Stress and Weight Loss

downloadDo you feel like you are doing everything right, eating well, exercising and you still aren’t losing weight? There may be several reasons why the scale is not going down, but one of the most common is related to the effect that stress has on our bodies and on our weight.

Most of us live under chronic low-grade stress all the time. Between work, family obligations, traffic, and our fast-paced lifestyles, it is difficult to not feel stressed out. Even worrying too much about our weight can increase our stress levels! Stress increases a hormone called cortisol, which is likely responsible for the reasons why the scale may not be moving if we are under a lot of stress.

There are over 100 hormones in the human body that function together in complex ways to influence hunger, satiety, fat storage, and muscle gain. Although research hasn’t identified all the details of the body’s hormones, several have a significant impact on body weight.  The primary stress hormone, which also influences our weight, is called cortisol. This hormone is secreted by the adrenal glands, located at the top of the kidneys. Cortisol has some positive roles in our bodies, in the morning it helps motivate us to get going. It also plays a role in controlling metabolism and insulin levels.

Although cortisol plays some positive roles, levels of cortisol are increased during times of psychological or physical stress. Since it controls metabolism and insulin, during times of stress, too much cortisol can increase your appetite and cause you to deposit fat in the abdominal area.

A 2001 study of 59 healthy women found that stressed women with high cortisol levels, tended to eat more calories and sugar than those who were not under stress. Eating more calories and sugar will lead to weight gain over the long-term.

When cortisol is high, your body believes it needs to remain alert for any potential threats. Therefore, instead of shedding weight, it will slow down your metabolism and conserve energy in case it does have to react to a potential threat. This mechanism was highly adaptive when there were realistic threats such as predators to deal with regularly, but actually works against us now that we live in a different environment.

The best way to control your cortisol levels is to learn to manage your stress. Daily low-intensity exercise, like walking, reduces stress and lowers cortisol levels. Aim for at least 30-60 minutes of light walking daily to help manage stress and reduce cortisol.

High intensity exercise can actually increase cortisol, so try not to overdo it, especially if you are just starting out. You may also want to consider taking some adaptogen herbs, such as rhodiola, astragalus, and ginseng, to help lower cortisol levels.  Other ways to manage your stress include taking time out for enjoyable activities, meditation/prayer, laughing with friends, or taking a long bubble bath. Make stress management part of your daily routine to help decrease cortisol and help you reach your goals.

Intermittent Fasting

Lose weight brisbaneYou may have heard that in order to lose weight you have to eat small meals throughout the day to “fuel” your metabolism. Most dietitians also recommend never skipping meals, especially breakfast, as the ideal way to eat. But, recently, this advice has been flipped on its head with the emergence of very interesting research on the potential health benefits of fasting.

Frances Ashcroft, a geneticist at Oxford University, has suggested that in order to reduce the increasing rates of diabetes and help people maintain their weight everyone should consider fasting at least one day a week.  She suggests that this will automatically reduce overall calorie consumption without having to measure portions or count calories. It is also easy and cheap! But is there truth behind this claim? Is fasting beneficial and safe?

There is a significant amount of research in the area of calorie restriction and intermittent fasting (IF). Experts believe that fasting intermittently may actually be what our bodies are used to, in terms of evolution. In the caveman days it was rare to have food around all the time like we do now, so we were forced to fast occasionally. When there is food available, our bodies build muscle and fat so we can survive during lean times. Periods of fasting may also allow our bodies to clear out waste and debris. Some scientists believe that if we are constantly eating, the body is unable to truly “cleanse” itself which may be linked to an increase in chronic diseases.

Much of the research on intermittent fasting has been conducted on people of the Muslim faith during Ramadan, a holy period of fasting. A 2011 study looked at fasting’s effect on inflammation markers, a common cause of chronic diseases.  Researchers found that after the fasting period inflammation markers, blood pressure, and body fat decreased significantly all of which could have an effect on long-term health. It has also been found that intermittent fasting may improve insulin sensitivity and may decrease cardiovascular disease markers.

One criticism of intermittent fasting is that our bodies are built to combat the effects of fasts by storing fat during non-fasting periods. So although you may lose weight and have lower inflammation levels during the fast, once you return to normal eating, your body will try to replace what was lost by releasing hormones that cause you to eat more. Fasting may also lead to a slower metabolism because your body will try to conserve energy. A slower metabolism may lead to weight gain once you resume eating normally again.

Is fasting right for you?

For the general population one day of fasting per week or skipping an occasional is probably safe and may be beneficial. If you are diabetic – especially if you are on insulin- fasting is not safe because your blood sugar can drop too low. Pregnant or lactating women should also avoid fasting. For those of us who are generally healthy, fasting may be a good solution to overall lower our caloric intake without much thought. It may also improve insulin sensitivity, reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease and possibly help reduce our weight, although more long-term research is needed on these potential health benefits.

If you are considering trying intermittent fasting, make sure you drink plenty of fluids during fasting periods to prevent dehydration. While you are not fasting, make sure your meals are balanced to help replace any lost nutrients. You also may want to consider taking a multivitamin to ensure you are still getting proper nutrition.

Overall, the preliminary research on the potential health benefits of intermittent fasting is quite interesting. More long-term research is needed to determine if the benefits seen in the short-term studies translate to long-term reduction in chronic diseases.


The Truth About Garcinia Cambogia

garcinia cambogiaGarcinia cambogia is the latest weight loss supplement in a line of many that have taken the internet by storm, initially promoted by Dr. Oz, a United States television personality. It seems like almost every website you visit has an ad for the latest garcinia supplement claiming miraculous results with little effort. But, what is this “miracle” fruit and will it actually work for weight loss?

Garcinia gummi-gutta, the scientific name for garcinia cambogia, is a tropical, yellow colored fruit from Indonesia. It is about the size of a small pumpkin. It is traditionally used for cooking and to make curry in many Southeast Asian countries. In Ayruvedic medicine, it is believed to be healing to the digestive system. Initially there were many animal studies that suggest that HCA may cause weight loss, but generally only with very high doses. Therefore, researchers decided to look deeper into the potential of this fruit to help promote weight loss in humans.

Garcinia and Weight Loss

In 2011, a small meta-analysis of was conducted on the effects of Garcinia combogia as a weight loss supplement. The slimming ingredient in Garcina is called hydroxitric acid (HCA). HCA is found in many plants native to Southeast Asia. It is believed to inhibit appetite and reduce carbohydrate metabolism.  This particular meta-analysis of the effects of HCA did find that those who took HCA lost more weight than a placebo. But, the study found that those who took HCA reported more digestive problems while taking the supplement, although few other adverse effects were reported. Also, all the studies included in the meta-analysis had methodological weaknesses and were not considered to be “strong” research studies, which are needed to make conclusive results for the efficacy of any supplement. The overall weight loss experienced by the participants was small and therefore the researchers suggest that more information is needed on the effects and optimal dosage of HCA. Within their analysis, the largest study they looked at found no significant difference in weight loss between those who used HCA and those who didn’t.

Another 2011 meta-analysis found similar conflicting results. There are some studies that do show that garcina cambogia’s active ingredient HCA may result in moderate weight loss, none of the studies show consistent outcomes. Many studies have small sample size and are short-term, usually less than 12 weeks long. There is also no long-term follow-up with the participants to see if they were able to keep the weight off long-term.

Should you take garcinia combogia?

As with any supplement, you should proceed with caution. The current research is not strong enough to conclude that garcinia or HCA will definitively help you lose weight. It will likely not give you the rapid results you are looking for in terms of weight loss and there is nothing in the research to support that it could be a quick fix. Although it has also not shown any significant or dangerous side effect from taking the supplement, caution should still be used. If you want to try a garcinia supplement ask your doctor first, as they are most familiar with your medical history and can discuss any concerns they might have with you. Also, be wary of where you purchase the supplement as many online dealers can be selling a placebo which contains no HCA at all. Overall, it is probably best to wait for more research to determine if HCA is effective at all for weight loss since long-term side effects are virtually unknown.

And always remember, if it sounds too good to be true – it probably is.  See one of our dietitians for assistance with achieving your goals in a sensible and sustainable way. You deserve a new life through good nutrition!