By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Often I’m asked, “Doc, what’s the one thing I can do for my health that will benefit me most?”
While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for this, I usually respond with “lose a little weight.”
With all of the tens of thousands of things that can go awry in the body, weight loss may sound simplistic. But the fact is that your weight has a major ripple effect on your health. You’re probably already aware that obesity is a risk factor for COVID-19 complications, not to mention health conditions like heart disease. If you’re overweight, as the majority of Americans are, dropping just 5 or 10 pounds benefits the whole package—your heart, your joints, your blood sugar, your energy… You name it, and it’s healthier!
Unfortunately, we’ve got a big problem in this country with overweight and obesity. In February 2020, the CDC reported (citing 2017-2018 data) that almost 72% of American adults are overweight, and 42.4% percent of adults now tip the scales at levels considered obese; here are the CDC’s 2019 maps showing prevalence by state.
If you’re part of this overall group, you probably know too well that losing weight is harder than it’s made out to be. In this article, I’m going to explain why that’s true and tell you what you can do about it.
Are You Obese or Just Overweight?
The official tool used to determine where you fall on the weight spectrum is body mass index (BMI).
BMI has been criticized over the years, and I’ll admit that it has some limitations. But for the vast majority of people—those of us who aren’t athletes, aspiring bodybuilders, or unusually muscular—it’s a reasonable benchmark.
The best way to find your BMI is to use an online calculator. You enter your height and weight, and the tool gives you a general estimate of your body fat. If your result is 25-29.9, you fall into the “overweight” category; if 30 or higher, “obese.”
Two good calculators, one for kids and one for adults, are available from the Centers for Disease Control:
It’s important to note, though, that BMI doesn’t actually measure body fat, which can be important depending on your build. If you’re 5’9” and a muscular 180 pounds, for example, the BMI tables will tell you you’re overweight even though you’re probably in good shape. On the other hand, if you’re 5’9” and just 180—minus a lot of the muscle—that’s a different story.
What Causes Obesity and Overweight?
You’ll probably be happy to hear that weight isn’t a simple matter of calories in and calories out. There’s some truth in this, of course—but if it were really that easy, we’d all have lost those last 10 pounds by now.
In reality, this “old math” is a gross oversimplification of what’s really going on, and frankly I think it does a tremendous disservice to anyone who’s struggling with weight loss. Your weight is a lot more than the result of what you eat versus what you burn. It also involves your genetics, your body chemistry, and the social and cultural influences around you.
Obesity Cause #1: Genetics
First the bad news. There really is an obesity gene, and if weight is an issue in your family, you probably have it. The good news? Just because you have it doesn’t mean you’re destined to be an obesity statistic.
The more we learn about genes, the more we understand that we have more control over them than we think.
Many genes—including the obesity gene—are activated through repeated exposure to things in the environment (poor nutrition, for example). So even though you may be born with a predisposition toward obesity, whether or not you actually become obese depends a lot on whether that gene gets turned on at some point—and if so, how far.
Bottom line: Both nature and nurture are in play here.
Obesity Cause #2: Food
Hands down, one of the biggest contributors to the obesity epidemic is our “Standard American Diet.” It’s full of processed foods and high-glycemic carbohydrates that not only feed your fat cells, but actually encourage you to binge on unhealthy foods.
Whenever you eat high-glycemic foods (and most processed foods are), you get an immediate spike in blood sugar. Your body uses some of that to fuel a spike in energy, but excess glucose gets stored as fat. Worse, though, is that when your blood sugar crashes down from that peak, you wind up craving more of the same sort of food.
These rollercoaster-like fluctuations in blood sugar set up an ongoing cycle of craving and overeating, which adds up to a lot of extra weight and an obesity epidemic.
Obesity Cause #3: Runaway Stress Levels
We’ve all had those days when it’s just easier to hit the fast food drive-thru for dinner, or when we turn to candy or chips just because it feels good. Emotional—and poor—eating is par for the course when we’re under stress.
But that’s not the only way that stress causes overweight and obesity. Stress also keeps our cortisol levels elevated. Cortisol is a stress hormone that helps keep your blood sugar levels high so you’ll have the energy to fight off whatever is threatening you. The problem is that in the course of doing that, you end up craving the exact foods you should be avoiding, and your body ends up storing a lot of excess glucose as fat.
Again, weight gain is the result.
Obesity Cause #4: Chemicals, Toxins, and Obesogens
Another aspect of overweight and obesity epidemic that isn’t talked about much is our constant exposure to environmental toxins.
In addition to their ability to stoke inflammation and disease, many of the chemicals in our food and environment are also considered “obesogens” because they increase the likelihood that you’ll gain weight. In the body, these toxins mimic the activity of certain hormones. This confuses and disrupts our natural body chemistry, which can result in more fat cells, a propensity for storing more fat, and greater risk of insulin resistance. Some obesogens even interfere with the release of leptin, a hormone that tells you you’re full, so you don’t realize when you’re overeating.
Many of the known endocrine disruptors, like bisphenol A (BpA) and phthalates, fall into the obesogen bucket, but you’ll find them in a lot of less suspecting places, too. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame can have some negative effects, as can many pesticides and even medications. Some of the biggest offenders: antidepressants, diabetes meds, corticosteroids, beta blockers, migraine drugs, and even some allergy medicines.
The worst thing about obesogens, though, is that they’re much more likely to affect pregnant women and unborn children. Some experts have hypothesized that this could be a big contributing factor to the big increases in childhood obesity, and I think they may be on to something.
How to Break the Obesity Cycle
Now for the big question: How can you overcome these things?
I believe the most productive thing you can do to address overweight and obesity is to adopt a cleaner, more natural, high-vibrational lifestyle. Why? it’s the best way to help your body get back in sync with its natural rhythms and reduce the influence of most obesity causes.
Here are few of the most important things you can do—
- Eat whole, organic foods that are as close to nature as possible, so you avoid unnecessary exposure to food-borne obesogens, like pesticide residues.
- Adopt the Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet, to help with food choices and portions. PAMM cuts out refined sugar and high-glycemic carbs, two of the biggest contributors to weight gain. At the same time, it prioritizes healthy fats and fiber, which keep you feeling fuller longer, so you’re less likely to overeat.
- Ground yourself daily. Earthing (also called “grounding”) has been shown to help reduce cortisol levels, which will help prevent your nervous system from packing on the pounds.
- Adopt long-term stress relief strategies like meditation or yoga, to help you cope with day-to-day upsets.
- Move toward cleaner, “greener” household and personal care items, including pots, pans, glasses, cleaners, shampoos, and deodorants. Chemicals are everywhere, and reducing your exposure whenever possible can reduce their impact on your body chemistry and DNA.
Finally—I have to say it—exercise!
Even though losing weight requires taking all around care of yourself, exercise needs to be part of the process. Not only does it keep your metabolism fired up, but it helps oxygenate your cells. That makes them healthier, more resilient, and more energetic.
Most of all, keep a positive mindset. Losing weight may be challenging, but it’s worth it in the long run.
References and Resources:
- National Center for Health Statistics. Prevalence of Obesity and Severe Obesity Among Adults: United States 2017-2018. CDC.gov, February 2020. Accessed August 24, 2020.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Overweight & Obesity Statistics. Accessed April 5, 2018.
- Holtcamp W. Obesogens: an environmental link to obesity. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Feb; 120(2): a62–a68.
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Obesogens. Accessed April 5, 2018.
- Richtel M and Jacobs A. American adults just keep getting fatter. New York Times. 23 Mar 2018.
- Simmons AL, Schlezinger JJ, and Corkey BE. What are we putting in our food that is making us fat? Food additives, contaminants, and other putative contributors to obesity. Curr Obes Rep. 2014 Jun 1; 3(2): 273–285.
- Jayaraj R, Megha P, Sreedev P. Organochlorine pesticides, their toxic effects on living organisms and their fate in the environment. Interdisciplinary Toxicology. 2016;9(3-4):90-100. doi:10.1515/intox-2016-0012.
- Darbre PD. Endocrine Disruptors and Obesity. Current Obesity Reports. 2017;6(1):18-27. doi:10.1007/s13679-017-0240-4.
- Dirink E, et al. Obesity and Persistent Organic Pollutants: Possible Obesogenic Effect of Organochlorine Pesticides and Polychlorinated Biphenyls. Obesity, April 2011; vol. 19;4:709-714.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.