Diet – it’s a four-letter word that makes a lot of people cringe. Some people spend their life uttering that word, others do it before milestone events so they “look good in the pictures,” and there are those who avoid it altogether. Regardless of which category you fall into, most of us know diets don’t really work. They don’t keep the weight off. In fact, between 80 to 95 percent of people who go on a diet gain the weight back, often because their bodies are programmed to be a certain weight. 

Instead of dieting, experts say that it’s really about treating your body well. To do that correctly, there are a number of things you should understand.

Not all weight is equal

Skinny doesn’t mean healthy, and being overweight doesn’t mean unhealthy. Basing your health on a number on a scale is misguided, according to Monique Class, a nurse practitioner at the Center for Functional Medicine, which is moving to Ridgefield, CT on June 1, and a senior faculty member at the Institute of Functional Medicine where she teaches functional nutrition.

“You can have skinny fat people, meaning they’re skinny, but have no muscle tone whatsoever – it’s all fat, and they’re metabolically unhealthy,” says Class. “There are also people who may appear 20 pounds overweight, but they’re incredibly healthy. They’re working out, they’ve got a lot of muscle, their metabolic markers look healthy, and they don’t have any medical problems. You can’t base a person’s health on how they look, nor should you base it on their BMI. That mythology needs to go.”

Your BMI, which stands for Body Mass Index, is based on your height and weight, but it’s an inaccurate measure of your health or body fat. The problem with BMI is that it does not include muscle mass, which weighs more than fat, in its measurement. It also doesn’t factor in bone density, overall body composition or racial and gender differences – all of which should be considered when determining how healthy or unhealthy (a.k.a. “fat”) a person is. 

Instead, a more accurate measure is to notice where, and how, you’ve gained weight. 

“If you’re only gaining weight in the abdominal area, you’re gaining metabolically active fat, which increases inflammation in the body,” Class explains. “But if you gain weight evenly all over the body, and you’re doing everything right, and your health markers look good, then you’re fine.”

What contributes to weight gain? 

In addition to unhealthy or overeating and certain chronic illnesses or diseases, there are three main reasons we gain weight:

1. Chronic stress – When you’re stressed, your body produces a hormone called cortisol that increases the amount of sugar in your bloodstream to give you more energy. Simultaneously, it increases your appetite. If you’re experiencing long-term stress, you’re likely eating more, which can lead to weight gain. (In some people, cortisol can cause weight loss.)

2. Exhaustion – Lack of sleep will increase your insulin levels, which increases cortisol production and your appetite. Additionally, exhaustion can cause you to crave foods that are high calorie, high sugar, high fat and salty to boost your energy.

“Nowadays, as a society, we’re no longer burning the candle at both ends, we’re throwing ourselves right on top of the flame every single day, and then we’re melting into a puddle,” says Geri Brewster, MPH and a registered dietician and nutritionist with practices in Mount Kisco and Manhattan.  “That leads to a lot of adrenaline and a lot of excess cortisol.”

3. Toxins – Toxins are any poisonous substance. For humans, most toxins come from germs (like bacteria), but they can also be metals (like lead) or chemicals. Some people can gain weight due to toxins in their food, the environment or medications. We store toxins in our fat cells, then our body dilutes them before releasing them into our body to avoid organ damage. But if there are too many toxins in our cells and our body cannot dilute them, then our fat cells expand to hold on to the toxins so they don’t poison us.

The truth about diets

“Diet is a transient word – it means you’re restricting something,” says Class. “Most people react when you say diet. It brings up restriction and all the loaded emotions that go around food. Diets weren’t created around, or for, the individual, and they’re not sustainable. You can only restrict yourself for a certain amount of time, and then you get exhausted. Diets are meant for short-term fixes – they have an end game.” 

When you cut calories, it decreases the amount of leptin (a hormone that controls how full you feel) your body produces, making you feel hungrier. Cutting calories can also change how you think of food, often making you hyperfocus on food, and even think it smells or tastes better than it did before. 

“There are people who will go on a diet and lose weight, but they have no energy, and they feel awful,” says Brewster. “But when you feed yourself properly, you feel better – you feel well. That’s biology, and we have to stop ignoring that. We have to stop thinking that we can just sort of regulate our bodies by calories or willpower. That’s often why diets fail.”

Another reason diets fail is that people typically measure their success by how much weight they’ve lost – not if they’ve improved their overall health. 

Instead, Class and Brewster say to create a food plan, which is a more expansive concept. A food plan is designed to focus on eating healthy and consuming foods that work for you.

What is healthy? 

“Increasing the number of plant foods we consume and eating well over the course of the day is important,” says Brewster. 

But what does that mean? Is it no carbs or low carbs? Is red meat okay? Should you focus on low-fat or high-protein? 

According to Class, those questions are splitting hairs over what she calls “the macronutrient distribution.” And the answer to those questions really depends on each person’s genetics and personal preferences. Instead, we should focus on the basic principles of healthy eating that all health experts agree upon. They are:

1. Eat the rainbow. The key is nutrient density and diversity (small amounts of a lot of colors). Plant foods contain phytonutrients (naturally made chemicals that help prevent disease and keep your body working well), and each color contains different phytonutrients.

“We need a little bit of a lot of colors for a big reason,” says Class. “If you eat kale all day long, you’re going to be missing very important micronutrients and phytochemicals for overall health and well-being.”

2. Reduce your sugar intake. Sugar should be a treat, not a daily event.

“Sugar is highly inflammatory, and it actually suppresses our immune system’s functioning,” Class explains. “It also creates inflammation and oxidative stress, which turn on the genes that cause every single complex chronic disease, whether it’s cancer, a cardiovascular disease or an autoimmune disease.”

3. Consume good fats. Our bodies need unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats), which are usually found in plants, like vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. These fats can improve blood cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, support heart health and more.

4. Allow your body to rest. “We evolved into eating all the time,” says Brewster. “Historically, we didn’t hunt or eat at night – we would have been attacked by wild animals! So, you had to consume all your food during the day. Now, even though we can eat at any time, our body needs time to rest so that it can do other things. You shouldn’t eat a heavy meal or overeat at night, and you should allow your gut to have a 12- to 15-hour rest overnight.”

Even if you’re eating healthy food all day and into the evening, your body is constantly processing that food. It needs a resting period when there’s no food in your system so it can rest and do the other things it needs to do to remain healthy.

“When everything is turned off, your cells can do something called autophagy, where they self-clean and get rid of broken DNA and debris,” Class explains. “And it can only do that if you are not eating all the time. But if your cells never get a chance to do that, then they can experience inflammation and oxidative stress, which, depending on your genetic predisposition, turns on degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease or inflammatory bowel disease – wherever you have a weak genetic link.”

5. Fiber is essential. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Think of fiber as a kitchen sponge – the soft side is the soluble fiber that soaks up the liquid, and the rough side is the insoluble side that’s used for scrubbing.

“Insoluble fiber will actually take all of the broken DNA and debris and scrub it off the colon’s walls then move it out into the stool,” Class explains. “It helps with constipation, which is a really good thing because if you’re not going to the bathroom every day, all of those toxins that just went through the liver will recirculate and be more toxic than they were to begin with. Additionally, without fiber, we don’t make short-chain fatty acids, which repair the colon’s cells.”

Most people get about 10 grams of fiber a day, but it’s recommended that you consume between 25 to 35 grams of fiber a day. Increase your daily fiber slowly to avoid feeling gassy and bloated.

6. Focus on whole foods with the least amount of processing.  “Most foods are going to be processed in some way, and cooking is the number one form of processing of food,” Brewster explains. “Super high heat and frying damages the food’s molecules, which turns it into something that is more inflammatory. That means it will require a greater demand on the digestion system, which can result in more indigestion and potentially cause more gut inflammation.”

“That’s why we should cook in a way that provides the least amount of contact with a direct flame or heat,” she continues. “In other words, try to avoid foods that are deep fried, grilled over an open flame or charred. Even if you’re cooking with an oil that can withstand high heat before it hits its smoke point, it’s still going to change the composition of the food. So, we should be mindful about how we cook foods.”

Processing also includes grains.

“I meet plenty of young people who go off to college and decide to be vegetarians,” Brewster notes. “But they really become pasta- and bread-atarians. They have pasta for dinner and then stay up studying and eat a carbohydrate-driven snack like pretzels that they think are healthy because it says fat-free, and then they have a bagel for breakfast. So basically, they consumed a big load of wheat, followed by processed wheat and another big load of wheat, which turns quickly into sugar in the bloodstream. That causes weight issues, can create insulin resistance and put them into a pre-diabetic state.”

The best plan is to live a Mediterranean lifestyle 

“The most well-researched food plan on the planet is the modified Mediterranean food plan,” says Class. “What I mean by modified is their approach to carbohydrates. Carbs aren’t the devil, but they’re problematic when they’re the main part of your meal all day long. Instead, your meal can include a small amount of rice or pasta, and you should surround it with lots of fruits and vegetables, good oils and a good protein.”

Your meal should be half vegetables that are simply prepared and multicolored, 25 percent carbohydrates and 25 percent a combination of proteins and healthy fats.

“Choose meals that are clean, seasonal and primarily plant-based,” Brewster advises. “Eat smaller amounts of large animals that are primarily fish and chicken and eggs. And try to live a lifestyle that’s similar to people in Mediterranean countries. That means you can have a little bit of wine or dessert, but the idea is that there are enough plant-based foods and antioxidants present that it will help offset that burden.”

“And remain physically active throughout your life – it’s a state of mind,” she continues. “Try not to pathologize and think, ‘I’m getting older, so I can’t do this.’ In other words, it’s a total lifestyle – a physically active life, coupled with a good diet and a good sleep cycle is a healthy, life-affirming way to live.”

This article was published in the May/June 2023 print edition of Katonah Connect.

Editor in Chief at Katonah Connect | Website | + posts

Gia Miller is an award-winning journalist and the editor in chief/co-publisher of Katonah Connect. She says she’s living the dream she never knew she had. Gia enjoys telling people’s stories, laughing at her crazy dog and a good podcast. She thanks multiple alarms, fermented grapes and her husband for helping her get through each day. Her love languages are food and humor.