Losing weight is half the battle. Keeping it off long-term is often the bigger challenge. Why is it so easy to regain weight that you fought so hard to lose? Did you return to your old habits? Or is there another culprit involved?
A number of studies on weight management in obese people suggest that certain appetite-related hormones play a role, and that keeping off weight long-term following dietary or other interventions is the exception rather than the rule.
Our bodies naturally produce a variety of hormones. There are approximately 70 known hormones and periodically, new ones get discovered. One of those hormones, leptin, which was discovered about 20 years ago, is produced by our fat cells. Its main role is to regulate our consumption and expenditure of calories and determine how much fat our bodies need to store. Leptin has complex interactions with gherlin, known as the hunger hormone, and insulin. All three hormones play a crucial role in appetite and weight control.
When we eat, our leptin level increases and sends a signal to the brain that we are satiated. This triggers us to eat less and burn more calories. When we don’t eat, our leptin decreases, triggering us to eat more and burn less. This seems like an efficient biological process for survival, but it may not suit our modern way of life.
Obese people tend to have very high levels of leptin, which should, in theory, inform the brain they are full – but their body doesn’t respond the way it’s supposed to. Current theories suggest they have a biological abnormality known as leptin resistance. They overeat because they don’t get the satiety signal and their brain tells them to conserve rather than expend energy. In such cases, it’s hard to control hunger, eat less and feel motivated to move.
Leptin resistance may be the result of overexposure to leptin, just as insulin-resistance develops from overexposure to insulin. Dietary habits contribute to the development of resistance. Regularly eating a diet high in simple carbohydrates such as sugars, some grains and poor quality processed foods may result in the body’s fat cells releasing too much leptin which, over time, can lead to resistance.
When you lose body fat, such as by dieting, your leptin level drops. Since reduction in leptin makes the brain think it’s starving, motivation to exercise goes down, basal metabolic rate goes down (calories burned while at rest), and appetite goes up. What a vicious cycle!
Many hormones have multiple roles. For example, serotonin and cholecystokinin are also involved in appetite suppression and orexin in hunger stimulation. In addition, hormonal imbalances involving excess cortisol, insulin or estrogen or low testosterone can lead to excess belly fat.
Is weight-loss a futile endeavour? How can you avoid regaining weight you worked so hard to lose? Is fat acceptance the only alternative to fighting what seems to be a losing battle? Are you destined to suffer the health consequences associated with being overweight or obese, such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers?
There are many forces we can blame for unwanted weight gain. These include genetic predisposition to obesity (which affects only about five per cent of the population); biological factors such as the theory of leptin resistance; other hormonal changes that can trigger hunger such as too much cortisol caused by chronic stress; other “compensatory adaptations in metabolism, which promote rapid and efficient weight regain (http://tinyurl.com/jd2lfcp)”; societal influences; and psychological factors.
We can also have a physiological response to sugary or fatty foods as our bodies release serotonin, which provides feelings of pleasure. Thus, we may overeat in response to emotions rather than to hunger.
To improve your odds of long-term weight management, eat nutritionally dense foods from the following groups: lean protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates (containing fibre). You’ll feel fuller and help regulate leptin and insulin. Engaging in regular exercise also helps with weight and hormonal management.
Weight management is still not fully understood or agreed upon by experts. There are emerging and conflicting theories. Whether you’re significantly overweight or just have a few pounds to lose, dieting doesn’t work long-term in part because it causes leptin to drop and gherlin to increase. This effect lasts long after you stop dieting so you keep feeling hungry; you eat more and regain weight. Hopefully, continued research will lead to a better understanding and more successful strategies to make weight control difficulties a thing of the past.