Those of us born in a certain time have been well indoctrinated that we need to eat less to get lean (whatever “lean” means for the decade). Until recently, the health benefits of achieving this was not distinguished from weight loss itself, which obviously is a false equivalency. From the 50’s through the 80’s most weight loss plans were focused on physique, but in the 90’s “eating clean” began to muddy the waters and repackage weight loss in a more palatable messaging of health and detoxification. Suddenly losing weight meant getting healthy, even if you were drinking nothing but shakes or injecting hormones while on starvation rations and your hair fell out. This was supposed to be “healthier”!
Most of my clients who are looking to drop some weight are specifically interested in doing so for improved health outcomes – lowered blood sugar and cholesterol, reduced or eliminated medications, less joint pain – or to improve their athletic goals. They often come to me with health outcomes at the top of the list, but a quiet, whispered desire to feel better in their body, have their clothing fit again, and be proud of how they look.
There is nothing wrong with this.
It’s okay to want to look your best. Now we are wiser and we know that we can improve our health and enjoy being in our body more if we do this intelligently. What people often do not realize is that it sometimes requires us to eat more.
No joke! When aiming for weight loss, there are three ways my clients often need to eat more:
Eat More Protein to Increase Metabolism
As we get older it is more challenging to maintain muscle without higher intakes of protein. Muscle is a major lever in a healthy metabolism and is not only a major player in burning calories, but also for maintaining strength and independence as we age. It also loves to chew up all the extra glucose in our blood that can lead to diabetes! Muscle mass is FANTASTIC at warding off chronic diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis and hypoglycemia. Additionally, maintaining strength as we age may reduce all cause mortality. (1)
I encourage my clients and patients to get a hand-length of protein at each meal, which is often twice the amount they’ve been told. This consistently reduces cravings, improves health outcomes and has clinically been shown in my practice to increase muscle mass, even in sedentary individuals.
Additionally, the body burns more calories digesting protein than any other macronutrient, so fewer calories are available for potential storage. Protein is the macro least likely to cause weight gain when eaten in abundance. (2)
Eat More Produce to Lubricate Your Metabolic Engine
It’s been well demonstrated that Americans pretty much neglect produce entirely, getting a little over a serving a day. The government has been preaching 5 a day for decades, but research shows optimal health outcomes continue to increase upwards of 10 servings a day! (3) It has been suggested, based upon looking at produce and all cause mortality, that 10 servings a day may actually be what would revolutionize our health and allow us to grow old with strength, wits, and robustness intact.
Focusing on a produce-forward plate not only fills your belly with fewer calories, but it also gives your body the vitamins and minerals it needs to operate a metabolism at peak efficiency. Neglecting nutrient-rich vegetables is a losing game in the long run when it comes to health and weight management. In effect, you are more satiated and give your body the nutrients needed for metabolic health. If protein is the machinery that creates the metabolic engine, vitamins and minerals act as the oil that prevents the engine from seizing up. It’s a crude analogy, but you get the idea. (4)
In my practice, I have seen focusing solely on produce lead to elimination of blood pressure medication, statins, and the reversal of hypertension and prediabetes. This is not a guarantee, but it is also not uncommon. Additionally, nagging issues like sugar cravings, mood swings, premenstrual acne, joint pain, and lowered immunity often resolve with an increase it produce. By giving the body the vitamins and minerals it needs and shoring up cellular defenses with all sorts of antioxidants, it is possible to feel younger, even as you grow older!
More calories?! Understanding Metabolic Adaptation
About half the time, my clients are not eating enough food, period. Over time, lack of sufficient calories leads not only to muscle loss, which lowers metabolism, but also hormonal adaptations that lead to fewer calories burned at rest and while exercising. eating signifcantly less than what body needs causes metabolic slowdown, usually in part due to muscle loss. While a higher protein intake can alleviate this, if overall intake remains too low, the body will compensate by ‘lowering the thermostat’ to conserve energy.
While you can go to the bank and take out a line of credit when your income is low, when your body’s income is low, it has no extra line of credit it can draw from to maintain all operations at peak capacity. Like our depression era grandparents, the body will resort to ‘spending less’ and use the incoming energy and available fat stores for essential tasks such as keeping the heart beating, the brain going, and the liver and kidneys processing. Over time, it learns to live on less and is able to resist drawing upon fat stores to keep the skeleton crew going. Non-urgent tasks such as maintaining a robust immune system, hormone health and bone health get downregulated, leading to complications if maintained for very long periods of time.
Chronically excessive low calorie intake can lead to weight loss resistance or a plateau early on. Through Intermittent fasting, yo-yo dieting and aggressive ‘cleanses’, we can literally train our body to become more efficient at conserving energy and burning fewer calories for *years* after we stop such behavior. Research on Biggest Loser participants really highlighted this phenomenon. (6)
In situations such as this, an increase in calories can reverse this metabolic adaptation. By doing so, a signal is sent to the body indicating an abundance of energy available, and it no longer needs to conserve as much (7). Hormones regulate (8) and the metabolism fires back up. When done strategically, weight is not regained, and in many cases, weight loss begins to happen!
Eating More Can Be Scary!
Depending upon your history with weight loss and how many times you have regained lost weight, the thought of intentionally eating more food of any kind can be unsettling if not outright frightening. I often tell my clients who are most afraid of this that they are the ones who will benefit the most.
By learning to focus on nourishment rather than deprivation, several things happen. First, food stops being an enemy, a seducer, a thing you can’t control and it becomes a source of restoration, health, and empowerment. Secondly, by shifting your focus to what you get to eat more of, you feel less deprivation and denial than meal plans which focus on elimination or restriction. Finally, by testing out this concept and eating more volumnous veggies, more protein, and even more calories, you learn to trust your body with food and trust yourself around food. If you are in a place where this sounds crazy, all I can tell you is that I have seen it time and time again the past two decades and it is a powerful shift that in and of itself is very healing.
If you are ready to eat more and want individualized support in navigating these next steps, you can book a complimentary call to learn more.
- Li, Ran et al. “Associations of Muscle Mass and Strength with All-Cause Mortality among US Older Adults.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise vol. 50,3 (2018): 458-467.
- Ravn, A. M., Gregersen, N. T., Christensen, R., Rasmussen, L. G., Hels, O., Belza, A., Raben, A., Larsen, T. M., Toubro, S., & Astrup, A. (2013). Thermic effect of a meal and appetite in adults: an individual participant data meta-analysis of meal-test trials. Food & nutrition research, 57, 10.3402/fnr.v57i0.19676. https://doi.org/10.3402/fnr.v57i0.19676
- Dagfinn Aune, Edward Giovannucci, Paolo Boffetta, Lars T Fadnes, NaNa Keum, Teresa Norat, Darren C Greenwood, Elio Riboli, Lars J Vatten, Serena Tonstad, Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality—a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies, International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 46, Issue 3, June 2017, Pages 1029–1056, https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyw319
- Zavros, Antonis et al. “The Effects of Zinc and Selenium Co-Supplementation on Resting Metabolic Rate, Thyroid Function, Physical Fitness, and Functional Capacity in Overweight and Obese People under a Hypocaloric Diet: A Randomized, Double-Blind, and Placebo-Controlled Trial.” Nutrients vol. 15,14 3133. 13 Jul. 2023, doi:10.3390/nu15143133
- Tardy, A. L., Pouteau, E., Marquez, D., Yilmaz, C., & Scholey, A. (2020). Vitamins and Minerals for Energy, Fatigue and Cognition: A Narrative Review of the Biochemical and Clinical Evidence. Nutrients, 12(1), 228. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12010228
- Hall, Kevin D. “Energy compensation and metabolic adaptation: “The Biggest Loser” study reinterpreted.” Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.) vol. 30,1 (2022): 11-13. doi:10.1002/oby.23308
- Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., & Norton, L. E. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 7. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-7
- Pardue, Andrew et al. “Case Study: Unfavorable But Transient Physiological Changes During Contest Preparation in a Drug-Free Male Bodybuilder.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism vol. 27,6 (2017): 550-559. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0064