By Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
I am constantly receiving questions from readers and patients about achieving weight loss and all the factors that impact their success. Here are five that might be helpful to you as well:
- What makes a food addictive?
Most addiction involves high glycemic foods, salt, oil or high fat animal products, such as cheese. The addictive potential is related to the amount of calories and how quickly those calories are absorbed. When a huge flood of calories enter the bloodstream all at once, as is the case with commercial baked goods, sweet desserts, and foods rich in oil, such as fried foods, the chance for dopamine stimulation in the brain is greater. Dopamine is the major hormone involved in addiction.
The other side to food addiction is the uncomfortable withdrawal from a poor diet that most people mistakenly classify as hunger. These withdrawal-type addictive symptoms, that I call “toxic hunger” are not based on any specific addictive food but on the (low) nutritional quality of the entire diet. In other words, if the micronutrient quality is low enough, inflammation and antioxidant stress will build up, increasing toxic waste in the cells and tissues. This makes addictive withdrawal occur, just from the overall nature of the diet that is too low in nutrients and usually too high in calories and unhealthful substances.
- How much sugar in my diet is too much?
Added sugars contribute to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, impaired cognitive function, and cancers. Added sugars may be listed on ingredient labels as sugar, honey, evaporated cane juice, brown sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, maple syrup, agave syrup, coconut sugar or fruit juice concentrates. Regardless of the name, these nutrient-deficient substances are absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream, raising blood sugar and insulin to dangerous levels; or in the case of the higher fructose sweeteners, increasing cholesterol and triglyceride levels. The average American gets about 15 percent of calories from added sugars, and getting 10 percent of calories from added sugars is associated with an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease compared to lower sugar intake.
It is likely that any amount of added sugar is too much. Eating foods with added sugars habituates us to their excessively sweet tastes, driving cravings and overeating. For optimal health, I recommend that you strengthen your taste buds to prefer the more subtle sweetness of fruit. If you are eating according to true hunger and are not diabetic, limiting fruit intake is most likely not necessary; however it is possible to overeat, especially on dried fruit or dates. Three to five servings of fruit per day (depending on your calorie needs), with a focus on berries and pomegranate, is a reasonable guideline.
- Can lack of sleep actually cause me to gain weight?
Sleep deprivation alters hormones and increases appetite. In the past 40 years, sleep loss has increased dramatically. The proportion of young adults sleeping 8 to 8.9 hours per night decreased from 41% in 1960 to 23.5% in 2001 to 2002. During this time, the incidence of obesity has nearly doubled. It is very likely that sleep curtailment in humans may be a risk factor for obesity.
Bottom line: You can’t fool mother nature. We don’t just cause premature aging from lack of sleep, it also encourages overeating. We consistently observe that when we don’t meet our body’s needs for sleep, exercise, highly nutritious food, clean air and water, we pay a price — disease. Health care should not merely be “drug care and drug research”; it should involve improving the quality of air, water and food supply and educating the public about the key issues to protect their health — key issues like sleep.
- I have always been told, and read in many books, that a safe amount of weight loss would be 1-2 pounds a week. I know in your book, Eat to Live, you mentioned that many people lose a pound a day at first. Can you lose weight too fast?
I just had a patient in my office who lost 50 pounds in two months. Neither she nor I controlled the amount of weight she lost, her body did it on its own, just from eating healthy for the first time in her life, and with eating as much as she desired. This individual lost lots of weight fast, but she lost the weight with all the nutrients she needs for superior health.
The bottom line is that when you eat in a healthy manner, your body does what is best. You cannot lose weight or heal too fast. You cannot save a person’s life too quickly. We must remove life-threatening habits and eating patterns fully if we want to make sure someone does not die needlessly. I do not advocate fast or slow weight loss, rather I advocate eating in the healthiest manner possible. When you do that, your body will naturally move to a healthier weight, at the speed it chooses, not some predetermined rate set by someone’s opinion.
- Any tips on staying away from sweets and treats that are constantly around us?
Absolutely. This is exactly why I’ve spent the last couple years developing my website, DrFuhrman.com. Because you’re right, we are in a society where a person who eats to maintain an ideal weight or so they do not have a heart attack is seen as being odd, whereas those who are essentially killing themselves with unhealthy food are in the majority.
It does help to get the emotional support of a community of like-minded people. And within that community, we learn a lot of simple tricks — like making a big pot of vegetable bean soup once a week, taking plenty of extra food with you to work, or making great tasting, healthy desserts — to avoid being hungry when the only foods around are unhealthy ones. Obviously it would be much easier if convenience foods and most restaurants catered to truly healthy eating. So I know it can be tough. I know people who after months of eating a nutrient-rich diet say, “I love the food, the recipes taste great and I have dropped 50 pounds; the problem is that I have no friends anymore.” I’m somewhat kidding, but the point is that our society supports a toxic diet style, not nutritional excellence.
At times people often feel threatened or frustrated by someone not eating the foods that they like, and I believe there are a couple reasons for this. First, food has become a form of recreation and is often, understandably, a focus of social gatherings. When you say no to the foods others are eating sometimes people can take that as though you’re saying no to them. So of course, it’s always wise to pass on any food you don’t want in a thoughtful way. At times, though, the annoyance is a result of someone’s food addictions. Like the alcoholic that doesn’t want to drink alone, they may feel threatened if there is some suggestion that there’s something wrong with the food they are eating.
Read about Dr. Fuhrman’s eating plan to lose weight, prevent and reverse heart disease, and live your healthiest life in The End of Heart Disease: The Eat to Live Plan to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.
Check out Dr. Fuhrman’s The End of Dieting: How to Live for Life for more tips on losing weight and keeping it off.
Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg EW, et al. Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA Intern Med 2014.
Annals of Internal Medicine, Dec. 7, 2004