Want to live longer? Deflate the spare tire around your waist. Now that smoking rates have tumbled, too much waist-weight (What a waste!) is the primary cause of accelerated aging in our country today.
What’s accelerated aging? Your body ages faster than it should. You tend to have more chronic illnesses. Your body parts break down faster, and you die younger. (Just one example: Feet, knees, hips, and lower backs were not designed to carry an extra 35 or 40 pounds. Every step you take pounds those joints harder than they were designed for.)
About 66% of adult Americans (and about 20% of kids) are overweight or obese. Extra fat around your middle triggers a wave of hormonal, metabolic, and inflammatory changes that contribute to accelerated aging and many chronic illnesses. Gents: if your waist is over 40 inches, and ladies, over 35 inches, you are getting older much faster.
So, lose the weight. Okay, I hear you saying, “I’ve tried, every diet out there. They don’t work. I got frustrated and gave up.”
I believe you. My patients complain about repeated diet failures. So, we sort out what specific problems they have that keep them from losing weight. Armed with that knowledge, they can succeed.
Most diet experts offer a one-size-fits-all approach: Move more, eat less. Nothing more complicated than “calories in versus calories out.” If only it were so simple, we wouldn’t see so many failures.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Americans suddenly became the fattest people in the world. Did we all just get super sized and become couch potatoes? Yes, to a degree. But that’s not the whole answer. Our food changed. More sugar, more fat, more salt. Fewer nutrients like zinc and iodine. New toxins like High Fructose Corn Syrup were added, and poisonous herbicides passed into the food chain. As much as any reason, changes in our food caused Americans to tip the scales in less than 20 years.
There are many reasons why you can’t lose weight that are truly subtle—some of these causes will show up only in sophisticated laboratory tests, such as: nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, poor digestion and absorption, neurotransmitter imbalances, food sensitivities, and toxin accumulation.
Let’s look at four not-so-obvious demons that can sabotage your best weight-loss efforts.
Zinc is critical for normal thyroid hormone function. We can measure the hormone levels in your blood and tell you, “You’re fine, you’re not hypothyroid. Your blood levels are completely normal.” But your hormones are only the cheerleaders. Without powerful players on the field, your thyroid won’t win the game. The players are nutrients like zinc, iodine, and selenium. Zinc is necessary for your body to fully activate thyroid hormone, and to allow it to lock into a thyroid receptor. Otherwise, the hormone floats around in your blood, gives you a normal blood test, but is ineffective.
Symptoms: Poor night vision (it’s not just because you’re getting older). Loss of taste. Everything tastes bland, except sweets. Increased frequency and severity of infections.
Tests: The easiest is an oral zinc challenge test. If you can’t taste a solution of zinc sulfate, you probably are low. We can confirm suspected low zinc levels with blood tests or urine tests.
Treatment: Oysters are loaded with zinc, but it’s easier to take a supplement of zinc chelated to amino acids—we usually start with 20 milligrams twice a day for three months and then reassess.
Iodine is necessary for normal thyroid and sexual organ function. About 90% of the people I see who are too fat have far too little iodine.
How do you become iodine deficient? Blame the baking industry.
In the 1960s, millers used iodine as a preservative in wheat flour. Twenty years later, in the 1980s, the baking industry decided to use bromine instead. Cheaper. Bromine competes with iodine in your body. It will displace the iodine, but it doesn’t work like iodine. So we become more hypothyroid, we get fatter, and we run a greater risk of fibrocystic breast disease, breast cancer, and ovarian cysts. Check the labels on commercial breads and pastas: Expect to read, “brominated wheat.”
Symptoms: Cold hands and feet. Low body temperature. Goiter.
Tests: Quick, cheap skin test, and a very elegant urinary iodine-loading test.
Treatment: Varies with the results of the test, but most people won’t be hurt by taking a dose of Kelp daily. If your hands aren’t warmer in a month, get further medical guidance. The Japanese eat about 12.5 milligrams of a combination of iodine and iodide each day. This is a 100 times the amount in a half a teaspoon of table salt. Don’t count on adding salt to your diet to bring up your iodine. (The Japanese also have the world’s lowest incidence of breast cancer.)
POOR DIGESTION AND ABSORPTION
If you don’t have enough stomach acid, you may not absorb several nutrients including zinc (see above). In addition, you may not be able to digest proteins properly. You begin to breakdown or digest proteins into their component parts called amino acids in your stomach. You then absorb these amino acids downstream in your intestine. Amino acids are the building blocks your body assembles into whatever it needs to make that day. They are critically important for making neurotransmitters—brain chemicals that help you feel secure, happy, focused, safe, energetic, motivated, serene, sexy, and satisfied.
When amino acids are balanced, you are unstoppable; you feel great and you can manage your weight. When they’re low or out of balance, you’re irritable, anxious, depressed, hungry, crave specific foods and gain weight. You don’t have the energy or motivation to exercise, and if you do push yourself, you don’t see results and you don’t stick to it.
If you crave carbohydrates—like bread, candy, cookies, and simple snacks, especially late in the afternoon or evening—your serotonin may be low. If you crave wickedly rich desserts like brownies and ice cream, your GABA—a sort of “natural Valium”—may be low. (GABA: Short for Gamma-amino-butyric acid.) If you crave sweets for energy, you’re probably low on norepinephrine and dopamine. If you crave foods to reward yourself or to numb yourself from painful feelings, you’re probably low on endorphins—a sort of “natural narcotic.”
Tests: Questionnaires and urine tests. Testing for presence of stomach acid.
Treatment: Replace low brain chemicals. Replace low stomach acid.
Wheat is one of the most common foods that adults are sensitive to. Why? Partly because wheat is a relatively new food, many peoples’ ancestors never developed a tolerance for it because they never were exposed to it. When I put patients on elimination diets for two weeks and have them avoid all wheat (cookies, bread, crackers, cereals, cakes, pasta, gravies, battered fried foods) many will lose three to five pounds —and their sinus drainage, heartburn, bloating, fluid retention, brain fog, and fatigue will improve.
What’s going on? Most physicians, when asked about food allergies or sensitivities, will recommend skin and blood tests for true IgE allergies (like peanut or shrimp allergies causing rashes, asthma, or death within minutes).
That is not what is going on with wheat-sensitive patients. The immune system has at least three other ways of responding to foreign substances. We can test for some of these but it can get expensive. The inexpensive gold standard for determining food sensitivities is an elimination diet.
Test: Cut out all wheat for two weeks. Weigh each morning. After two weeks, have a nice generous serving of pasta or cream of wheat—then watch for fatigue, brain fog, runny nose, and bloating. If you don’t get any symptoms and feel just fine, have another serving later in the day. Check your weight the next morning. If you have expanded 1 to 11 pounds (yes, one of my heavy patients gained 11 pounds overnight when she reintroduced wheat), get excited. You have identified a common food that you are sensitive to, that is contributing to your weight problem. In this instance, weight changes are due to fluid retention and this is an easy marker to track, but there is a more sinister aspect to the same wheat sensitivity: It can shut down your thyroid, slow down your metabolism, and damage other organs in your body.
Treatment: Avoid wheat. Substitute other grains.
We live in an increasingly polluted world and we are an increasingly polluted people. All of us are exposed—some more than others. Some of us have more difficulty clearing the toxins out of our bodies than others. Exposure plus poor detoxification and elimination of toxins leads to storage of toxins. Most of the chemical toxins are fat-soluble. Therefore, the fatter a person is, the more toxins he will store in fat. And many toxins make you fatter. A vicious circle.
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was introduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s manufactured from corn. It’s used to sweeten most processed products like sodas, fruit juices, ketchup, snack foods, cookies, candy, ice cream, breads, and a host of other products. Manufacturers chemically alter the sucrose—sugar—in corn to increase the percent of fructose from 50:50 fructose to glucose to 55:45. This small change has devastating consequences for your body. An essentially natural product has been altered in the laboratory to create an unnatural product. Fructose does not act like a sugar in our body. (In fact, because it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels, people who are uninformed often recommend it for diabetics.) Actually, it acts more like a fat. It damages your liver and your brain, and it makes you fatter! How? It shuts off Leptin—a hormone that tells us we are full. It turns on Ghrelin —a hormone that tells us we are hungry. So we eat more food —and especially more fat—for 24 hours after we have a dose of HFCS. This unnatural chemical also can contribute to high blood pressure, brain fog, fatigue, B6 deficiency, elevated triglycerides, and fatty liver.
Treatment: Read the labels on processed foods. Avoid HFCS. Buy your food from around the edges of the grocery store.
HFCS may have traces of an herbicide, Atrazine —the most common herbicide used on row crops in this country. Every time you eat high fructose corn syrup, you may be getting a small dose of Atrazine. If you can’t get rid of it, it’s stored in your fat. And it can make you fatter.
Another toxin is mercury, found in some fish and your silver fillings. This poisonous metal interferes with clearing Atrazine and other chemical toxins by slowing down your liver’s detoxification system. It also interferes with thyroid function and brain chemistry. It lowers serotonin levels, contributing to carbohydrate cravings.
Tests: Questionnaires, blood tests, fat biopsies, and provoked urine tests for heavy metals.
Treatment: Avoid the toxins, eat more organic foods, enhance your detoxification and elimination system, and get chelated if you have heavy metal toxicity. If you are overweight, an over-the-counter three-week detoxification system is just the beginning of treatment. Consult a doctor knowledgeable in environmental medicine for help.
Is this the full list of subtle causes that can sabotage your attempts to lose weight? No. Essential fat imbalances, infections, stress, bad habits, not getting enough sleep, and inflammation among others, can contribute to weight gain.
Once a person passes a certain degree of obesity, the fat takes over and starts driving the system. Fat is not just a collapsible warehouse. It is the largest hormone producer in your body when it takes over.
Abdominal fat strongly promotes inflammation, which is one of the primary underlying causes of chronic illness and accelerated aging. So, to live a long, full, vital life – Lose the Waist Weight.
This applies to your children also. For the first time in history, our children may live shorter lives with more illnesses, because they’re too fat. This is a tragedy in the making. Obesity not only contributes to diabetes, it also leads to metabolic syndrome – also called Syndrome X – hypertension, cancer, cardiovascular disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, and numerous inflammatory conditions. All of these can be prevented, improved and occasionally cured by weight loss.
What Have We Learned?
• Weight loss isn’t just calories in versus calories out.
• Eat fewer processed foods and more that are fresh or “natural”.
• Each person is unique, so there is no one diet or collection of supplements or exercise program that will work for everyone.
• Losing waist-weight isn’t just cosmetic. Waist-weight loss will slow down the aging process and result in fewer illnesses and a healthier life…maybe a longer one too.
If you have a problem with your weight, or your children have a problem with their weight, find someone who specializes in weight loss who will approach it from an integrative or functional medicine approach.
Elizabeth Vaughan, MD practices at Vaughan Medical Center, located in Greensboro, NC. For additional information visit www.vaughanmedical.com for references and more specifics on tests and additional causes of weight gain.