Clinical Nutritionist Ben Warren talks about what’s working against us when trying to lose weight.
Why is it so hard to lose weight? There’s a number of reasons for this. One of the first reasons is that calories are incredibly important for our survival. Through evolution, we needed to get enough calories, so our body will hold on to any excess calories or excess energy that we eat, in case there’s a food shortage in the future. It was an evolutionary trait to store body fat, so we could survive through periods of time when food wasn’t as abundant.
In the modern world, we’re able to get plenty of calories and we don’t really get those times of fasting, or times when food is not in abundance, and so we don’t naturally lose that weight.
Our set point also has an impact on our weight. What is our set point? Let’s say that you go on holiday and you put on weight, or you have a lockdown and you put on weight, which many of us have experienced. Your body then has a new set point, which is maybe three kilos higher than your ideal, but your body will want to hold on to those extra three kilos, and it will try to make you eat enough calories to maintain that new body weight. Therefore, you have to work harder to reduce the weight and create a new set point for your body to try to maintain going forward.
Another factor in the modern world is that we set the number of body fat cells as children, so if we’re overweight as children, we then have more fat cells for the rest of our life. Those fat cells are trying to get us to eat calories, so that they can fulfil their purpose and store energy.
Women have more fat cells, called lipogenic fat cells, and these are especially designed to store extra body fat for childbearing and raising.
Losing weight is much harder for women. Women have more fat cells, called lipogenic fat cells, and these are especially designed to store extra body fat for childbearing and raising. So, women will naturally store more body fat because they have these specialised cells.
Overfed but undernourished
Modern food is another reason why it’s so difficult to lose weight. In the modern world, we are overfed but undernourished – it’s really easy to get enough calories, but it’s very difficult to get nutrition. At the end of the day, your body being hungry is your body’s cry for nutrition. It’s your body’s cry for high-quality fats, high-quality proteins to build hormones, to rebuild the structural aspects of your body. It’s your body’s cry for minerals and vitamins, which act as the biochemical enzyme catalysts for these pathways.
I think we’ve all gone looking for nutrients in the bottom of a bag of chips.
It’s about giving your body the right foods it needs to satisfy that hunger. I think we’ve all gone looking for nutrients in the bottom of a bag of chips. We eat the whole bag of chips, because our body is looking for the nutrients that are associated with salt, which is usually protein, but there’s very little protein in the bag of chips, so we end up eating the whole bag.
Multiple biological systems control our weight
Why is there not only one way for everyone to lose weight? We are incredibly complex. We have multiple biological systems controlling our weight, for example thyroid function, and various hormones, such as ghrelin and leptin. There are also strong emotional aspects to eating. I think most people know avoiding sugar is very beneficial for losing weight, but that’s not easy to do, and there are many reasons why that’s not easy to do.
I usually recommend people to have self-compassion. With self-compassion I mean, go easy on yourself.
If it was as simple as just going to the gym, everybody would probably be where they’d want to be, but we know it’s a lot more complex than that. I usually recommend people to have self-compassion. With self-compassion I mean, go easy on yourself. Try to find out what it is you actually need. What is it doing for you? What’s the underlying need behind why you’re eating these foods? And if you can perhaps see that, “Oh, I’m eating this food because I’m feeling sad and it makes me feel better” – which food does, food releases dopamine, which is a feel-good reward neurotransmitter. If we can see that we’re eating because we’re sad, then perhaps if we could deal with why we’re sad, then it makes it easier to make better food choices.
Our bodies have co-evolved with our environment
What major food groups do we need to optimise our health? More or less fat? More protein? I’m a huge fan of something called macronutrient profiling, and it’s based on the fact that we are all different – we are all unique. If you look at the genetics of Eskimos, for example, or some tribes of Native American Indians, they were getting 80% of their calories from fat and protein, and they were very healthy doing this. At the other end of the continuum, in Asian cultures, for example, people were getting up to 80% of their calories from carbohydrates like rice, and again, they were very healthy doing that. Our bodies and genetics have co-evolved with our environment. Our bodies work best on the foods that were found in those environments.
So, I’d recommend starting listening to your body. We have a questionnaire on the BePure website called the Macronutrient Profiling Questionnaire. If you would like to learn more about this, take the questionnaire, and it will give you an indicator of where you are on the continuum between a very light protein, almost vegetarian-type diet, all the way through to a ketogenic diet.
There’s a strong relationship between wholefood diets and better mental health.
There’s a spectrum of foods that people should be eating, that is going to be right for them, and these foods are going to be the foods that help you lose weight. They’re also going to be the foods that help your mental health the most. They’re also going to be the foods that give you energy and keep you full the longest.
There’s a strong relationship between wholefood diets and better mental health. There’s a strong relationship between many nutrients, such as vitamin D, zinc, vitamin B, iron, and mental health.
It’s very much about giving your body the nutrients your body needs to have for optimal expression of your genes.
Ben Warren is a clinical nutritionist and holistic health expert. He is the founder of scientific wellness company BePure.