Weight loss is a common conversation in my clinic, and a popular talking point in our modern society. This is understandable considering the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that over 60% of the adult population were overweight or obese in 2012 (1). On a more personal level, many people find their weight effects their level of happiness, confidence and overall health. With this in mind, I thought I would share my perspective on the best natural approach for individuals to achieve and maintain their ideal weight.
What is an ideal weight? The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a commonly used measurement for assessing weight. While useful for generalised comparisons within the population, its limitations for determining an individuals level of fat deposits and disease risk are becoming more widely recognised (2). A BMI takes into account your height and weight, but not amount of muscle, fat or bone. I find a simple, effective way to monitor weight changes in my clinic is waist circumference (WC). Regardless of your BMI, an increased WC has real implications for your health as it reflects an increased amount of fat tissue around your internal organs. Large amounts of this fat leads to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and some cancers (3).
Women WC over 80cm is an increased risk, and WC over 88cm is a greatly increased risk
Men WC over 94cm is an increased risk and WC over 102cm is a greatly increased risk
Measuring your waist circumference is easy. Grab a soft measuring tap, like those used in sewing, and measure your waist around your belly button, roughly midway between you hip bone and rib bone. The tape should be snug but not compressing your skin. Write your WC down for your records.
Watch out for oversimplification as anything that oversimplifies health tends to be relevant to only some of the population. Even measuring WC is not perfect. There can be error in the measurement, and it does not take into account hip to waist ration. If you naturally have broader hips, you may find yourself unnecessarily worried. Individuals will generally know how their body shape has changed over time, including the change of clothes sizes and clothes tightness. Even so, I still find changes to your WC can be a relevant and motivating factor in your weight loss. Just try to see it as part of the bigger picture, which is feeling better and getting healthier. Aim to measure your WC once per month, as it will reflect the general trend more accurately.
Avoiding weight cycling is an important commitment to make. Weight cycling is when people have periods of dieting and weight loss, followed by periods of indulgent eating and weight gain. Our bodies are very clever and adaptable. What this means in relation to weight is that we are equipped with an individual metabolism that determines the rate that your body turns energy from food or stored weight into cellular energy. This metabolism is always in a state of change depending on many factors. Our bodies tend to be more equipped to protect us from starving than they are from excess weight. Long periods of dieting can signal to your body to slow down it's metabolism to protect it from perceived food scarcity. When we have a break from our 'diet', our body then stores as much energy as it can for the next period of restriction as weight gain. Make sure any changes you are making to your lifestyle are realistic and maintainable.
Improve your metabolism by working with your body. While your metabolism is partly genetically determined, it is not set in stone as discussed above. It responds to changes in our nutrient intake, energy intake, exercise and other environmental factors. Digestive health, including the types of bacteria residing in your gut, has also been show in research to influence an individuals weight through changing the amount of calories that are available from our food (4). Providing your metabolism with the macronutrients, vitamins and minerals it needs to function optimally is also important.
Adopt an exercise routine, preferably one that you can maintain that is enjoyable for you. Think about your interests when choosing structured exercise, and leave some room in your schedule for incidental or spontaneous exercise too. Exercise combined with dietary changes is clearly effective for weight loss, and even when no weight loss is achieved a reduction in cardiovascular risk factors is observed (5). If you find yourself not exercising, find the smallest amount of movement that doesn't intimidate you and do it. Honestly a 5 minute brisk walk is a great step in the right direction. You may also be motivated to know that High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a style of exercise that requires small amounts of total weekly time and can provide great health benefits. One study describes the metabolic benefits acquired through this form of training as 'remarkable', and highlights the potential for this time-efficient form of exercise to reduce metabolic risk factors in individuals who are currently sedentary and unwilling to adhere to time-consuming exercise regimes (6).
"The efficacy of a high intensity exercise protocol, involving only ~250 kcal of work each week, to substantially improve insulin action in young sedentary subjects is remarkable. This novel time-efficient training paradigm can be used as a strategy to reduce metabolic risk factors in young and middle aged sedentary populations who otherwise would not adhere to time consuming traditional aerobic exercise regimes."
Keep your chemical exposure low as there is growing evidence to support the emerging theory that environmental factors are also relevant in our obesity epidemic. It is now clear that exposure to certain endocrine disruptors in our environment can influence our metabolism and weight, especially when they occur at crucial developmental stages (7). While this is an area that requires more research, reducing exposure to chemicals in our environment that disrupt hormones is a prudent and easy step for most of us. This includes reducing the use of plastics, especially where food or drinks are involved. Minimising exposure to pesticides on fresh produce is also important, as many are known xenoestrogens (oestrogen-mimicking compounds).
Reduce your stress levels as high level of your main stress hormone cortisol has been shown to increase comfort eating (8). A recent review article found that Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBI's) can be successfully applied to reduce the incidence of emotional and binge eating in obese individuals, through reducing the stress and anxiety that leads to these particular eating behaviours (9). Stress reduction and relaxation play an important role in weight loss for this reason, through improving the hormonal feedback mechanisms that tell us when we are full. Cortisol also directly increases insulin-resistance, which will work against your weight loss efforts.
Focus on health and happiness as an improvement in general health comes with increased energy, improved sleep and lowered stress levels. All of these changes will make you feel better while you are on your weight loss journey, and even improve the rewards for your efforts when it comes to dietary changes and exercise. Try to remember that your metabolism exists to supply you with energy for your daily activities, and the maintenance and repair of your body. A well-functioning metabolism can contribute greatly to your sense of wellbeing and help you on your way to your ideal weight.
Naturopathic Perspective: Weight loss PART 2 will be available on my blog during January. Subscribe to my mailing list here to make sure you don't miss it. You will receive a free monthly newsletter full of the inspiring health information and recipes that I share with my readers.
This blog post is for your general information and is not intended to be medical advice. Please see your qualified healthcare professional for more information on the safe treatment of your specific health conditions.