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Have you ever wondered why people respond differently to diets?  Why is it that one person can eat all they want and never gain and 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 grandmothers and grandfathers 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 are we so confused?  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 fit 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 will 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 and these calories may come with varying micro-nutrient content. And all these calories are not equal as far as the body is concerned.  It is no longer accurate to treat all calories as the same because calories from different sources affect the body differently.  Likewise, there are different calories that can be burned.  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 is a much more useful way of thinking about nutrition because it explains the variations people see in outcome 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 is a major stimulant of insulin while protein also stimulates insulin but is a major stimulant of a hormone called glucagon as well. This is a hugely powerful piece of information because insulin is a fat storing hormone while glucagon is a fat burning hormone.  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 start to 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 there natural physiological state.  Others have naturally low levels.  The combination of your inherent hormonal state coupled with the diet you choose is the 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 some people store fat all over.  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 play a role in where on the body fat is stored.  This is a complicated 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 glucagon is a major determinant of fat storage.  If insulin is elevated along with glucagon, there is less fat storage.  Excess fat storage becomes an issue when insulin levels rise unopposed by glucagon.  With the fat burning action of glucagons absent, the fat storing effects of insulin 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. We can also see it in action by studying 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 there 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.  Insulin and cortisol levels in higher amounts tend to result in 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).  Fat deposits on the back of the arm or leg may signal a reduction in growth hormone or testosterone, while fat storage in the breasts and hips are may provide an indication of excess estrogen.

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 glucagon.  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 new study published this year in the 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 was interesting because it showed the determining factor for success or failure with a diet was hormonal responses in the body.  The goal was to use two different diets that affected insulin differently and see how these diets performed 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 were able to maintain 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 showed 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 shows that it is not just calories that matter when it comes to weight loss.  We must understand our individual nature and act accordingly.  The shape of the body provides direct 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 is primarily a result of estrogen and growth hormone levels.  Avoiding exogenous estrogen sources like plastics, soy, and coffee along with human growth hormone producing exercise is a smart strategy.

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.  As cortisol rises and progesterone falls women in particular will begin to develop fat storage at the belly.  Working to lower stress by engaging in cortisol lowering exercise like yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation will help as will 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 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, micronutrition and toxin exposure.

The back of the arms and upper chest are a window into the testosterone to estrogen ratio.  As men begin to develop fat deposits around the pecs, it is a sure sign their testosterone levels are falling and/or the 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 the use of aromatase inhibiting herbs and supplements.  Women with loose and sagging triceps are also suffering from a lack of relative testosterone & HGH, but this may also be due to thyroid or excess cortisol issues.  In order to reverse this trend, they must make heavy weight training a priority.

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, fat storage in the upper back and neck and decreased muscle mass/flabby body may confirm 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.

Final thoughts

The individual nature of humans is evident.  This intuitive understanding must be translated to the world of diets and exercise instruction.  The shape of the body is a window into the hormonal make up of an individual.  Apple shapes and Pear shapes are two popular examples of body types and their relationship to diets.  The JAMA article cited in this paper 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 that can be developed even further when one understands the hormonal effects on body shape. The one size fits all approach to diet and exercise is no longer appropriate.  Pay attention to your individual body shape and you will have greater insight in to the diet and lifestyle that is appropriate for you.

-Article By: Metabolic Effect

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