Get Fit for Summer
You may think your perpetual weight gain is due to all those doughnuts and time spent with Netflix instead of at the gym. And you’re probably right. But also, these issues can generally be boiled down to one word: hormones. Pretty much everything you do (and even a few things you have no control over) affects your hormones and thus, the fluctuating nature of your body weight.
Dr. Sara Gottfried knows quite a bit about this topic. The M.D. is the New York Times bestselling author of The Hormone Reset Diet and the recently released Younger. She says hormones regulate everything from how much fat your body burns and stores, to your appetite, gut bacteria, and even food cravings. So what can you do?
Skip the Sugar
You know this one already, but it’s probably the single most important thing to control in order to keep your hormones - and bodyfat - in check. “The majority of Americans eat too many processed foods and sugar -- and not nearly enough vegetables,” says Dr. Gottfried. Removing processed carbohydrates will change your diet for the better and positively influence hormones. When your body eats food, the pancreas produces insulin to utilize the energy from sugar (or glucose). However, by eating processed carbs, which have little fiber or nutritional value, your body is going to get more sugar than it can handle - causing your pancreas to get overused - leading to insulin resistance or block. That’s not a good thing. “I think of insulin as being a bouncer in a nightclub,” Dr. Gottfried continues. “You want it working on your side. At normal levels, it’s not storing fat. But if you’re eating too much sugar - and/or are stressed - you can develop insulin resistance and that leads to fat storage.” When that happens, you crave even more sugar and it becomes a cycle that’s hard to break.
Veggies are your best snacks
“Adding nutrient-dense whole foods and vegetables can get your hormones working for you again, particularly insulin, leptin, estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol,” says Dr. Gottfried, who counts kale chips, sliced cucumber for dips, and salads as some of her favorite snacks.
Eating more vegetables can also help lower estrogen, which you want to keep in check. “In part because the fiber lowers blood sugar and insulin, and in part because of a direct effect on good bacteria in the gut, which allows you to follow the golden rule with estrogen: use it then dump it.” While estrogen is often considered a “feminine” hormone, it’s not good for women to have too much of it. “Women and men with excess estrogen have more moodiness and fat deposits at the breasts and hips.”
Time of Day Matters When You Eat
Have a protein meal within 30 minutes after waking up (for example, “a couple of pastured eggs and some avocado or a protein shake”). If you want to take it a step further, you may be able to reset insulin and other hormones by intermittent fasting (the most popular form of which seems to be avoiding breakfast altogether and waiting until the afternoon for your first meal).
But if you absolutely must have something to eat in the morning, Dr. Gottfried makes this important point: “The worst possible thing you can do if you’re trying to lose weight is have the standard (carbohydrate heavy) American breakfast… like Grape Nuts, milk, a glass of orange juice. It raises your blood sugar. It raises insulin. It’s going to make you store fat.” However, people whose metabolism is working just fine - like serious athletes for example - can load up on those morning carbs no prob. “That’s because they use it so quickly. They store it not as fat but as glycogen, which they can use to power their muscles.”
And in case you’re wondering, glycogen is a storage system for energy in your body, generally in the liver and muscles. “It’s a way of efficiently taking the glucose in your body and putting it away for the next time you work out.” Dr. Gottfried says the best way to replenish your body with glycogen is by having carbs within 30 minutes after exercise. Throw in some protein to repair the muscles and skip the fat for now - which will just get in the way and slow down the digestion of the carbs.
Marathon Running Sucks
Your choice of exercise can be pivotal. In an effort to lose weight, people will usually run on the treadmill or use an elliptical machine for 60 minutes straight, but it actually raises cortisol - a “fat storage hormone that makes you preferentially store fat in your belly,” especially if you have adrenal issues or trouble with insulin. Adaptive forms of exercise are usually a better alternative, like yoga, pilates, or tai chi. Dr. Gottfried is a big fan of burst training or high intensity interval training in which fast sprints alternate with brisk walking, allowing the cortisol levels to rise and fall during the workout instead of being elevated the entire time.
“This came up in my 30s, when I was a runner and about 25 pounds overweight,” remembers Dr. Gottfried. “My doctor told me to simply exercise more and eat less, and that was just completely wrong. It was the worst advice ever. Running more was just going to raise my cortisol more. My cortisol was three times what it should’ve been. Yoga and pilates helped me lose weight far more than running ever did.”
Take Vitamin C - but not too much
One of the best ways to balance hormone levels is taking Vitamin C, which studies show lowers cortisol and helps to raise progesterone - a sex hormone released by the ovaries in women, but also benefits men by serving as a precursor to testosterone.
Some people have experimented with megadosing Vitamin C, but Dr. Gottfried says she isn’t a big fan of megadosing anything. 20 grams or more of Vitamin C can give you sweats and bring on diarrhea. “In general, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she says while recommending 1-2 grams a day instead. Yeah. Sweats plus diarrhea is definitely not a good idea.
Sleep More and Drink Less
If you don’t get enough sleep, it will raise your cortisol levels and cause “inappropriate carb cravings” the next day. And, sorry about this, but booze will raise your cortisol as well. “Some people do better than others. There’s definitely people who can drink more and have no problem with their sleep and have no problem with cortisol. But I think there’s a certain point when your liver and your body just doesn’t adapt to alcohol as well as it used to - and it raises cortisol the next morning. Some people wake up at 2 a.m. and can’t sleep. That’s high cortisol.”
Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly found in fish (EPA and DHA) as well as plants (ALA). “They cool down inflammation in your body,” says Dr. Gottfried. Four grams a day is associated with low cortisol and lean body mass, but there are a lot of forms of fish oil out there. So which one is best? “I don’t think the data is as good for options like krill oil. Salmon oil is about the same as any good fish oil.” Omega-3s are found in walnuts, chia seeds, and eggs as well. You can also try hemp seeds. Just don’t confuse them with marijuana buds.
Think Twice About Dairy
The average American tends to associate dairy with calcium and considers it to be something healthy, but Dr. Gottfried is among the growing number of health experts who say hold up - not so fast. “Dairy is a good thing if you’re not intolerant or allergic. So a lot of it has to do with your immune system. If your immune system likes dairy, it’s a good thing for you.”
While dairy can contain Vitamin A, Vitamin D, and protein, Dr. Gottfried says she is among the large population of people who are sensitive to dairy and don’t digest it well. “If I go to a party and I nosh even a little bit on a cheese plate, I’ll gain five pounds that night. I have dramatic swelling in my intestines and I retain fluid.”
About 40 percent of whole milk is lactose -- a sugar that can raise blood glucose and stimulate insulin. “I’m not a big fan of milk. I think breast milk is awesome but I don’t think we should be drinking cow milk the way that we do,” says Dr. Gottfried. “That’s the Dairy Council convincing us (to have) something that’s not in our best interest.”
Gender Matters When it Comes to Crossfit
Intense workouts create stress in the body, so it can break down and rebuild muscle. However - “Men respond differently to stress than women do,” according to Dr. Gottfried. “Men can typically get away with much more aggressive workout regimens. I think that’s why men do better with CrossFit for instance.”
The popular workout program, which combines resistance and aerobic exercise, will make muscles super glucose-hungry - and you want that, especially if you’re a man in his 20s or 30s. “It’s a really great way to lower your blood sugar and to get insulin back on your side again. It can also raise testosterone which helps increase lean body mass and makes you less likely to have estrogenic deposits in your breasts.”
That’s right - a good crossfit routine can help you avoid man boobs.
Get to know these four letters: B-C-A-A
Get familiar with branched chain amino acids (BCAA) - a helpful way to raise testosterone. Dr. Gottfried recommends taking 3-8 grams during workouts. “It’s just a way to raise testosterone, bulk up a little faster, and increase lean body mass.”
BCAAs consist of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. You can find them in protein-rich foods but supplementation helps a lot. “Just trying to get it from chicken and salmon, that’s typically not enough.” Dr. Gottfried admits that leucine is “enjoying its time right now” as a trendy supplement all by itself but recommends taking all three together.
Gut It Out
There’s been a growing discussion about gut health and how it affects your body overall. Dr. Gottfried says it’s helpful to think about feeding your microbiome in a way that supports your hormones. “For instance, there’s a subset of bacteria in your gut that controls your estrogen levels and the more vegetables and less red meat you eat, the better it’s going to keep your estrogen levels in check.” There’s also a subset less understood, controling your testosterone levels.
A big factor is fiber. Dr. Gottfried suggests 35-45 grams of fiber a day. “The average person in the U.S. gets about 14,” she notes. “I generally like eating about a pound of vegetables a day. That’s considered ideal for keeping hormones in balance through your gut bacteria.”
Lightly steamed broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, chard, and bok choy are good choices.
More and more people are turning to probiotics to improve gut health, but Dr. Gottfried says the supplements “don’t seem to stick” as well as fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchee, which studies show can lower blood sugar. Kombucha tea is questionable because it’s not always known how much sugar is left behind in the wild fermentation process. “I tend to steer away from kombucha for people who have hormone problems or are trying to lose weight. If you’ve got perfectly normal metabolism, kombucha is probably fine.”
Stop Saving Receipts
We’ve covered food and exercise. Is there anything else that can affect our hormones? Yep, the environment. There’s all kinds of chemicals you’ll come across in your everyday life and Dr. Gottfried says one of the main culprits right now is Bisphenol A , a chemical compound more commonly known as BPA.
“It affects so many different hormones, it makes you insulin-resistant. It alters your thyroid, it acts as a fake estrogen receptor, and it screws up your testosterone,” she says. “The main way people get exposed to it is retail receipts.” She’s right. A study by the Environmental Working Group found 40 percent of retail receipts have BPA. “The other source is cans - the plastic lining in cans.” Dr. Gottfried says supplements like N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) can help reduce toxins stored in fat. “The main way to reduce your body burden is to periodically detox.”