[By Jaycee Chung]

We all know a skinny friend who can stuff her face with KFC and not gain a pound and we all will also know another chubby friend who can drink water yet gain weight. Why the disparity? There’s emerging evidence that your brain and even household chemicals can play a major role in weight gain.

Even to conscientious eaters, a slice of chocolate cake can be irresistible. What’s baffling is why certain people give in to their cravings so frequently while others manage to resist temptation time and time again. Recently, researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (MNIH) have found a possible explanation: The second we see delicious-looking food, a hormone in our gut called ghrelin starts sending powerful signals to the brain telling us to eat that cake now.

This finding is one of many in an exploding field of research aimed at uncovering the causes of excess weight. In fact, researchers believe we are closer to recognizing just how complicated obesity is. The good news is that the sooner we unearth what causes us to gain weight and hold on to it, the sooner we can find a cure for obesity, or simply a solution to dropping those extra 10 pounds. Here we shed light on some surprising discoveries on what causes one to gain or lose weight, and how we can harness them to our advantage:

1. RETHINK

Rethink what is delicious, that is. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers studying the gut hormone ghrelin found that it increases the neural response—and, therefore, appetite in regions of the brain responsible for coding the incentive values of food.

In other words, when we see food we like, we are exceedingly compelled to eat it. The bad news is that unfortunately, our brains are likely wired to value high-calorie foods, an evolutionary instinct honed when food is scarce or difficult to obtain.

One way to counter this is to increase the appeal of low-calorie foods by thinking about them more positively. Stocking your fridge with low calorie foods also increases their appeal as they are more readily accessible to you when you feel hunger pangs.

2. THYROID

Get your thyroid checked. Small dips in thyroid function are associated with weight gain, according to a study in the March 2008 Archives of Internal Medicine. The Thyroid Foundation of Canada estimates that 2 in every 100 people have an under-active thyroid, or hypothyroidism. And when this gland in the neck does not secrete enough hormones, it can result in lower metabolic rates (other symptoms include fatigue, hair loss and weight gain).

What’s interesting is that endocrinologists also discover that women whose serum thyrotropin (TSH) levels were relatively high, but still within the normal range gained up to four pounds over three and a half years compared to women whose TSH did not increase. What this means is that even if your hormones are within the normal range, if they are on the high end of normal, they can still lead to some difficulties in losing weight.

Speak to your doctor for advice.

3. CHEMICALS

Avoid bisphenol A and other household chemicals as research shows that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) at an early stage in life can increase the risk of certain cancers; bisphenol A (BPA) may be one of these chemicals. Now a team at Tufts University has discovered yet another reason to avoid prenatal or perinatal exposure to BPA: It may cause weight gain later in life.

When a fetus or baby is exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, the body’s set point [the balance between energy in, as calories, and energy burned] is irreversibly altered.

Of course, EDC exposure is not the only risk factor for obesity—diet and exercise are major players—nor does exposure early in life guarantee weight troubles later. But it does help explain why some people have more difficulty losing weight and keeping it off than others. To be on the safe side, it is recommended that one should avoid EDCs where possible, including phthalates (found in some cosmetics and cleaning products) and BPA. That means opting for fresh foods over canned (many of which have a lining that contains BPA), avoiding polycarbonate water bottles and not heating foods in plastic containers.

4. BOTTOM vs TUMMY

Don’t worry about an ample bottom; tummy fat is the real problem. According to research published in the journal Cell Metabolism in May 2008, subcutaneous fat, which is found around the hips and bottom, may actually provide some protection against type 2 diabetes. Subcutaneous fat appears to make a substance that is secreted into the blood and improves insulin sensitivity and metabolism.

However it is a different story when it comes to belly fat. University of Western Ontario researchers reported a startling discovery. The kind of fat cells found in the abdomen produce a hormone—neuropeptide Y—that acts as an appetite stimulant. (Appetite was formerly thought to originate only in the brain.) Worse, the hormone stimulates further fat cell production. This research, published in The FASEB Journal in July 2008, suggests that women who tend to carry weight around their middle may find it harder to lose overall body fat.

According to fitness trainer David Low “It’s tough to spot-reduce belly fat with exercise”. The best approach to slim down all over is combined aerobic and resistance exercise. “When resistance exercises are done properly, they should elevate your heart rate,” he says.

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2 thoughts on “Program your body for Skinniness”

  1. does this mean that drinking too much canned soup can cause your body to be programmed for fatness? it does make sense that fresh is best. that is why many developed nations are having an obesity problem as people go for quick options such as tv dinners or canned foods.

  2. Yea, my friend can eat a bunch of things and not gain weight, so nice to not gain weight even when we eat a bunch of things.

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