Let’s consider how our bodies actually maintain, lose, and gain weight; the good ole’ metabolism … or the hormonal responses that control our rate of energy (food) use by controlling our appetites, cravings, and the desire to move or rest (energy levels), all in order to keep body weight stable and us ultimately alive. Humans, like most animals besides those that hibernate or live in frigid temperatures and need blubber to survive, are naturally lean under natural circumstances. How is it that we didn’t spend time thinking about diet and exercise just over 50 years ago, yet remained naturally lean, whereas today we put great efforts into manipulating diet and exercise and remain more overweight? Maybe manipulating diet and exercise isn’t the answer.
Let’s start with an analogy between two of our body’s systems; the circulatory system which helps keeps a certain level of oxygen in our bloodstream and the endocrine system (hormones, metabolism) which helps keep a certain level of fat stores in our tissues. Let’s say we want to lose extra oxygen, the same way most of us want to lose extra fat.
Friend 1: Wow, you look great, what are you doing to lose oxygen?
Friend 2: There’s this great low-breath plan I found, you should try it!
(tries low-breath plan for 30 seconds and is astonished at the results!)
(1 minute later)
Friend 2: Hey, are you still doing that low-breath plan? I stuck with it for a while, but I’m super stressed right now and started breathing more again.
Friend 1: Yeah, I fell off the band-wagon too. It’s so hard! I need to get back on that plan. Hey, wanna do it together? Let’s start Monday!
Let’s repeat this conversation with fat loss:
Friend 1: Wow, you look great, what are you doing to lose weight?
Friend 2: There’s this great low-carb plan I found, you should try it!
(tries low-carb plan for 30 days and is astonished at the results!)
(1 month later)
Friend 2: Hey, are you still doing that low-carb plan? I stuck with it for a while, but I’m super stressed right now and started eating more carbs again.
Friend 1: Yeah, I fell off the band-wagon too. It’s so hard! I need to get back on that plan. Hey, wanna do it together? Let’s start it on Monday!
Why does that sound so normal when it’s about weight (fat) loss and so ridiculous when it’s about oxygen levels? It’s just as much not our faults that we “fall off the band-wagon” with restrictive diet and exercise plans as it is that we start breathing again after holding our breath! What’s that? NOT our faults?! Wait… when’s the last time you felt bad that you couldn’t stick with a healthy/clean eating plan or workout regimen? Sound familiar? Our bodies force fat re-gain to happen after deprivation just like they force intake of oxygen after deprivation. It’s biologic survival. We can’t tell on the longer time scale of body fat loss and gain, so it seems like our fault … we just didn’t have enough “will-power” or “discipline” and if we start again (on Monday!), we’ll stick with it and finally lose all the extra weight THIS TIME!
It’s not just you being weak when:
- soon after you restrict a certain food group or eat too few calories on a diet, you start to crave and obsess about those foods.
- you uncontrollably overeat at night after not finding time to eat all day.
- you feel lethargic and the thought of doing a workout seems daunting.
- you just want to sit down and don’t have the energy to pop up and take care of chores.
These are simply ways that your body is dealing with the current conditions. When we restrict calories and feel hungry, our bodies have no choice but to react with hormonal responses that increase appetite and decrease energy levels… and these drives are STRONG and get stronger the more “in danger” we are… of perceived famine and hibernation.
So how did our ancestors stay trim? Well, they moved and ate at regular intervals as a natural part of life. They weren’t going to bootcamp 3x/week and then resting up otherwise. They just spent all day standing, bending, lifting, crouching, carrying, pushing, hauling, gathering, cleaning, gardening, and so on – they got plenty of N.E.A.T. (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). This whole complicated system works synergistically and accurately when movement happens often, wholesome foods from all 3 macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs) are consumed regularly, and our exposure to sunlight (or any blue light) happens during waking hours while sleep in complete darkness happens during sleeping hours. Those are the natural circumstances in which people remain naturally lean. That more recently invented thing called “exercise” helps us mimic movements that our bodies need and don’t get nearly enough of anymore with modern lifestyles, but it’s not enough to make up for actually having to move and physically work all day. We don’t have time to workout all day, but we can find ways to add movement into our daily lives and that can really make a big difference. Just compare the 300-500 calories burned in a typical exercise session vs the 1500-2000 calories burned by simply standing rather than sitting all day! Not moving, just standing.)
Our ancestors also didn’t have the option to buy foods engineered to taste ridiculously good while not actually providing the cells with enough real nutrients. Processed foods have disrupted the natural state of our metabolisms. It’s no coincidence that we can accidentally eat the whole bag of potato chips, but never accidentally eat the whole bag of carrots. Our bodies signal us to stop because our cells get what they need. Does that mean you can never have another doughnut, cookie, or chip? No, it just needs to be an occasional treat and not in your everyday environment. These foods exist and they’re tempting (though much less so when they remain on the store shelves!), hitting the pleasure center of our brains hard and that’s no accident. Pockets are being lined with that strategy so these foods aren’t leaving our environment any time soon.
The hormonal response to our cells not getting enough nutrients is to make you lethargic and tired (to slow you down so you conserve energy) and to give you cravings and make you hungry (to get you to seek out those nutrients). Viscous cycle, huh? Dieting exaggerates this viscous cycle and that’s exactly why it’s inevitable that you put on more weight than you started with after quitting a diet. So why do we keep dieting? We’re into immediate gratification, for one. Nobody wants to lose their weight slowly over a year or more, they want if off before their beach trip in a couple months!
The final thing our ancestors had going for them was having their circadian rhythms on track. When the sun went down, it was time to get plenty of restorative, metabolism boosting sleep. (Did you know that one of our biggest surges of growth hormone – a huge metabolism booster – happens during our deep sleep stages, but can be disrupted if our body is still dealing with digestion from late night food intake?) Nowadays when the sun goes down, it’s time to stare at screens that mimic bright daylight and sit still some more! Gah!
So the next question is HOW. How do we begin to mimic the lifestyles of yester-year as much as possible to get our bodies to naturally head in the correct direction with weight and metabolism? We slowly make changes that take us in the right direction, truly establishing new habits along the way. We don’t do a big overhaul and expect to stick with it, because that’s too hard and will backfire. Changing habits is a learning process and it should be expected that to truly learn something new takes time, but most definitely can be done! Any new skill takes time to perfect and needs lots of practice. Shifting your daily habits is a new skill. Allow it to take time. Embrace the small, actionable changes you’re making as big wins… because they are. Congratulate yourself for them. Out loud. Each one makes a difference – you won’t notice it right away, but it will come. You’ll notice you feel better, have more energy, and are generally happier pretty quickly, but those other changes you’re looking for will take time. When you hear all those annoying, seemingly unimportant little tips like “park further away”, “take the stairs instead of the elevator”, “take a 15-minute walk after dinner”, or “eat slowly and wait 20 minutes to see if you’re full”, and you’re thinking, oh come on, I just need to get serious and workout for real and stop eating all this crap, think again. Where has that all-or-nothing approach gotten you? Happiness, bliss, and the lean body you’ve always wanted? Then why are you reading a blog about your elusive weight goals and a challenge you can join? Those tips aren’t about the measly few extra calories they might burn, but rather the ripple effect of your hormones driving your energy level up (meaning you move more throughout the day without thinking about it, unconsciously burning even more calories than you can ever count/calculate), and your appetite down (meaning it’s less likely you’ll feel hungry or if you do, you’re more likely to crave more wholesome choices). It’s a snowball effect that goes far beyond conscious calories in, calories out even though the fundamental bottom line is exactly that.
If you join The M.E. Challenge, you’ll not only get accountability by posting your “Sweaty Selfies” and “Colorful Closeups” to show your movement and your wholesome fruit and veggie eating the group (surprisingly motivating!), but also follow me through a gradual process of habit development that will take you in the right direction with your weight management with less effort and definitely no deprivation.
-Twice-monthly blog posts about fat loss, icluding 1-2 key habits to practice for 2 full weeks at a time plus opportunities for bonus points!
-Weekly video demonstrating stretches you can do throughout the day to alleviate aches and pains (and increase N.E.A.T.!)
-Bonus challenges every 2 weeks that help you achieve the habits you’re practicing
-Prize money to the top 6 point-earners (1st place 18% of the pot, 2nd 15%, 3rd 12%, 4th 9%, 5th 6%, and 6th 3%. With just 15 participants, 1st place is already $211!)