You’re smart, accomplished, and hard-working. So why the heck is healthy weight loss so hard? It’s not all you. Our lifestyles work against the very hormones that manage weight — leptin, ghrelin, and insulin. But we can get into hormonal alignment again.
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If you’re like at least half of Americans, you’ve tried a bunch of different weight loss approaches. Low carb, high protein, shakes, calorie counting, points, badges, apps, forbidden foods, cheat days, fasting...
Chances are, not many of them work for very long. What in the world is going on?
First of all, whether or not you lose the weight and keep it off has very little to do with any particular diet or your efforts. In fact, losing the weight for good has a lot more to do with the science of your brain—how a trio of important hormones works day to day.
Let’s look at leptin, ghrelin, and insulin, the three hormones most in control of weight. They work together to maintain your energy and fat storage. And they react strongly when you change your weight.
Leptin is a hormone that tells your brain whether you have enough fat stored to maintain your energy. Released by fat cells, it sends a signal to your brain saying one of two things:
“Hey, you’ve eaten enough and stored enough fat to stay healthy. You can stop with the calories for a while. There’s enough fat to burn to keep all systems running.”
“Alert! Alert! Fat storage levels too low! Eat! We need to store more fat!! You aren’t getting enough calories!! Eat!”
Leptin monitors how many calories you’re getting, and how many of those calories are being turned into fat cells. Ideally, it keeps you from starving or overeating.
Ghrelin is the hormone sent from the stomach to the brain to signal hunger or fullness. Some researchers think that leptin affects how much ghrelin the stomach releases, as in, low levels of leptin mean more calories are needed, and therefore ghrelin levels stay high.
Insulin comes from your pancreas. It controls whether food goes to blood sugar, or immediate energy, or to fat storage. It also tells fat cells to turn on and store fat, and it keeps fat cells from breaking down, depending on what your leptin says about your energy needs.
Changing your weight is a sledgehammer to your hormones
Whether change your weight, your hormones can get grouchy. More accurately, they start to function differently.
Losing weight has an strong impact on leptin, in particular. When you lose weight, your levels of leptin fall. This makes sense, right? You have fewer fat cells, and so there are fewer fat cells to release leptin.
What happens next?
Well, your brain isn’t a passive recipient of these hormonal signals. When it doesn’t hear from leptin in a while, it interprets the silence as DANGER. As STARVATION.
And your brain adapts your behavior and your biology to get leptin levels back up to normal.
The changes might sound familiar:
Less motivation to exercise
Fewer calories burned when you’re resting
So you eat because your brain is yelling at you to eat (your levels of ghrelin stay high!) — and the weight comes back. Hello, yo-yo dieting.
Because these three hormones are so closely connected, a change in one means a change in the others. To put it simply, when you lose weight on most diets, you pick a pretty nasty fight with your own body. One you are almost guaranteed to lose.
This isn’t your “fault.” Most diets do not give you the tools, knowledge, and support to work with the reality of your body. They do not help you lose the weight for good.
Most diets take a sledgehammer to your hormonal systems. It is inevitable that they won’t work. You can’t lose weight under this system. The diets don’t work, and they are failing you.
The role of leptin resistance in weight loss.
If you struggle with weight loss you may be leptin resistant.
If you are starting from an overweight or obese place, you may already be leptin resistant. This means that you have high levels of leptin, but your brain is more or less blind to all that leptin.
And as we now know, when the brain doesn’t sense enough leptin, it goes into starvation mode. Even though you do have enough calories, even though you already have eaten enough, you get hunger signals, and you turn those calories to fat.
Ghrelin and insulin function may also be challenged if you’re starting from a high weight for your body. Among other things, this means that diets that aren’t based on solid brain science and hormone function, well, they most likely aren’t going to work.
Again, this isn’t your “fault.” Diets that don’t understand the reality of the body are failing you.
How to heal leptin function
There isn’t a single step to re-regulate hormones and brain function. And “how to lose weight” isn’t a question answered with a magic pill. Researchers are still studying how these three hormones react to weight change, and how we can best regulate their function so we can lose weight and keep it off.
But there are a few things that do seem to help consistently:
- Stop eating the Standard American Diet of processed foods and animal proteins. Researchers think that inflammation contributes to leptin resistance, and the SAD contributes to inflammation.
- Eat foods high in fiber. Whole, plant-based foods, especially, give your body fiber it can digest and use. These also are healthy weight loss foods.
- Make sleep and movement a priority.
- Both sleep and exercise have strong effects on hormone function. Healthy levels of each support your hormones. A lack of either can gum up the hormonal works.
Is weight loss even possible?
Yes! You don’t have to be a yo-yo dieter. Here’s how to lose weight naturally.
Diets can work when they help you step away from the SAD, help you step to nutrient-dense high-fiber foods for healthy weight loss, and support you over time through the significant ups and downs of healing your brain and your hormones.
Diets can work when they give you simple behavior design tools so you can stick with eating changes. This is a diet for healthy weight loss.
Healing your body in order to lose weight and keep it off takes time. But it is absolutely possible.
Leptin, ghrelin, and insulin are three hormones that regulate your appetite, fat storage, and long-term energy needs.
When you lose weight, your leptin levels go down, and your brain interprets this as a sign to eat more.
Diets that are based in brain science, with a clear understanding of hormone function, are much more likely to help you lose the weight and keep it off.
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Becky Karush is a writer, copywriter, and family woman. She came up through newspapers and magazines, including Disney FamilyFun and Martha Stewart Whole Living, with road trips to teaching and farming. She’s run BeckyK Creative Marketing since 2012. She hosts and produces READ TO ME, a literary podcast that ends the cult of the critic and surfaces the power and beauty in great writing.