Dr. Kristen Mitteness
What your weight says about you
One of the most common reasons I find that people want to change their diet is because of their weight. They often have this number stuck in their head that they need to be at. I've totally been there. I always thought I should weigh 125 pounds. But why? Why is that the number I wanted to see so badly for so long? And it got me thinking, what does my weight really mean? Turns out, not a lot.
Your weight is one indicator of your health. And not a very good one at that. We've been told for so long that your weight is influenced by the amount of calories you eat and the amount of calories you burn. Easy, peasy, right? Not really. The less you eat, the more hungry you will be. If your calorie intake is too low, for too long, your body now thinks it's in starvation mode and it will pack on the pounds to the best of it's ability by slowing down your metabolism so your brain and the rest of your organs can still function with limited resources. The same goes for when you try to "exercise off" your dessert. The more you burn, the more your body wants to hold on to it's fat. We've only had an abundance of food and calories available to us for the past few hundred years. Our brains and bodies are still wired the same as they were when we were hunter gatherers and there was a risk of food scarcity.
The reality of the situation is, your weight is your body's hormonal response to your environment. Your hormones are affected by your diet, sleep, stress levels, exposure to environmental toxins and more. The calories in, calories out theory is such a tiny slice of the pie that I don't even want to address it other than saying, if that's the only piece you focus on, chances are, weight change won't happen. And if it does, it won't last.
There are about 50 major hormones that circulate throughout the body. The main one that initiates fat storage is insulin. When you eat carbohydrates, your pancreas releases insulin to either utilize it as energy (which is why carbs are often thought of as "quick energy") or store it as fat. Because most of us live a much more sedentary lifestyle than our grandparents and ancestors, we typically don't utilize our carbohydrates in the moment, so we store it as body fat. The average Canadian gets between 45 and 65% of his or her calories from carbohydrates. That's a lot of insulin released! No wonder 11 million Canadians are now diabetic or prediabetic. From an evolutionary perspective, we are wired to love the taste of carbs because they meant quick energy. And even just 100 years ago (and more, homo sapiens have been cruising the earth for about 200,000 years), when we didn't have access to food in every corner of our lives, we needed to be able to store these extra carbs in case we didn't know when our next meal was. This, of course, is no longer the case.
We have another hormone called leptin. It is released from your fat cells and talks with your brain. It tells your brain when you are satiated (or full). Eating fat will help trigger this response. Turns out eating fat (in the absence of sugar) doesn't make you fat, it actually makes you feel full.
Then there's ghrelin. It's released, mostly, by the stomach. It tells you when you are hungry. When you restrict calories or exercise away all of your food, ghrelin will increase. When we don't eat, ghrelin will signal to your brain that you hungry. It's also important in glucose (blood sugar) regulation.
Put these (plus all of your other hormones together) and it turns out that how much you eat is much, much less important that what you eat.
When we give our bodies the nutrients it needs, rather than focus on the calories, weight stabilization is inevitable. It might not be that number you want it to be, but it will be the number it needs to be. 500 calories of steak will create a hormonal cascade much different than 500 calories of cake. When we focus on weight as a side effect of balancing our hormones, rather than the main effect of our calorie intake, we see long, lasting changes and long, lasting health. Not quick, temporary "fixes". Our bodies are super smart and super responsive when we give it the right information. Your food choices, sleep quality, stress management and more will all influence your hormonal responses.
That number I was seeking means nothing about it me and little about my health. It's pretty arbitrary. In fact, I truly believe that if that was what I used to determine my worth, I would actually be miserable. My hormones don't want me to weigh 125 pounds. My body doesn't care what number it sits at on the scale, it cares about the nutrients I am giving it, how often I am moving it, what I am doing that make me happy, getting the sleep I need to recover and avoiding the toxins that make me feel poor. When I take care of my hormones, my weight sits around 133 pounds +/- 4 pounds (because your weight can easily fluctuate from day to day). I feel happy and healthy. Truth be told, I only weigh myself out of pure curiosity once or twice a year because it no longer matters to me. I've decided to no longer use it to define my health or happiness. There's no such thing as a perfect or ideal weight. We are born to feel happy and healthy. When we focus on making sure our hormones are properly regulated and balanced we feel good and function well, regardless of what the scale says.