If you struggle with weight loss, you’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an astonishing 70 percent of Americans are overweight, while only 25 percent of adult Americans are at their proper weight (about 5 percent are underweight). Although most people who are overweight have tried at least one diet, a restrictive diet is the least effective way to lose weight, and may even make you fatter.
A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that on average, the more people diet, the more it leads to increased weight gain. Researchers evaluated 2,000 sets of twins, aged 16 to 25 years old. They found those who embarked on just one intentional weight loss episode were two to three times more likely to become overweight, compared to their non-dieting twin counterpart. Furthermore, the risk of becoming overweight increased with each dieting episode.1
Why Dieting Is Bad For Your Health
Not only does dieting cause weight gain, but diets that are extremely low-calorie (anything below about 1500 calories per day) or diets that eliminate entire groups of foods (such as extremely low carbohydrate diets, or fat-free diets) are bad for your health for several reasons:
- Diets tend to restrict nutrients along with calories. Your body wants and needs a balanced whole-food diet that includes fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates.
- Restrictive diets can affect your body’s ability to effectively utilize different food groups for energy. Forcing your body to adapt metabolic pathways may initially result in weight loss, but over time, the negative effects on cellular energy metabolism can cause increased fat storage.
- Restrictive diets hinder anabolic metabolism, which is responsible for building lean muscle. One of the best ways to decrease body fat while feeling healthy and strong is to focus on increasing muscle mass through diet, exercise, rest and sleep, with extra support provided by anabolic botanical formulas.
- Being “on a diet” is not beneficial for you emotionally, nor is it healthy for your social life or your family relationships. Eating should be a pleasant respite in the day, a time when you gather with family and friends to “break bread”, interact, enjoy, and relax.
Metabolic Syndrome, Hormones, and Abdominal Obesity
Hormones are increasingly being recognized as playing a primary role in whether an individual successfully maintains lean muscle mass or instead easily accumulates excess fat. In addition to the glucocorticoid hormones produced by the HPAT axis, hormones produced by the pancreas (insulin), ovaries (estrogen) and testes (testosterone) are key players in body composition.
In recent years, a particular constellation of physiological traits has become well known as metabolic syndrome. The primary characteristics of metabolic syndrome are abdominal obesity, cholesterol abnormalities (high triglycerides and low HDL), hypertension, and insulin resistance. Insulin resistance refers to the decreased ability of cells to respond to insulin. While cells starve for energy, glucose builds up in the bloodstream, triggering the release of even more insulin. This causes the body to store all available calories as fat, even when dieting. Many chronic diseases are associated with metabolic syndrome, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and many forms of cancer, such as breast, colon, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.
The vast majority of people suffering from metabolic syndrome are overweight and sedentary. But eating a diet high in carbohydrates and not getting enough exercise can cause metabolic syndrome even in people of normal weight.
We hear a lot about “insulin resistance,” which is the driver behind metabolic syndrome—but what really happens as the result of an unhealthy diet and life-style as well as aging is hormone/endocrine resistance. All hormones become less efficient, and therefore ‘resistant.’ One of the goals of a good botanical protocol is to improve hormone production, signaling, reception, utilization, and efficiency, along with the detoxification of hormone byproducts.
The sex hormones estrogen and testosterone have been garnering attention for the role they play in body composition. Researchers have noted that men who have metabolic syndrome are also likely to have low testosterone levels. This relationship, referred to as the hypogonadal/obesity cycle, appears to be initiated by low testosterone levels, which triggers the accumulation of abdominal fat. This sets off a chain of events that begins with increased aromatase activity, increased conversion of testosterone to estradiol, further reduction of testosterone levels, and increased accumulation of abdominal fat. The result is a variety of health problems ranging from cholesterol abnormalities, low energy, and memory difficulties to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and prostate cancer. It’s obvious that maintaining healthy testosterone levels is critical for maintaining lean muscle mass and avoiding excess fat gain.
Women also suffer the fattening effects of hormonal imbalances. Too much estrogen causes water retention, most notably in the abdominal area. This bloating is most noticeable in the menstrual cycle when progesterone levels drop and estrogen levels increase, triggering menstruation. As women age and enter perimenopause, progesterone levels decrease and estrogen dominates, and bloating can become a constant issue. After menopause, most women find that excess weight easily accumulates, particularly in the abdominal area. This is because when the ovaries shut down their production of estrogen, secondary production sites such as body fat take over the job of supplying estrogen, and the body wants to hold on to this resource. Balancing hormones is an essential component of losing excess fat and building lean muscle. It likely comes as no surprise that instead of hormone replacement, I recommend a combination of specific herbs and supplements to support hormonal balance and reduce the negative effects of stress, aging, and environmental endocrine disruptors.
Endocrine disruptors (EDs) are synthetic chemicals found in pesticides and some plastics that enter the body through the food chain, interfere with hormone balance, and disturb proper endocrine health. When ED levels increase, so does body mass index. Some of these chemicals mimic estrogen (xenoestrogens), and lead to a reduction in male hormones, resulting in increased fat. Levels of these man-made chemicals in the environment continue to rise; for example, the amount of polybrominated biphenyl ether concentration in women’s breast tissues continues to increase yearly.2
(For more in-depth information on metabolism, hormones, and metabolic syndrome, see my book, “Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism: Elite Herbs and Natural Compounds for Mastering Stress, Aging, and Chronic Disease,” Healing Arts Press, 2013.)
A Comprehensive Plan For Achieving Ideal Body Composition
A nutritious, balanced diet is essential for achieving your ideal body composition. In general, I recommend a healthy whole-food, plant-based, Mediterranean-style cuisine. However, I believe that diet should be tailored to the individual, taking into consideration their health status, age, physical activity, genetic type, ethnic heritage, geographic location, season, personal preferences, and even religion.
Intuitive eating has been proposed as an eating style that fosters a positive attitude towards food, the body, and physical activity and consists of ten principles, but can be summarized into these three characteristics:
- Unconditional permission to eat when hungry and what food-type, or even food is desired, and this should a real whole-food;
- Eating for physical and spiritual needs and cravings rather than emotional;
- Reliance on internal hunger and satiety cues to determine when and how much to eat.3
Researchers evaluating 24 cross-sectional studies found that intuitive eating was associated with less disordered eating, a more positive body image, and healthier emotional functioning.4 In addition, analyses of studies show that intuitive eaters have lower body mass index levels, (without internalizing the unrealistically thin ideal), lower disordered eating and eating disorders, eat a variety of foods, enjoy eating, have better cholesterol levels, and enjoy a psychological hardiness, which includes well-being and resilience.5
Theology and spirituality also correlate with better health and bodyweight. Researchers have found links between aspects of religiosity, spirituality and disordered eating, psychopathology and body image concerns. In evaluating twenty-two studies, the main findings were that strong, internalized religious beliefs along with a secure relationship with God were associated with lower levels of disordered eating and concern with body image. In contrast, a superficial faith coupled with a doubtful relationship with God were associated with greater levels of disordered eating, psychopathology and body image concern.6
Guidelines For An Optimal Diet
The following are my general guidelines for creating a healthful diet:
- Base your diet on an abundance of food from plant sources, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, whole-grain breads, beans, nuts, and seeds.
- Eat minimally processed and mostly seasonally fresh and locally grown foods.
- Use olive oil as your principal fat, and eat olives daily.
- Enjoy the moderate consumption of wine with meals: about one to two glasses per day for men and one glass per day for women.
- Eat fresh fruit as a typical daily dessert; limit other sweets to an occasional treat made with whole grains and whole foods sweetening agents (avoid desserts with a significant amount of sugar and saturated fat).
- Total dietary fat should range from 25 percent to 35 percent, with saturated fat between 7 to 10 percent of total calories.
- Eat moderate amounts of high quality cheese and yoghurt daily.
- Consume moderate amounts of fish and eggs, and if desired poultry and/or wild meats from zero to three servings per week.
- Only eat red meat a few times or just one time per month, if desired. If you are iron deficient, red meat may be consumed a few times per week until iron levels reach normal.
- Eat organically grown or wild foods.
In addition to these dietary guidelines, I also advise my patients to: 1) Only eat when relaxed; 2) Only eat when sitting down at a table; 3) Before eating, say a brief prayer of thanksgiving and be aware of what, how, and why you are about to eat.
To Lose Fat, Increase Muscle
Maintaining or increasing lean muscle mass is the most important factor in weight loss. The more muscle you have, the more effectively your metabolism operates—which means you burn more calories, even at rest. A higher percentage of lean muscle is associated with numerous additional health benefits, including better blood sugar control, stronger bones, and improved sleep.
The following guidelines will help you build more muscle, while reducing excess body fat:
- Avoid extreme calorie restrictive diets. With too few calories, your overall health will suffer and your long-term ability to effectively utilize food for energy will decrease; at the same time your anabolic metabolism, which fuels lean muscle growth, will plummet.
- Avoid any diet that restricts specific groups of foods. Again, your overall health will suffer as your body attempts to adapt by making metabolic changes that are detrimental to your long-term well being—including your ability to maintain a healthy weight. Instead, eat a balanced diet of high-quality foods and only slightly restrict total calorie intake, while at the same time moderately increasing calorie-burning activities.
- Fiber load before your largest meal of the day. Consuming extra fiber before meals naturally reduces hunger and offers the benefit of gentle intestinal cleansing. Take one tablespoon of whole psyllium seeds (whole seeds, not husk) in water 20 minutes before your largest meal. Follow this with a glass of water and then one cup of my Weight Loss Tea (recipe below), green tea, or hot water with apple cider vinegar or lemon.
- Snack on one-half to a whole grapefruit mid-morning. Studies show that grapefruit encourages weight loss, most likely because it helps to reduce insulin levels, a hormone that triggers fat storage.
- Snack on a green Granny Smith apple mid-afternoon. These sweet-tart apples are rich in phytonutrients and soluble fiber, both of which help to control blood sugar and appetite. Eat an apple 10-30 minutes before a meal, along with 1-2 cups of my Weight Loss Tea (see recipe below) or a glass of lemon water.
- Enjoy a cup or two of miso soup daily, either before meals or as a snack between meals. Miso soup is satisfying, low calorie, and contains beneficial microorganisms that improve digestive health. Include sea vegetables (rich in iodine, to support thyroid function) and shiitake mushrooms, which have been shown to lower triglycerides and inhibit the accumulation of fat.7
- Make each meal 50 percent vegetables, 20-25 percent protein, and 25-30 percent healthy carbohydrates. Choose your percentage of protein and carbohydrate based on what makes you feel most energetic (some people thrive on a lower carbohydrate/higher protein diet, while others feel best with the opposite ratio). Carbohydrates should be chosen from legumes, whole grains, root vegetables, and potatoes. Potatoes are one of the healthiest foods you can eat, especially the small purple ones, which are rich in redox/anti-oxidant phenol compounds.
- Start each day with a nutrient-dense morning smoothie that includes a good quality whey protein concentrate and anthocyanins. (See my favorite Meal-Replacement Smoothie recipe below.) Studies show that anthocyanins have potent anti-obesity effects8 and whey protein concentrate helps to increase muscle mass, promote fat loss, curb appetite, aid immune defense, and improve gut microflora health.9
- Eat the following foods often for their fat-reducing and diuretic effects:
- Mushrooms (any type will do, cook with a tiny bit of olive oil, garlic, wine, and herbs).
- Eggplant (cut up and roast or grill with herbs and olive oil).
- Mung or adzuki beans (excellent in soups).
- Bitter greens such as dandelion or collard greens (cook with garlic, onions and/or ginger).
- Bitter melon (sauté). Studies show that bitter melon reduces fat, lowers serum insulin, and normalizes glucose tolerance.10
- Asparagus (sauté and eat with meals or snacks). Asparagus is rich in inulin, a beneficial starchy fiber that supports pancreatic health, encourages balanced microflora, enhances digestive health, increases nutrient absorption, and stimulates your body’s natural defenses. Other rich sources of inulin include artichokes (I serve them with spicy mustard), oats, bananas, garlic and onions.
- Seaweed, especially wakame. An easy way to incorporate seaweed into your diet is with a dried, powdered seaweed blend. Add ½ to 1 tsp. to a morning smoothie, add to salad dressings, or sprinkle onto food as a condiment.
- Olives are rich in many health-promoting compounds, including phenols, sqaulene, and omega 9’s; enjoy 5-10 daily.
- Pomegranate seeds are an excellent source of antioxidants; add to salads or use as a snack food.
- Sauerkraut or other traditional fermented vegetable; 1-3 tablespoons daily. Naturally fermented foods detoxify endocrine disruptors and aid in healthy flora production in the gut. Numerous studies support the potential role of the gut flora (microbiota) in obesity.11
- Green papaya is rich in enzymes that support the pancreas and digestive system.
- Flaxseeds are a good source of beneficial fatty acids and soluble fiber. Freshly grind 1-2 tablespoons and add to smoothies, hot cereals, or baked goods.
- Whole grains are associated with maintaining a healthy weight and a reduction in cancer, heart disease, and all-cause mortality. Eat a variety of whole grains, including barley, buckwheat, brown rice, quinoa and oats.
- Season with hot spices and sour condiments. Cayenne, ginger, spicy mustard, and horseradish are thermogenic-metabolic activators; every little bit of metabolic stimulation aids weight loss.
- Sip apple cider vinegar before meals. Add 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to a glass of warm water and drink before meals and/or during meals; research shows that vinegar helps to increase insulin sensitivity, which means more stable blood sugar and natural appetite control.
- Limit calorie-dense foods to small portions. This includes nuts, nut butters, and cheeses. These are delicious, healthful foods, but should be used as a compliment (add to salads or vegetable dishes) instead of regarded as a staple.
- Become more physically active. Along with dietary changes, physical activity is essential for achieving and maintaining your optimal weight and body composition. Walk, hike, bike, lift weights, swim, do yoga—and simply move more every day. Variety is important, as well as not overdoing and allowing time for recovery.
- Get enough sleep. A lack of adequate sleep is one of the leading causes of weight gain. Inadequate sleep (less than 7 hours) stimulates hunger and triggers increased secretion of ghrelin, a fat cell hormone associated with fat accumulation. Too little sleep is increasingly being linked to the epidemic of obesity in many developed nations, with new research showing that obese people sleep less than their normal weight peers. 12
- Eat with intention. Always sit down when you eat, chew slowly, and relax. Before eating, say a prayer and be conscious of what you are about to feed your body.
- Reduce snacking. One of the biggest contributors to the sharp rise in caloric intake over the past few decades is the number of snacks and meals people eat per day—including many high calorie, nutrient poor beverages such as soft drinks and fancy coffee drinks. We need to be conscious of when we are truly physically hungry, and cultivate awareness of when we eat, how much we eat, and what we eat.
Nurture a Spiritual Relationship with Food
Did you ever hike in the woods and come across a patch of young spring nettles, a bush of wild summer berries, or a stream lush with wild watercress? Or perhaps you’ve enjoyed a summer garden abundant with spicy basil and sweet ripe tomatoes? Maybe you’ve climbed a cherry tree to harvest luscious fruit, or picked blueberries at an organic blueberry farm. All of these sensual experiences create a spiritual connection with our food in the way the creator of the universe intended. When we gather or harvest food, choose consciously from the abundance at a farmers’ market or grocery store, and take care in preparing the foods we eat, we are nurturing a spiritual relationship with the food that we consume. This makes it easy to eat well, providing our bodies with true sustenance instead of filling up unconsciously with commercial junk food.
Many people eat out of boredom, depression, preoccupation (they may be doing something else at the same time), or a lack of feeling love and connection. By consciously choosing to live in accord with our higher principles—which is the harmony between, and within our spiritual, environmental, and health-oriented self—we can develop a spiritual relationship with the food we eat.
Donnie’s Delicious Weight Management Tea
- Green tea
- Dandelion leaf
- Dandelion root
- Lemon grass
- Rose petals
- Star Anise
- Lo han
- Combine all ingredients in a glass jar for storage.
- Use one to two heaping teaspoons of herb mixture for each 8-ounces of water.
- Bring water to a boil, pour over herbs, and steep for 5 minutes. Strain, and drink 3-4 cups daily.
Meal Replacement Smoothie
- Whole foods multi-vitamin and mineral smoothie mix: 1 scoop
- Undenatured whey powder: 1 scoop
- Fish oil and essential fatty acid blend: 1 tsp.
- Sea vegetable blend: ½ tsp.
- Fruit anthocyanins: 1 tsp.
- Yogurt (whole milk, sheep, goat, or organic Greek cow): 1 cup
- Coconut water: 4 oz.
- Frozen or fresh berries or mangos: 3 oz.
Blend all ingredients together until smooth and creamy. Serves 1.
- Pietiläinen, K.H. et al. (2011). Does dieting make you fat? A twin study. International Journal of Obesity, | doi:10.1038/ijo.2011.160.
- Schecter A, Johnson-Welch S, et al. Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) levels in livers of U.S. human fetuses and newborns. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2007 Jan;70(1):1-6.; Dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls and other organohalogen compounds in human milk. Levels, correlations, trends and exposure through breastfeeding. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2006 Oct;50(10):922-33; Zuurbier M, Leijs M, Schoeters G, Ten Tusscher G, Koppe JG. Children’s exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Acta Paediatr Suppl. 2006 Oct;95(453):65-70.
- Tylka, T. L. (2006). Development and psychometric evaluation of a measure of intuitive eating. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 226-240.
- Bruce LJ, Ricciardelli LA. A systematic review of the psychosocial correlates of intuitive eating among adult women, Appetite. 2016 Jan 1;96:454-72. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2015.10.012. Epub 2015 Oct 22.
- Tribole E. & Resch E. (2012-in press). Intuitive Eating (3rd edition). St.Martin’s Press: NY,NY.
- Akrawi D1, Bartrop R2, Potter U3, Touyz S4. Religiosity, spirituality in relation to disordered eating and body image concerns: A systematic review, J Eat Disord. 2015 Aug 15;3:29. doi: 10.1186/s40337-015-0064-0. eCollection 2015.
- Handayani, Chen, J. Dietary Shiitake Mushroom (Lentinus edodes) Prevents Fat Deposition and Lowers Triglyceride in Rats Fed a High-Fat Diet. Journal of Obesity, Volume 2011 (2011).
- Anthocyanins show potent anti-obesity effects. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry Voume 56, Number 3, Pages 642-646, doi: 10.1021/jf073113b.
- Whey Protein concentrate helps to increase muscle mass, promote fat loss, curb appetite, aid in immune defense, and gut microflora health. Nutrition & Metabolism 2008, 5:8, doi:10.1186/1743-7075-5-8.
- Bitter melon reduces adiposity, lowers serum insulin and normalizes glucose tolerance. (J. Qixuan Chen, Laureen L. Y. Chan and Edmund T. S. Li; Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) Reduces Adiposity, Lowers Serum Insulin and Normalizes Glucose Tolerance in Rats Fed a High Fat Diet1Nutr. 133: 1088–1093, 2003.)
- Mayo Clin Proc. 2008 Apr;83(4):460-9; Curr Opin Infect Dis. 2007.
- Bass, J., Turek, F., Sleep deprivation becomes new factor in obesity debate, Archives of Internal Medicine 165: pp25-30, Jan. 2005.