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Further Applications of the Master Strategy : Nutrition - Weight Control and Your Setpoint

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The first thing you need to understand is that your body has a weight control system controlled by your hypothalamus. Your body weight is determined by a regulating mechanism known as a setpoint (Leveille, 1985). Your setpoint is analogous to the thermostat in your home. After setting the house thermostat at a certain temperature, say 72°, your furnace then shuts off when the house is warm and turns on when the house cools off. The whole system is geared toward maintaining 72°. Your body works the same way in terms of body weight and metabolic rate. Each of us has our own biologically determined setpoint for weight and our body works to keep us at our particular setpoint, a process known as homeostasis. When you go below your setpoint (such as after a diet), your metabolic rate naturally slows down, calories are burned more slowly to conserve fuel, and you tend to gain weight until you return to your setpoint. This is why diets so often fail, especially when it comes to maintaining weight loss. Most diets, even the most outlandish and faddish, will work in the short run given reasonable motivation on the part of the dieter. But once you go below your setpoint, homeostasis sets in, thereby lowering your metabolism and returning you to your setpoint. This often occurs even if you are eating in moderation.

There is no magic way to lose weight. Quick-weight-loss diets are not recommended, because in the long run they simply do not work. Chronic dieting can also be hazardous to your health. Men who perpetually diet were found to have dramatically higher rates of heart disease and diabetes than men who never or rarely diet. And individuals who have widely fluctuating weights over long periods of time were found to have higher health risks than those whose weight was steady, providing yet another reason not to diet (Shapiro, 1997).

Thus the process of dieting can be very discouraging and self-defeating. Diets only lower your body weight; they usually do not lower your setpoint. In fact, diets can sometimes actually raise your setpoint. Very-low-calorie diets throw your system into a “starvation mode” and your body responds by continually lowering your metabolic rate to compensate for the reduced caloric intake. This is a primitive survival mechanism, a holdover from ancient times when our ancestors routinely dealt with famine and drought. To combat this, the human body developed a fail-safe mechanism. When food was unavailable or in short supply for our forebears, their bodies responded by lowering metabolism, thereby conserving body weight and making the most of what food was available. This mechanism remains with us. Our bodies respond to a diet as if it were a famine. And if you continually diet or frequently start and stop diets, your body will then reset your setpoint at even higher levels to guard against future diets (which it interprets as starvation). Thus, continued dieting may make you gain even more weight in the long run, which accounts for the yo-yo effect.

Although dieters are told that they will lose a pound for every 3,500-calorie reduction in their diet, this turns out not to be true once their metabolic rate slows down. As many a dieter can testify, the drop in resting metabolic rate can be particularly frustrating. After the rapid weight losses that occur during the initial three weeks or so of a rigorous diet, further weight loss comes slowly. In one study (Bray, 1969), obese patients whose food intake was reduced from 3,500 calories daily down to a near-starvation 450 calories daily lost only 6 percent of their weight, partly because their metabolic rates dropped about 15 percent. That is why reducing your food intake by 3,500 calories may not reduce your weight by one pound. And when your diet ends, your body is still conserving energy. The amount of food that maintained your weight before the diet may now increase it. Some researchers believe that the more your weight fluctuates from yo-yo dieting, the more quickly your body switches on its energy-saving metabolic slowdown with each new diet. This process was demonstrated in an experiment with rats (Brownell et al., 1986) who were fattened up considerably and then put on and off a diet, creating a cycle of weight gain and loss. On the first diet, rats lost their excess weight in 21 days and took 46 days to regain it. The second time, eating precisely the same amount of food, they took 46 days to lose the weight and only 24 days to regain it. It's as if our body learns from previous diets how to defend itself more vigorously from what it interprets as starvation.

Does this pattern of losing and regaining pounds, with your base weight gradually creeping upward apply to you or anyone you know? If the answer to this question is yes, then the value of learning how to adjust your setpoint downward should be obvious. To a large extent, but not totally, your setpoint is determined by biological genetic factors. Some people, those who are just naturally thin whatever they seem to eat, are blessed with relatively low setpoints (and high resting metabolic rates) due to hereditary factors. Others are biologically predisposed to be heavier due to genetically programmed higher setpoints (and lower resting metabolic rates). That is why it is possible for two people of the same height, age, body build, activity level, and food intake to maintain different weights.

Certain other biological factors also affect setpoint. Your bone mass and frame structure will certainly affect your weight. Age is a crucial factor. Setpoints start to creep upward for women after age 30 and for men after age 35. But the fact that your setpoint is partially biologically determined does not mean that you should throw up your hands in despair and give up if you are struggling with your weight. Other factors affecting your setpoint are under your control. For the fact is that you can lower your setpoint! And once you lower your setpoint, the task of weight reduction is much easier to attain and maintain.

Lowering Your Setpoint

By now you are probably wondering, “What can I do to lower my setpoint?” Actually, you can do quite a few things that also have the added benefit of helping you cope with stress as well. Drastic and dangerous fad diets are not the way to go. Successful weight control involves changes in your lifestyle that allow you to reduce and then maintain a healthy weight.

Increase Your Activity Level

A very important determinant of your setpoint is your activity level. Regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, can significantly lower your setpoint and thus help you lose weight and keep it off. In general, lean individuals have much higher activity levels than those who are overweight. If you are not currently involved in a regular aerobic exercise program, we strongly recommend you consider starting one. It will facilitate your ability to lose weight even more than reducing your caloric intake. In fact, sustained exercise can be a weapon against the body's normal metabolic slowdown when reducing caloric intake.

Exercise promotes weight loss because it builds muscle tissue, which has a higher metabolic rate (that is, it burns calories faster) than fat tissue. Exercise of all types, but particularly strength training, builds muscle and improves the muscle-to-fat ratio in your body, thereby helping to increase your metabolic rate. Thus, moderate amounts of weight lifting should be included in any plan to lose weight because it builds muscle mass, maintains muscle tone, and prevents muscle mass from being replaced with fat as we age.

The amount of body fat you possess depends on the size and number of your fat cells. An average adult has approximately 30 billion fat cells. Fat cells can be relatively empty, or full like an inflated balloon. In overweight people, fat cells swell to two or three times their normal size and may divide, producing additional fat cells. If your total number of fat cells increases, due to overeating or genetic factors, it never decreases. Thus we cannot reduce the number of fat cells we carry (short of procedures such as liposuction); we can only affect the fullness of each fat cell. Since fat tissue has a lower metabolic rate, it needs less food to maintain itself than other types of tissue. Thus, once we become fat, we require less food to maintain our weight than we did to attain it.

Consider the perils of inactivity. Lack of exercise can lead to weight gain. When people feel fat, they are less likely to be physically active, setting up a vicious cycle of inactivity. Oftentimes it is easier to just sit and watch TV. But physical activity helps release the muscular tension produced by stress. A correlational study of TV watching and obesity among 12- to 17-year-olds found that obesity was more common among those who watched the most television. This association remained even when many other factors were controlled, suggesting that the tendency to be a couch potato in front of the boob tube actually contributes to obesity. It is likely that the rise in obesity in American society is as much a function of inactivity as reliance on junk food. As a culture we are addicted to the automobile. Rarely do adults do any significant walking, and the same is true of children who typically expect to be transported wherever they need to go. This lack of physical exercise also contributes to the fact that lifespans in America are among the shortest in the industrialized countries.

One of the few predictors of successful long-term weight loss is exercise during and after changing eating habits. Check out Table 1 to see how much energy is expended by various activities.

Table 1. Calories Expended in One Hour, According to Activity and Body Weight
Activity Body Weight in Pounds
100 125 150 175 200
Sleeping 40 50 60 70 80
Sitting quietly 60 75 90 105 120
Standing quietly 70 88 105 123 140
Eating 80 100 120 140 160
Driving, housework 95 119 143 166 190
Desk work 100 125 150 175 200
Walking slowly 133 167 200 233 267
Walking rapidly 200 250 300 350 400
Swimming 320 400 480 560 640
Running 400 500 600 700 800

Decrease Your Intake of Refined Sugar

Another important determinant of your setpoint is your consumption of refined sugars. Too much sugar raises your setpoint. Lowering your intake of refined sugar or eliminating it altogether will help to decrease your setpoint. The average American adult gets 25 percent of his or her calories from sugar in various forms, consuming an average of 160 pounds of sugar per year! Sugar is a highly refined simple carbohydrate that provides absolutely nothing nutritionally but calories.

The stress hormone cortisol stimulates the hypothalamus, causing us to crave sugar for a temporary mood lift. But the downside is that this process also facilitates weight gain. Avoiding sugar is especially important if you are under stress and are one of the three out of five people who are pre-diabetic or pre-hypoglycemic. Some people have difficulty regulating their blood sugar level and are thus prone to hypo- glycemia. When you eat foods high in refined sugar, your blood sugar level shoots up, giving you a little boost of energy along with a restless feeling. This sudden sugar increase stimulates insulin production, which counteracts the sugar in your blood. If too much insulin is produced, it leads to low blood sugar. This results in hypoglycemic symptoms such as anxiety, dizziness, irritability, depression, tremor, nausea, and hunger pangs. These symptoms are partly due to the effect of the hormone epinephrine, which is released when blood sugar levels fall dramatically. Epinephrine is also one of the hormones involved in the fight-or-flight reaction; its function here is to help raise blood sugar levels to give you the energy to fight or flee. This is why the side effects of hypoglycemia feel just like anxiety or panic. Low blood sugar also tends to prompt you to have another treat. If you add environmental or emotional stress to this vicious cycle, you can create an emotional roller-coaster that is hard to get off, and sugar is one of the fuels that keeps it running.

Did you know that soft drinks contain up to sixteen teaspoons of sugar per eight-ounce serving? Also, if you take the time to read labels you will discover that sugar is also a hidden ingredient in many food products, appearing under different names such as dextrose, maltose, or corn syrup. In general, any ingredient ending with the suffix -ose or syrup is a sugar by-product. Try sweetening your foods or beverages with fructose, derived from fruit sugar, instead of refined sugar. Fructose is metabolized more slowly by your body, so it will provide sweetening without triggering an increase in insulin production.

Decrease Your Consumption of Fats

Not all calories are created equal. Calories consumed from fats are more likely to end up on your belly or thighs than calories consumed from carbohydrates or proteins. A gram of fat contains twice the number of calories provided by a gram of protein or carbohydrate. If you can reduce your fat intake to 20 percent of total calories consumed daily, your setpoint will begin to lower on its own. Lowering your fat intake helps lower your setpoint, thereby promoting weight loss more effectively than just lowering your caloric intake. That is, a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet with 40 percent of calories derived from fat will lead to much slower weight loss than a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet with a 20 percent fat ratio.

When shopping for food, read the label on the can or package. Almost all canned or packaged foods now have a chart on the back listing total calories per serving and the grams of protein, carbohydrate, and fat per serving. To figure out the fat content of a particular food or ingredient, just multiply the number of fat grams by 9 to determine the number of fat calories per serving. Then divide the total calories per serving by the fat calories to get the ratio of fat to total calories.

For example, suppose your favorite cereal has 100 calories per serving and contains just one gram of fat. Multiply 1 gram times 9 and you get 9 fat calories per serving. When you divide the 100 total calories by the 9 fat calories you see that this food is only 9 percent fat and would definitely qualify as a low-fat food. In contrast, a typical cookie contains approximately 100 calories but usually has about 6 grams (or 54 fat calories) of fat. Therefore, the cookie has over 50 percent fat content and is therefore a high-fat food. Although each food has the same number of calories, one promotes weight loss while the other does not.

There is now a proliferation of low- and no-fat foods on the market from which to choose. Make sure they do not compensate for being low-fat by having a high sugar or sodium content (where you trade one dietary mistake for another).

Watch Your Salt Intake

Your intake of salt affects your weight as well as your ability to deal with stress. There appears to be an interaction between salt and stress, since the hormones that contribute to the fight-or-flight response also help regulate the salt and water balance in your body. A diet high in salt can lead to a tendency to retain water, which is particularly problematic for women who experience PMS symptoms. Water retention can lead to symptoms such as irritability and nervousness. In addition, a high-salt diet can damage your arteries even when your blood pressure is within normal range.

Drink Plenty of Water

Dehydration can lead to irritability and fatigue. You may not necessarily feel thirsty even if you are becoming dehydrated, so it is prudent to keep drinking fluids, particularly if you are exercising or exposed to hot weather. Water helps aid digestion and flushes toxins out of your system more quickly, including toxins built up by stress. All weight-loss programs recommend drinking four to eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily.

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