Have you ever wondered why people respond differently to diets?
Why is it that one person can eat all they want and never gain an inch, while someone else gains weight just looking at food? Can we really say this is all about genetics?
After all, the collective genetics of our society didn’t just drastically change in the last fifty years. We have roughly the same genetics as our grandparents, yet they did not have the same struggles with weight.
These questions have confused and frustrated dieters and health care practitioners for decades. But why is it so confusing? Doesn’t it go without saying that every person is unique, and therefore, requires a different approach to food? While this may seem like common sense, it is not common practice. In fact, the very people who claim to be the experts on diet and nutrition have been pushing a one-size-fits-all approach for years, and it is not working.
People come in all shapes and sizes. We have all come to appreciate the unique appearance of individuals. It is actually pretty amazing to think that of the close to 7 billion people on the planet, not one is physically identical.
Even twins can vary in shape, behavior, likes and dislikes, etc. The fact is we are as different on the inside as we are on the outside. We each have a unique biochemistry that sets us apart from everyone else. While we all undoubtedly share common traits and overlapping metabolic tendencies, to assume we all derive equal benefit from the same diet is a bit short-sighted.
Hormones and Diet
When most people think of dieting they imagine calories and weight loss. This way of thinking is not the most beneficial way to think for a couple of very important reasons. First, there are different types of calories you can eat. There are calories from fat, carbohydrates, and protein, but these same calories bring varying micro-nutrient content.
As far as the body is concerned, all these calories are not equal. It is no longer accurate to treat all calories the same, because calories from different sources affect the body differently. Likewise, there are differing calories available to burn.
When talking about diet, most people desire to lose fat and therefore seek to burn fat calories. Speaking of calories and weight loss in general terms is not useful because it treats all calories from any source as the same and ignores the individual nature in which people burn fat. What is needed is a new conceptualization of the calorie/weight loss model.
The hormone model of weight loss can help because it explains the variations people see in outcomes from different diets. Every time a person eats, they release hormones into the body. The type of calories consumed directly determine the hormones released.
For instance, starch or sugar are major stimulants of insulin as well as is protein. Protein, however, is also a major stimulant of the hormone, glucagon. This is a hugely powerful piece of information. Insulin is a fat storing hormone, as well as a blood-sugar-lowering hormone. So despite calorie intake, excess insulin will make us more likely to store fat in calorie excess and less likely to burn it in calorie deficiency.
While glucagon raises blood sugar and can indirectly impact fat metabolism. Both protein and carbohydrates supply calories, but these calories affect hormonal biochemistry differently. The choice of the type or quality of food eaten determines a great deal related to body composition.
So does this mean we should only eat protein and stay away from starch?
Not exactly, and this is where things get a little complicated. When you eat a food, it is not just the food that determines what happens to your body, but also the natural metabolic tendencies your body was born with.
Remember, we are all different. Our genetics and metabolic actions play a large role in our response to food. Some people have naturally high levels of insulin because it is their natural physiological state. Others have naturally low levels. The combination of your inherent hormonal state, coupled with the diet you choose, is a very real determinant of dietary success. But how can you determine your own unique hormonal makeup without expensive tests?
Hormones and Body Shape
Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to look in the mirror and have a clue of your individual needs and which diet may be right for you? To a degree you can. We have all heard of “apples” and “pears”. These terms are a reference to different fat storage patterns on the body. “Apples” store their fat in the belly or midsection, while “pears” store it lower down.
There are also other types of fat storage. Some people tend to have large fat deposits on their sides below their armpits and on the back of their arms. Some people store fat as love handles, and some more in the front of the belly.
Others store in the backs of their legs or sides of their hips. Still others store fat mostly in their upper back. And of course many people store fat all over with no apparent pattern. Most likely you already know where you tend to store your fat. But what is responsible for this site-specific fat storage?
Hormones not only tell the body how to use the fuel it consumes, but they also may be playing a role in where on the body fat is stored.
This is a complicated and controversial matter, and we caution you not to think of hormones in an all-or-nothing fashion.
Hormones behave differently depending on their ratios with other hormones. For instance, the ratio of insulin to catecholamines is a major determinant of fat storage. If insulin elevates along with catecholamines, there is less fat storage. Excess fat storage becomes an issue when insulin levels rise unopposed by catecholamines. With the fat burning action of catecholamines absent, the fat storing effects of insulin can go unchecked. It is impossible to know the effects of one hormone without understanding the impact of others.
This is why labeling one point on the body with a particular hormone may not be the best approach. For example, testosterone is largely regarded as a hormone that reduces fat storage around the middle (in men anyway. It may actually increase belly fat in women when too high).
We can also see it in action by studying the transgender population. Females undergoing hormone therapy to become more “male” take large doses of testosterone and will see their breast shrink and become more like pecs and will also see their arms and legs tighten. This has to do with testosterone’s relationship to estrogen and progesterone, and not just testosterone’s action alone.
A man who begins to develop “man boobs” could be low in testosterone, have too much estrogen, be dealing with a high prolactin level or be suffering from hypothyroid. Not understanding how all these hormones can impact that one area (the pecs) may leave you confused. So, it is not enough to know how one hormone acts by itself, but you also need to know how it interacts with other hormones to pinpoint the issue.
Despite the complexity of hormones, there are some generalities that can be made, and these can be directly observed by body shape and where, on the body, fat is stored.
We caution you not to regard this as fact or exact science. These observations come from clinical work, measuring hormones and observing fat storing patterns.
Insulin and cortisol levels in higher amounts seem to correlate with fat accumulation in the middle of the body. Fat storage in the lower body may signal decreased levels of insulin and cortisol with higher levels of estrogen and progesterone (estrogen opposes the action of insulin and cortisol and progesterone opposes the action of cortisol). This is a young woman’s pattern of fat storage.
Fat deposits on the back of the arm or leg may signal a reduction in growth hormone or testosterone. These areas tend to be very lean in men, those using anabolic steroids, and female to male transgenders. Fat storage in the breasts and hips may speak more to the influence of estrogen and/or progesterone.
Food and Hormones
Hopefully you are beginning to see the problem. We each have a unique hormonal makeup in the body. Some of us have higher insulin and lower catecholamine influence or sensitivity. Some of us are more “estrogen dominant”. Others have high testosterone levels. Now, couple the unique nature of people hormonally with the known hormonal effects of food and things are impacted even more.
A study, published in the 2007 May 16th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows what we have always known. People respond differently to diets based on their individual nature. This study confirms the determining factor for success or failure with a diet is hormonal responses in the body. The goal was to use two diets that affected insulin differently, and observe performance in people with varying insulin responses.
The diets compared were a low carbohydrate diet (40% carbohydrate and 35% fat) and a low fat diet (55% carbohydrate and 20% fat). In this study, “apples” (individuals who store fat primarily in the midsection) were compared to “pears” (people who tend to store fat in the hips and thighs). Apples secrete more insulin after meals and pears secrete less. The apples lost more weight on the low carbohydrate diet and maintained that weight loss for 18 months.
The pears lost weight on both diets as long as the calories were reduced. Pears lost weight more slowly and tended to regain weight more quickly. What this study shows is that body shape and hormonal influence play a role in responses to dietary interventions.
Taking it one step further
Analysis of the above study indicates that not only calories matter for weight loss. We must understand our individual nature and act accordingly. The shape of the body provides indirect insight into the hormonal situation we find ourselves in.
Apple types, who are strong insulin secreters, should avoid foods that cause large rises in insulin. The natural tendency to produce excess insulin in response to a meal along with a higher insulin level in the body is a recipe for fat gain.
Pears are less insulin responsive and are less affected by changes in carbohydrate intake. Instead, they should focus on lifestyle changes that address their unique hormonal makeup. Excess storage of fat in the lower body may be a result of estrogen and growth hormone balance. Avoiding exogenous estrogen sources like plastics, soy, milk, and perhaps even coffee could be beneficial for these types.
They also may want to combine those changes with changes in exercise as well. They could move towards more high intensity shorter duration sprint training and weight lifting to get more HGH production. Making these subtle shifts could be the thing to finally get their calorie controlled diet to start delivering results.
Other areas to address are: high cortisol to progesterone or estrogen ratios.
Excess cortisol is characterized by a round face and stomach along with a puffy appearance on the body (Cushing’s syndrome patients, who have very high cortisol levels, illustrate this point).
As cortisol rises and progesterone falls, women can begin to develop fat storage at the belly. Working to lower stress by engaging in cortisol lowering exercise like yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation could be helpful, as would high intensity shorter duration cardio and weight training.
For issues with thyroid look for swelling in the neck and fat deposition under the armpits as well as thinning hair, brittle nails, and general fatigue. A strategy that addresses the cause of the thyroid dysfunction may take you beyond exercise into the realm of nutrition, stress management, micro-nutrition (vitamins and minerals), and toxin exposure (mercury, fluoride, etc).
The back of the arms and upper chest are a window into the testosterone to estrogen ratio (transgender HRT hints at this). As men begin to develop fat deposits around the pecs, it can be a sign their testosterone levels are falling and/or their estrogen levels are rising. As stated before, this can also be due to other hormonal influences like prolactin.
Heavy weight training and good quality protein sources can help reverse this trend, as can using aromatase inhibiting herbs and supplements (aromatase is an enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen).
Women with loose and sagging triceps may be suffering from a lack of relative testosterone & HGH, and/or have thyroid or excess cortisol issues. In order to reverse this trend, they must make heavy weight training a priority. Yes, this builds muscle and tightens the arm, but this is in part related to hormonal action.
As you can see, when you are dealing with the hormonal influences on body fat, it is best to view hormones in the context of the full hormone interactions. It is also useful to know other clinical signs that come along with these dysfunctions. Low libido and depression may bolster your suspicion of low testosterone.
A round face and fat storage in the upper back and neck, with less muscle mass or flabby body, suggests issues with cortisol. Thin hair, brittle nails, constipation, and fatigue along with fat storage around the neck, underarms and triceps may confirm suspicion of thyroid hormone issues. And of course blood labs can be extremely valuable to get measures of these hormones. It is important to realize, however, you will often see these fat distribution effects occur first before labs show any dysfunction.
I realize the concepts presented above can seem a bit “out there”. But a simple glance at the different shapes of the male and female physiques as well as the known clinical effects of hormone replacement on men, women, and transgenders gives some clues. The shape of the body can be a window into the hormonal make up of an individual.
Apple and Pear shapes are two popular examples of body types and their relationship to diets. The JAMA article cited points to the effect individual nature combined with dietary practices has on the body’s ability to respond to any given diet. This is an important concept (and one I hope will be developed even further) to understanding hormonal effects on body shape.
None of the above is meant to discount what we already know about weight gain and fat loss. Calories certainly matter. Hormones matter as well. The clinical observations of hormones and their impact on body shape are something that could aid frustrated dieters, serious exercise enthusiasts, and physique competitors.
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