Why you need to think beyond diet and exercise


Diet and exercise are the two things many of us immediately think about when we want to lose weight. While there is no denying these two factors are the stars of the weight loss show there are some important supporting actors and sub-plots you should pay attention to. It could be the missing link in your health journey.


Diet and exercise are still essential



Portion control

It’s become a cliché to say” fat loss is more than calories in versus calories out”. However, there is a harsh truth in this – if you are consuming excess energy above what you need – it will be stored as fat. So getting the correct amount of energy for your needs is a vital part of the story. Hello, portion control! If your diet is reasonably healthy, you may benefit from simply reducing the amount of food on your plate.


Make nutritious food choices

A calorie is not a calorie. I’m sure most of us recognise even though a doughnut and a chicken salad may have the same number of calories the chicken salad is the better choice. The calories from the salad have a bucket load more vitamins, minerals and fibre to help your body run efficiently. Choose your type of calories wisely. Consider nourishment not just numbers.


Physical Activity

While it may be true you can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet, you do need daily physical activity to maintain good health. Exercise has a whole raft of health benefits, but those specific to weight loss include increasing lean muscle mass, improving insulin sensitivity and increasing metabolic rate. Consider both formal exercise and incidental exercise in your movement. Take the stairs, walk to the shops, tackle the mountain of weeds in your garden!


The lesser-known supporting cast in the weight loss story


Chronic stress causes dysregulation of cortisol. By stress, I don’t only mean the emotional/psychological kind, physical and environmental stress is seen by your body in the same way. Having excess cortisol hanging around when it’s not needed encourages abdominal fat and breaks down your metabolism promoting lean muscle. It also contributes to dysregulation of other hormones. Stress is one of the biggest saboteurs of fat loss. Be sure to investigate and develop a robust stress management plan.



The vast majority of us need between 7-9 hours of refreshing sleep each night. Research shows as little as 6 hours sleep per night can result in consuming an additional 1200 kilojoules (one extra meal) per day. Lack of sleep disregulates appetite hormones, cortisol, decreases motivation to exercise and makes you more likely to crave sugary, fatty foods. Sleeping an extra hour or two each night seems like an effortless way to achieve a healthy weight.

[bctt tweet=”Sleeping less than 6 hours a night can result in consuming an additional 1200 kilojoules (one extra meal) per day.” username=”_yourremedy”]


Hormonal balance is required to maintain a healthy weight. Hormones interact with other, so if one gets out of whack, it will impact the others. This can sometimes make it a little tricky to find out where the problem began.



Cortisol is often thought of as the bad guy, but the truth is cortisol is essential to a healthy body. The problem is modern lifestyles make it very easy for us to have too much floating around. Acute rises in cortisol help burn fat, but if it is chronically elevated, it stimulates lipoprotein lipase and neuropeptide Y which increase the storage of fat and make the fat cells larger. It also releases glucose increasing the demand for insulin.


The thyroid needs a little cortisol to efficiently function, however excess cortisol decreases the amount of the active hormone (T3) and increases the amount of reverse T3. Reverse T3 is a problem as it occupies thyroid receptors but doesn’t switch them on, and blocks T3 from accessing the receptors. This mechanism is one of the reasons you can have thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) in range but still have classic hypothyroid symptoms. The problem is downstream from the hormone being tested.



To maintain a healthy body weight you need your thyroid in good working order. The thyroid regulates your basal metabolic rate. Some of the things sabotaging the thyroid include stress, nutrient deficiencies, poor gut function, imbalance of other hormones (estrogen, cortisol, insulin) and any illness where mitochondrial function is impaired (chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis).



Insulin is necessary to get glucose into our cells however too much especially in the prescience of elevated cortisol is a recipe for fat storage. (This is why maxing out on the Tim Tams when you are stressed is a terrible idea – metabolically speaking) Diets high in refined sugar, processed foods, vegetable oil, alcohol, inactivity and sleep deprivation increase insulin. Eventually excess insulin leads to Type 2 diabetes. It’s worth remembering you can have a normal range blood glucose level and high insulin. It’s the elevated insulin keeping the blood glucose in range. However, this is not a situation your body can maintain in the long term.



Leptin controls satiety and monitors how much fat you have in storage. If everything is humming along nicely leptin signals your brain you have adequate fat stores and metabolic rate and appetite are maintained. However, if you go on a severely calorie restricted diet the leptin signal to your brain decreases, your body thinks a famine might but coming, so it lowers your metabolic rate to conserve fat stores, increases your appetite (grehlin) and increases cortisol which breaks down muscle and increases fat. The very opposite of what you are trying to achieve. Once you stop the diet the body will lay down extra fat “just in case”. This is the danger of Yo-Yo dieting.


Another scenario can happen with leptin – leptin resistance. Overeating, blood sugar surges, increased triglycerides, excessive fructose (from high-density corn syrup and the like, not fruit) and chronic stress create an overwhelmingly high leptin signal from your brain. After a time the brain becomes resistant to these excessively loud messages and interprets this as the famine signal. You’ll want to laze around but have a raging appetite.


Sex hormones and weight loss




Estrogen naturally declines as women transition into menopause. It can also decline due to cancer treatment, excessive exercise, eating disorders, pituitary gland dysfunction and kidney disease. Estrogen suppresses appetite with a similar mechanism to the leptin. It interacts with insulin and the thyroid to boost metabolism and also controls the type and distribution of body fat.



Too much estrogen has a negative impact on thyroid function decreasing the amount of thyroxine (T4 produced). Excess estrogen can be caused by poor gut health, impaired liver detoxification, obesity (fat cells convert androgens to estrogen), inflammatory foods, perimenopause and environmental (xenoestrogens).



Progesterone supports the thyroid and increases your metabolic rate. Progesterone production is affected by stress and anything related to reducing ovulation (PCOS, perimenopause, excess exercise, eating disorders).



Testosterone increases lean muscle mass and reduces body fat. Having appropriate muscle mass supports metabolism. Having adequate levels is important for both men and women. Obesity, inflammation, diabetes, stress and high cortisol all impact testosterone levels.


Hormone balancing is complex, so you should consider working with a health professional.



Chronic low-grade inflammation contributes to obesity. Inflammatory mediators stimulate cortisol, histamine and impair the ability of the brain to read the leptin signal. One of the most significant contributors to this kind of inflammation is diet (a lack of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals from fruits, vegetables and omega-three oils and an excess of refined carbohydrates, alcohol and saturated fats). Food intolerances can also cause inflammation.


[bctt tweet=”Inflammation stimulates cortisol, histamine and impairs the ability of the brain to read the leptin signal.” username=”_yourremedy”]


Other triggers of chronic inflammation may be persistent, smouldering viral/bacterial/fungal/parasitic infections. Chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products, pesticides or heavy metals may also contribute to inflammation.


If you are struggling with maintaining a healthy weight and have not had the success you would like with just diet and exercise perhaps it’s time to investigate the role of stress, sleep and hormonal balance. By taking an interest in the supporting cast of weight loss, you may just get your happy ending!

If you liked this you may also enjoy:

Why women gain weight in their 40s

Why sleep needs to be part of your weight loss strategy


Need help with your health?

Norelle Hentschel is an experienced Naturopath with a clinic in Stones Corner, Brisbane who enjoys supporting her clients to reach their health goals.


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