I started ‘dieting’ when I began high school. I think it’s a rite of passage into the world of being a female teenager. You become a freshman and suddenly need to start counting calories, eating tiny amounts of food, and worrying about getting fat. I was thin to begin with and was super active throughout high school — taking part in both the swim team and the pom pon Squad — and yet, I still spent my high school lunches picking at a fat-free soft pretzel dipped in mustard because that’s what all the girls were doing (this was back in the 90’s when fat-free everything was THE way to lose weight…*UGH*).
This behavior went on for me well into my adult years, always willing to try the next diet, fad, or anything else to lose weight. Just 2.5 years ago, it culminated in the ultimate of restrictive behaviors — training for and competing in my first and only NPC figure competition. (Read more about that experience and what I learned about it here and here.) This took calorie restriction and overtraining to a whole new level! But, it worked. I got to an all-time low body weight and body fat percentage and was actually able to step on stage and compete.
The interesting thing throughout all of this, is that I never really considered the health ramifications of this behavior. I just listened to what “people” were saying needed to be done to lose weight and keep it off, always willing to restrict certain foods and caloric intake to get to my never-ending, ever-changing goal.
It wasn’t until I began have some health issues post-competition that I actually began investigating the long-term effects. Along with having complications with my autoimmune disease, ulcerative colitis, I also began gaining weight. As was my known go-to remedy, I began restricting my food intake, watching closely the amount of calories I was consuming everyday and making sure it was well under what I was projected to burn. But, nothing happened. The weight just kept creeping on no matter how ‘clean’ I ate and how much I worked out.
I began diving into the paleo diet world because I had heard it was a great way to manage autoimmune disease. This diet change soon turned into an entire lifestyle and career change, as I realized through my own healing, that this was a powerful tool to achieve true health and more people needed to know about it. It lead me to become a nutritional therapy practitioner so that I would have the knowledge needed to help people get well, like I had done! Through this career/lifestyle change, I learned a TON of valuable information. One of my absolute favorite topics to learn about, and now to talk about with clients, is our stress hormone — cortisol.
The more I learned about cortisol, the more obvious it all became to me — calorie restriction causes weight GAIN. The reason I wasn’t losing weight by decreasing my calorie intake and increasing my calorie burn — as I had learned so many years ago to be the ultimate equation to weight loss — was because of cortisol! Let me explain a little how this works:
Calorie restriction increases cortisol output.
I’ve talked about the hormone cortisol A LOT on this website. First of all, because I find it fascinating. And second of all, because it is SO important to understand in order to achieve true health. Let me give a very brief refresher in case you have forgotten about the role of cortisol in the body.
Cortisol is a hormone produced by our adrenal glands to aid our body in dealing with stressful events. For instance, when we are inches away from a car accident, when we are hit with a bad case of the flu, when we lose our jobs, when we have a fight with our spouse — these are all great examples of times where our adrenals would be called upon to produce and release more cortisol into the bloodstream.
The main reason why cortisol has this responsibility as ‘the stress hormone’ is because one of its main jobs is to increase the availability of energy to the body. It does this by regulating and maintaining proper blood sugar levels, and it will do whatever needs to be done to get there. When there’s not enough glucose available for energy, cortisol will trigger the process of gluconeogenesis, which mobilizes proteins and fats from skeletal tissue to be used as glucose. This will become important later.
How does this all relate to calorie restriction and FAT? Because chronic stress changes body composition.
As mentioned above, our brain calls cortisol into play when there is an emergency — a threat to our health and lives. Eating too little and not getting enough nutrients is a serious threat, a state of emergency! Your body doesn’t know that there’s plenty of food in the kitchen that you’re choosing not to eat. Instead, your body is gearing up for a famine, a long period of time without food. Cortisol is needed in excess during this timeframe of minimal nutrients to keep your blood sugar as steady as possible. So, while this doesn’t really seem like an emergency to you, it sure does to your body and you begin pumping out cortisol all the time, taxing your adrenal glands.
Not only does your body respond to this perceived famine, but it also responds to the sense of deprivation and restriction. Chronic psychological stress increases cortisol. You may not even be aware of this stressor because you’re not paying attention to the negative emotion that is coming from your restriction and the constant monitoring, worrying, and calculating that takes place when you overly control your eating habits — but your brain definitely notices! Not feeling free around food is STRESSFUL! It’s the only way I have acted around food for the past 20 years…I get it!
While cortisol is known as ‘the stress hormone’, its effect on body composition is known as ‘the cortisol belly’. When your body relies on cortisol too much, there is a tendency to gain fat particularly around the midsection. This is because there are more cortisol receptors in belly fat — that’s right, cortisol is actually made in your fat cells, as well as by you adrenal glands! So obviously, your body is going to think you need as many receptors as possible to keep up with the demand!
Because cortisol is a hormone, it also has a huge impact on the intricate balance to the rest of your hormones, including sex hormones, steroid hormones, thyroid hormones, and growth hormones. If there is ANY imbalance at all with ANY of these, your metabolism will suffer. Not to mention, you may also notice other undesirable side effects such as fatigue, PMS, hair loss, irregular periods, muscle atrophy, and weakness. Keep this in mind: calories don’t control your metabolism, hormones do!
Along with these hormones, there also comes the two hormones responsible for when and how much we eat that can be thrown out of whack. The hormones, grehlin and leptin, are responsible for signaling when we are hungry and need nourishment and when we are satisfied and can be done eating. With high, prolonged cortisol, these messages get disrupted causing a loss in the ability to sense hunger and fullness which could then lead to overeating, bingeing, or even further restricted eating.
And as one final reason…cortisol triggers gluconeogenesis (remember, I talked about that a little earlier). This act of turning amino acids from muscle tissue into glucose to help stabilize blood sugar levels, will inhibit muscle growth and perhaps even cause a reduction in muscle fibers. Yet another reason why chronic elevated cortisol causes changes in body composition!
I really hope that I have convinced you to not restrict calories as a way to lose weight. I can’t stress enough the importance of a balanced diet based on whole, real, nutrient-dense, properly prepared foods — and A LOT of them! Many of the clients I see who are switching to eating only real foods, or a paleo lifestyle, often don’t realize how much food is needed to give their body the energy needed to get through the day without getting cortisol involved. There are many really great foods, vegetables for example, that while very nutrient-dense are NOT very calorically-dense. People living a real food lifestyle eat so many vegetables, many times using them to replace the processed carbohydrates that were in their Standard American Diet. While this is a great swap for nutrient values and health status, it is not a similar swap in terms of calories (energy). For example, a 1/2 cup of white rice has about 120 calories, cauliflower rice — a common rice swap — has only about 15. Big difference! Along with all of these awesome veggies, make sure to eat plenty energy-dense food sources such as properly-raised meats, healthy fats such as coconut oil, ghee, avocado, nuts and seeds, plus tons of veggies!
It’s also more important than ever in today’s stressed out world, to take the time to relax, unwind, breathe, sleep, and de-stress. Because even if you don’t restrict calories, but still lead a stressful life, cortisol will still have an upper hand on your body composition. I give more tips on how to do this in my posts on adrenal fatigue here and here.
If this is something you think you may be dealing with, let’s chat. I have helped many people (including myself!) balance their blood sugar and cortisol levels with diet and lifestyle changes. Once these changes were made and the focus was NOT on restriction, their bodies naturally found their healthy and happy weight. I’d love to help you too!