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Want to Lose Fat? Count Your Hormones, Not Your Calories (Part 2)

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I was widely criticized in my inaugural blog on The Huffington Post for not connecting the dots. I felt like an NFL kicker who just missed the game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl. But it's alright. My favorite team is the New York Jets, so I'm used to a little hate. In all seriousness, one thing I have learned as an integrative physician and longtime fitness professional is that when emotions get high, you know you touched on something important.

In essence, what I was trying to communicate is that it is hormones and not calories that drive metabolism. It is true that in order to lose weight -- and more specifically, fat -- you do need to have a caloric deficit. But a low-calorie diet does not lead to a balanced and stable metabolism. In fact, it leads to the reverse.

Taking a calorie-first approach by following the "eat less, exercise more" dogma, which has a long-term success rate of 5 percent, changes hormonal chemistry in a way that leads to compensatory hunger, unrelenting cravings, and unstable energy. Sometimes it also leads to weight loss, and if you are lucky, you will lose fat as well. But using willpower to fight your natural physiological urges is like playing with a boomerang: The more force you apply, the quicker and harder it flies back at you. When this happens to the metabolism, it means yo-yo weight regain.

There is another way to achieve a caloric deficit. If you take a hormones-first approach, you can keep hunger at bay, diminish cravings and stabilize energy. Doing things this way causes the body to eat less, naturally, which allows us to make new changes to our lifestyle without relying solely on willpower.

The readers of my last blog should have been upset, because I did leave them hanging. In a finite space, I did my best to explain the overall concept of hormonal fat loss, but gave them very little useable information. So how in the world do you control hormones?

First, you don't need fancy lab testing machines. Hunger, energy and cravings (HEC) are hormonal sensations. The main hormones that influence hunger are insulin, leptin and ghrelin. The hormones that impact cravings are ghrelin, cortisol, and the brain hormones dopamine, serotonin and GABA. And energy is managed by insulin, cortisol, thyroid hormones and the catecholamines. These sensations are biofeedback clues. I say "clues" because when dealing with hormones, you need to stop being a dieter and start being a detective. Your goal is to eat -- and exercise -- in a way that stabilizes HEC.

Next, you need to measure fat loss, not weight loss. The easiest way to do this is to measure your weight and your waist. If your weight and waist are dropping, you are losing mostly fat. If your weight goes up and your waist goes down, you are losing almost all fat. If your weight goes down, but the waist goes up or stays the same, you are losing weight, but that weight is not fat, it is water -- or worse, muscle. Your goal is a stable HEC and a smaller waist. Accomplish that, and you have just introduced yourself to hormonal fat loss.

Psychology research says humans crave certainty above almost all else, which goes a long way in explaining why humans continue to do the same things over and over, expecting a different result. You have been led to believe that weight loss is linear, predictable and "one-size-fits-all." Our desire for certainty makes it so that you want me to give you meal plans and a food list with recipes. But body change does not work that way. It is an up and down, two-steps-forward-one-step-back process, and it is different for everyone.

So, I am going to give you the basics, and then it is up to you to do the detective work required to uncover your metabolic formula. And then practice, practice, practice. Like anything else you have mastered in life, this is a journey, not a destination. Body change is a process, not a protocol.

  • Eat more of the right foods more often. "Right foods" are foods rich in water, lean protein and fiber. These foods are digested slowly so they fill you up quickly and help you stay full for longer. They are also lower in starch, sugar and fat. This means you should eat unlimited quantities of vegetables, low-sugar fruits (berries, apples, pears) and lean protein.
  • Exercise smarter. Leisure walk -- not power-walk -- as much as you can, which lowers cortisol, and engage in short, intense bouts of activity for 10-30 minutes, three to five times per week. This type of exercise will burn fat and create far less compensatory eating reactions. Try these workouts to start.
  • Get at least eight hours of sleep a night. Sleep is a hormonal reset button for your body. It lowers cortisol and balances ghrelin and leptin, which means less hunger, balanced energy and decreased cravings the next day.
  • Practice "rest-based living." Build restorative and relaxing practices into your life (quiet time, nap time, hot baths, nature walks, tai chi, restorative yoga, physical affection, reading, massage, meditation, conversation and time with loved ones). This lowers cortisol and elevates feel-good brain hormones, so you are less likely to have nighttime cravings.
  • Pay attention. Learn how diet, exercise, lifestyle, and stress impact your HEC, then adjust your approach accordingly in a direction that balances and nourishes you. I call this learning your "metabolic formula".
  • Change your mindset. Give up the idea that linear, predictable and sustainable results will be yours if you simply work hard. This is about learning and mastering a new mindset. It is not about working harder, it is about learning, practicing and mastering this over time.

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