Ian Spohn, ND, is a staff naturopathic doctor for Energique who enjoys challenging the dogmas of both conventional and alternative medicine. He is a passionate supporter of the paleo diet and classical homeopathy.
The winter holidays are a time when many people gain weight, shortly after which many people will make resolutions to lose weight. To this end they may consult the medical profession, and unfortunately conventional medicine’s approach to weight loss is as misguided as its approach to most health matters. Holistic practitioners, on the other hand, are not bound by the dogmas of western medicine and a naturopathic approach to weight loss, one that works with the body instead of against it, can be more effective in helping overweight patients improve their health. For instance, nutritional support can help to curb an excessive appetite, as people often overeat because they’re craving nutrients, not calories. Additionally, holistic treatments to promote insulin sensitivity and support the thyroid, adrenals, and liver can be effective weight loss aids. Still, encouraging a healthy diet remains the essential cornerstone of helping patients lose weight. The following are five unconventional dietary tips, offered from a naturopathic perspective, to help make weight loss efforts more effective and likely to succeed:
1) BALANCE CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS AND EAT MOSTLY AFTER 3 P.M.
To encourage weight loss, conventional wisdom traditionally advises to make breakfast the biggest meal of the day, and to eat as little as possible during the evening. Yet, there is no biological rationale for this advice. It is supposed that if you eat during the day, when you’re active, the food will be used to fuel you whereas if you eat late at night, when you’re inactive, it will turn straight to fat. This is completely untrue, and ignores the way the human body’s “fueling system” (metabolism) actually works. People tend to think incorrectly of fueling the body as they might think of fueling a car, i.e. you put food in and it makes you run, when you’re tired it means you need more food, if you’re going to do something active you should really eat something first, etc. But the body is not a car, it actually runs on a biphasic system of anabolism (acquiring and storing energy) and catabolism (breaking down to provide energy for activity). It is when these phases are in perfect balance that a healthy weight is achieved and maintained. The liver, which regulates most aspects of metabolism, actually switches between these modes every twelve hours, at around 4 o’clock. So from 4 A.M. to 4 P.M. the body is in catabolic mode, wherein it is designed to be active and run by using its various energy stores. This twelve hour window is when the body is supposed to be burning fat; many people never lose weight because they’re constantly eating during this time, confusing the body and forcing it to release insulin after meals and switch to anabolism. This is because the body is not designed to “run” on the food that’s put into it. Rather, the body is designed to store all the food that’s put into it, ideally during the evening so the processes can occur overnight, and then run on this stored energy during the day. Eating a meal is not like putting gasoline into a car; it’s like forcing your engine to stop running for twelve hours so it can digest, assimilate, convert, and then properly store the fuel, before taking stock of its total fuel stores and deciding how much of this fuel it wants to expend for activity twelve hours later.
To truly understand the best time to eat, especially vis-à-vis encouraging weight loss, it is important to understand the body’s circadian rhythms particularly in regard to cortisol. The role of cortisol in obesity is ambiguous, as the main effect of cortisol is actually to promote weight loss. Cortisol peaks in the early morning, around 3 A.M., and remains high throughout the day until dropping off around 3 P.M. Cortisol’s main effect is actually to tell the body to break itself down, thus liberating usable energy to support activity. This is why you don’t awake and become active until it’s been high for a few hours. And yet, it is well known that chronically elevated cortisol levels, whether from stress, medications, or an endocrine disorder, promote excess fat accumulation. The key to understanding why cortisol leads to weight gain is the fact that it makes the body insensitive to insulin[i]. Basically, the higher your cortisol is, the more insulin resistant you become, and thus the more of what you eat will turn to fat. So regardless of whether one has metabolic syndrome, we all experience a daily cyclical pattern of relative insulin resistance starting around 3 A.M. followed by relative insulin sensitivity starting around 3 P.M. Insulin is the primary hormone that tells the body to store food as fat, essentially switching the body from fat-burning to fat-gaining. To maximize weight loss, one needs to minimize insulin release and maximize insulin sensitivity. This means that eating when cortisol levels are high is a recipe for instant weight gain (why many people tend to gain weight when they’re stressed). In other words, eating breakfast and lunch is a recipe for weight gain. This is especially true of eating high glycemic carbohydrates any time before 3 P.M., as the body is very resistant to insulin during this time. The best approach for weight loss is to minimize eating and especially to minimize carbohydrate intake until about 3-4 P.M. In addition, care should be taken with patients to support proper circadian rhythm in general. It is not so much the specific time of eating, but the low cortisol levels during that time which makes this approach effective, and in fact eating too late at night can be as bad as eating too early, because it is similarly disruptive to circadian rhythms. If a patient has an abnormal cortisol rhythm, correcting this alone may help to facilitate weight loss efforts.
2) EAT FAT WITH EVERY MEAL FOR SATIETY
It is conventional wisdom that to facilitate weight loss one should eat foods that promote satiety, i.e. make you feel full, to reduce overall food intake and allay subsequent cravings. The problem is that the conventional wisdom promotes entirely the wrong foods to help people feel full. The advice often given is to eat foods high in protein and fiber, with the rationale that fiber will “fill you up” and protein will also somehow mysteriously help you to feel full, for reasons no one can or will explain. On both counts, this advice is completely wrong. The human body’s natural satiety mechanism, which is designed by nature to regulate your appetite and food intake so you don’t gain weight, is completely driven by fat. The key to feeling “full,” i.e. not wishing to eat anymore at the moment and not craving food again for a while, is actually in the brain and has very little to do with the stomach. Yes, if you physically overload the stomach, say with bulky high-fiber foods or hygroscopic substances like bread, it will activate stretch receptors and you will feel too uncomfortable to eat any more in the short term. But your brain will still feel hungry, and once your stomach empties you’ll be sorely tempted to eat again, probably something unhealthy this time since you will have finished your meal by now and will have nothing left available but snack foods. It is actually the brain, not the stomach, that makes one feel full and sated and willing to leave the table. The physiology of appetite is fairly simple: when you’re hungry, your stomach secretes a hormone called ghrelin which tells your brain to be hungry. The only way to stop feeling hungry is to release another, antagonizing hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK), which does the opposite by telling your brain you’re full. CCK is released near the top of the small intestine in response to the presence of one thing and one thing only: dietary fat. The body actually has no ability whatsoever to auto-regulate its consumption of protein and carbohydrate; you can eat these foods until your stomach is literally fit to bursting and still feel hungry, if not at that very moment then thirty minutes to an hour later when your stomach empties. Conventional wisdom once recommended avoiding fats for weight loss, because they’re more calorie-dense, but everyone knows that if you cut calories without appeasing your appetite then you’re just going to eat again when your willpower inevitably fails. A better strategy to comfortably maintain a reduced-calorie diet is to get most of these reduced calories from fats, and in fact to eat fat with every meal to promote satiety.
3) EAT MEDIUM CHAIN TRIGLYCERIDES
Known as MCTs, these fats are distinct in that their carbon chains are short enough to bypass the carnitine shuttle. For those who have forgotten their biochemistry, this basically means that they can enter the mitochondria and be burned as fuel without requiring an elaborate transport mechanism. For those who never studied biochemistry, this basically means they’re rocket fuel and get burned as instant energy. Contributing to this is the fact that they can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream, as opposed to normal fats entering the lymphatic system as chylomicrons. Not only are MCTs “easier” to use up for energy, as opposed to being stored as fat, amazingly they actually have a direct stimulatory effect on fat cells that increases the rate of fat burning following their ingestion, thus promoting weight loss[ii]. This has been shown to be the case both in brown and white adipose tissue, but particularly in brown adipose tissue. This latter is comprised of the fat cells in which the electron transport chain is uncoupled, meaning that brown adipose can burn fat for heat as opposed to energy. So not only can MCTs help patients stay warm this winter, they can increase the overall rate of fat utilization above and beyond caloric requirements, leading to faster weight loss. The two primary sources of MCTs are butter and coconut oil, which as healthy fats will also be useful to promote satiety after meals. While counterintuitive, adding butter and/or coconut oil to everything can be an effective weight loss strategy, as long as portions are controlled to still maintain a slight caloric deficit.
4) AVOID PUFA-RICH PROCESSED SEED OILS
Of course, if you have patients add butter and coconut oil to their diets, this will add more calories unless these additions come at the expense of other fats in the diet. The best fats to eliminate for weight loss are the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), in particular linoleic acid. This is the primary omega-6 fat responsible for skewing the unhealthy omega-6/omega-3 ratio in the western diet, predominating in processed seed oils like soy, canola, corn and cottonseed. Not only are these fats terrible from an inflammatory perspective, they are very likely contributing to the modern obesity epidemic. While sugar is often blamed for the rise in obesity, epidemiological research has shown that while obesity rates are soaring, sugar intake has not actually risen drastically during that time. What has risen drastically is the consumption of soybean oil, probably the richest and most frequently eaten dietary source of linoleic acid[iii]. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which claims that PUFAs are better for heart health, lowering cholesterol levels, and even promoting weight loss. This is because a lot of industry-funded research has claimed that eating more PUFAs is healthy, like this study claiming that eating processed food improves insulin sensitivity, funded by the Unilever corporation[iv]. Direct feeding trials however, which are difficult to perform in humans, have shown that replacing saturated fat with linoleic acid in the diet increases weight gain, decreases activity, and has the exact opposite effect on insulin sensitivity[v]. And there’s still the epidemiological trend: our society’s saturated fat intake has not increased, only its obesity rate and its consumption of soybean oil. Most nuts are also rich in PUFAs, and despite this are often recommended as a healthy weight loss snack (because they’re high in protein, which again has nothing to do with weight loss). It would be better to snack on saturated fats, or macadamia nuts which as an exception contain mostly monounsaturated fat.
5) EAT CONJUGATED LINOLEIC ACID
While PUFA-rich seed oils seem to promote weight gain, owing to their unhealthy abundance of omega-6 linoleic acid, there is one form of this fatty acid that paradoxically seems to promote weight loss and increase insulin sensitivity. This is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a naturally occurring trans fat produced from linoleic acid by bacterial fermentation. While artificially hydrogenated trans fats are known to be unhealthy, natural trans fats occur in small quantities in many healthy foods and CLA has actually been shown to have a number of surprising health benefits, including the fact that eating it seems to promote weight loss[vi]. CLA is formed naturally from regular linoleic acid by bacterial fermentation in the gut of ruminant animals. This means the best source of CLA is grass-fed animal fat. Think pastured beef and lamb, both the fatty cuts of meat and the high-fat dairy products. Grass fed butter, which as a fat promotes satiety and which is additionally a good source of MCTs, would be a highly concentrated natural source of CLA and therefore probably one of the single best foods to consume for weight loss. In the body CLA inhibits PPARγ, a nuclear protein that regulates gene expression, which basically means it somehow turns off the fat storage mechanism in fat cells and instead promotes fat burning. Given that in this regard it seems to do the exact opposite of regular linoleic acid, it might be theorized that the latter’s unnatural abundance in the western diet, in large part from vegetable oil, might be acting by some opposite mechanism to rather promote weight gain.
[i] Geer EB, Islam J, Buettner C. Mechanisms of glucocorticoid-induced insulin resistance: focus on adipose tissue function and lipid metabolism. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 2014;43(1):75-102. doi:10.1016/j.ecl.2013.10.005
[ii] Liu YH, Zhang Y, Xu Q, Yu XM, Zhang XS, Wang J, Xue C, Yang XY, Zhang RX, Xue CY. Increased norepinephrine by medium-chain triglyceride attributable to lipolysis in white and brown adipose tissue of C57BL/6J mice. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2012;76(6):1213-8. doi: 10.1271/bbb.120079. Epub 2012 Jun 7. PMID: 22790949.
[iii] Blasbalg TL, Hibbeln JR, Ramsden CE, Majchrzak SF, Rawlings RR. Changes in consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the United States during the 20th century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;93(5):950-962. doi:10.3945/ajcn.110.006643
[iv] Wanders AJ, Blom WAM, Zock PL, Geleijnse JM, Brouwer IA, Alssema M. Plant-derived polyunsaturated fatty acids and markers of glucose metabolism and insulin resistance: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled feeding trials. BMJ Open Diabetes Res Care. 2019 Feb 8;7(1):e000585. doi: 10.1136/bmjdrc-2018-000585. PMID: 30899527; PMCID: PMC6398820.
[v] Mamounis KJ, Yasrebi A, Roepke TA. Linoleic acid causes greater weight gain than saturated fat without hypothalamic inflammation in the male mouse. J Nutr Biochem. 2017 Feb;40:122-131. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2016.10.016. Epub 2016 Nov 4. PMID: 27886622; PMCID: PMC5235953.
[vi] Watras AC, Buchholz AC, Close RN, Zhang Z, Schoeller DA. The role of conjugated linoleic acid in reducing body fat and preventing holiday weight gain. Int J Obes (Lond). 2007 Mar;31(3):481-7. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0803437. Epub 2006 Aug 22. PMID: 16924272.
Any homeopathic claims are based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence. Not FDA evaluated.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.