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4 Things That Affect Weight That Have Little to Do With Food

While of course our food and exercise choices play a large role in how much we weigh, there are more elements at play when it comes to keeping weight under control.
08/11/2015 04:17pm ET | Updated August 11, 2016
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By Nirvana Abou-Gabal

Many people seem to think of weight management as an equation of calories in minus calories out. The food we eat is factored against the energy burned while exercising and going about one's daily life. An excess of calories going into the body results in weight gain, a deficit results in pounds shed, and an equilibrium keeps the scale steady. While of course our food and exercise choices play a large role in how much we weigh, there are more elements at play when it comes to keeping weight under control.

Our bodies are incredibly complex. Looking at weight management as a simple caloric equation is almost like enjoying the Mona Lisa through the lens of a magnifying glass: it only allows you to get a really good view of just one part of the entire canvas. Often, in order to get a genuine understanding of what is going on in our bodies (which are all grand masterpieces in their own way), it is important to take a step back and look at the big picture. Our body's systems are intricately interconnected; there are countless ways that a lack of balance in one area can show up on our waistlines. In fact, difficulty losing weight can be a signal that some area of the body, such as the thyroid, is not functioning optimally. The points that follow provide an overview of a few surprising factors that can make us metabolically more inclined to store body fat.

1. Bacteria
Did you know that we host more foreign bacteria than cells in our bodies? As strange as that might sound, we are now learning that these bacteria play a major role in maintaining health, or alternatively, in pushing us out of a state of balance. The human microbiome, a term that refers to the collective genome of micro-organisms that live within a person's gut, not only influences digestion as one might expect, but can also affect brain function, immunity, tendencies towards insulin resistance, and a host of other factors. Increasingly, we are learning that gut dysbiosis, a condition of having either too few "good" bacteria or an abundance of "bad" bacteria, appears to play a role in how much body fat we store. In both animal and human studies, it has been shown that an obese person's (or animal's) microbiome allows for increased energy harvesting, or the extraction of more calories from the diet. In a study on rats, for example, when the germ-free animals were colonized with "obese" microbiota, their body fat increased significantly as compared to when they were colonized with "lean" gut bacteria.

Although scientists are just beginning to understand the mechanisms by which these little creatures operate inside of us, the implications of the findings are enormous, with the potential to transform the way we think about weight, obesity, and other metabolic disorders. Researchers are concerned about the consequences of a "disappearing microbiota," where in this age of relative sterility, widespread use of antibiotics, and a diet composed of highly processed foods, the composition of our gut bacteria is far less diverse than that of our ancestors. To help counter this, it can be helpful to consume at least one generous serving of fermented food per day, to eat a whole-foods based diet abundant in prebiotics, and to take a probiotic supplement in consultation with a nutritionist or medical professional.

2. Sleep
Americans are sleeping one and a half to two fewer hours per day than they were 50 years ago. Numerous studies have shown an association between short sleep durations and obesity, both in adults and in our children. Further, sleep deprivation is associated with lower levels of the satiety hormone, leptin, higher levels of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and an increase in body mass index (BMI). What this entails is that our shortened sleep cycles are likely increasing our appetites (not to mention that being awake for longer gives us more hours in the day to graze). Moreover, sleep deprivation has a negative effect on our carbohydrate metabolism, glucose tolerance, and overall endocrine function in a manner similar to what is often seen in normal aging. Therefore, sleep debt "may increase the severity of age-related chronic disorders."

In my personal practice as a functional nutritionist, I have come to learn that coaching clients on sleep habits is just as important as talking about food. Making small shifts in routine to give the body the rest it needs can have far-reaching consequences on energy levels, food cravings, and weight. If you feel like you need a cup of coffee just to get your engines running in the morning, then you should probably reevaluate how well you are resting yourself.

3. Obesogens
There are many chemicals hiding in most mass-produced personal care products, beauty supplies (for example, lead in lipstick!), everyday kitchen items, and furniture. These chemicals can affect our health in different ways, and one class of chemicals called phthalates may affect human metabolism and weight, specifically. Phthalates are obesogens, which as the name implies can contribute to weight gain. They do this by acting as synthetic estrogens that serve as endocrine disruptors that mimic or block the transmission of hormone signals in the body.

Phthalates are found in thousands of products from beauty products and personal supplies to soft, malleable plastics such as food packaging, medical supplies, shower curtains, and squishy children's toys. Phthalates are the reason why you can still smell the "fresh" scent of your deodorant six hours after you've applied it, and the towels in your linen closet still smell like the dryer sheets you used while doing the laundry last week. Manufacturers use phthalates to make sure the scents they employ "stick" to their product and linger for hours.

We are exposed to phthalates through inhalation (scented candles, house dust, etc.), ingestion, and skin exposure, which is troubling as these chemicals may put us at risk of developing numerous health conditions including certain cancers, while also increasing the likelihood of obesity. One study demonstrated that phthalate exposure increases the risk of abdominal obesity in women. Furthermore, phthalates may have antiandrogenic effects, decrease sperm motility in men, is associated with increased infant birth weight, and increases adiposity in children.

While it is impossible to avoid phthalates completely, we can drastically decrease our exposure by avoiding plastics to the best of our ability, especially in the kitchen (replace plastic storage containers with glass ones), avoiding synthetic fragrances (assume that any product that lists "fragrance," "perfume" or "parfum" as an ingredient contains the chemical), purchase phthalate-free makeup, eat organic whenever possible (to avoid phthalates in pesticides), and finally, by avoiding the use of scented candles and air fresheners with synthetic scents (pure essential oils are a healthier alternative).

4. Breastfeeding
This one is for all you mamas out there! And yes, this technically does have something to do with food (the food many of us have eaten decades ago), but it is too important a topic to leave out of this discussion.

The benefits of breastfeeding are many, but did you know that it can also reduce your child's risk of developing obesity later in life? Children who were breastfed for at least nine months have a 30 percent reduced risk of becoming overweight. On the other hand, being fed formula in infancy is associated with a higher risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. There are numerous theories as to why this might be the case, including the role of self-regulation: Physiologically, infants who are breast fed have a much easier time controlling their intake of breast milk than babies who are being fed formula in a bottle. This ability (or lack of ability) to control milk volume might play an important role in establishing one's metabolism very early in life. Furthermore, human milk contains hormones such as leptin, ghrelin, and adiponectin that control appetite and energy balance, and which may play a role in influencing your child's metabolism into adulthood.

Of course, choosing whether or not to breastfeed is a very personal decision (and sometimes, the ability to do so is beyond a woman's control), but know that if you are able to breastfeed your child, it is very possible that your little one will continue to reap the benefits far into adulthood.