you can too! For tips on incorporating more veggies into your diet, click here. Strive for “eating the rainbow”… the deeper the colors, the better they are for you. Raw is great, but some people (myself included) can’t eat every serving that way. Eating more veggies is more important than whether or not they are raw vs. cooked. Also, due to their amazing health benefits, make sure you are consuming deep greens every day (romaine, spinach, kale, broccoli).
Lean protein is essential for muscle repair and stoking our metabolic furnace. We want to stay away from higher fat animal proteins because pesticides, added hormones, and other chemicals from the animals’ diets accumulate in their fat. That is why larger, fattier fish have higher levels of mercury. Organic, wild caught, grass fed, and free range is better, though not perfect. If you are a vegetarian, make sure you are eating high quality plant-based protein. Recommended quantities vary and this topic isn’t without controversy. I prefer an individualized approach to diet because everyone’s needs are different. Many experts believe that we need 30-55 g of protein per meal (100-200 g per day), depending on our size and activity level. A large chicken breast contains approximately 40 g of protein, 3 large eggs contain about 18g. Intense exercisers need more protein than less active individuals. You can always tweak that amount as you learn to listen to your body’s energy cues (which gets much easier when you are eating whole foods).
Fruits can have 10-20 times the amount of sugar as vegetables, so it is important to incorporate low fructose fruits such as berries and citrus. I love fruits, so in full disclosure, I am challenged to keep all of my fruits low sugar. We only need 1-3 servings per day. If you aren’t a big fruit eater, no problem. Just make sure that you are eating more vegetables instead.
Healthy fats are best when consumed in their whole food form: nuts, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, other seeds, avocados, coconut (unsweetened), cacao, eggs, and seafood. Keep in mind that oils are processed, but the best choices are coconut and olive, which can be used for cooking. Make sure you are getting at least a serving of healthy fat per meal, with a serving ranging from 2T for nut butters and 3T for nuts. One-third of a medium avocado is one serving, while seeds are about ¼ tsp. Many experts recommend 3-6 servings of healthy fats per day.
What about “other” carbs? You may have noticed that starchy carbs are missing. Keep in mind that vegetables are also carbohydrates and are much higher in nutrition than starches. Breads and all of their counterparts (pasta, cereal, “whole grain” stuff, etc.) are highly processed, except for breads made from sprouted grain, such as Ezekiel. Applying what we know, these carbs wreak havoc on our hormones. However, there are a few “other carbs” that I can recommend: sweet potatoes, wild rice, brown rice, quinoa, other ancient grains (amaranth, buckwheat, kamut, spelt, millet), steel cut oats, and beans/legumes. One serving is ½ cup, two servings per day.
I know that was a lot of information! If you’ve made it this far, thanks for hanging in there. While nutrition takes precedence in balancing our hormones and healing our bodies, exercise is still important. I prefer to view exercise as an effective tool to help us age slower, rather than to be used as a consequence or punishment for eating poorly. You can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet. Over-exercising isn’t good for our hormones either. However, if we are eating a high quality diet, we will have the energy and desire to move our bodies. Then we can work on the important aspects of fitness that help us slow aging (and have more fun in life): endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance. An excellent fitness plan addresses all 4 of these components.
A few final thoughts: some of you might be overwhelmed with the number of changes you need to make. Take it slow. I suggest getting started by doing an inventory of what you are eating, making note of what is processed. Then, work to switch out those foods for whole foods. For tips on increasing vegetable intake, click here. Practice a “loving yourself to health” mentality. You are worth it. We only get one body this side of heaven and by taking care of it, we are able to live out our purpose on this earth.
Disclaimer: There are other things that contribute to hormone disruption and weight gain, such as food allergies, environmental toxins, and inefficient detoxification. However, these topics were beyond the scope of this post.