Healthy eating is not about strict dietary limitations, staying unrealistically thin, or depriving yourself of the foods you love. Rather, it’s about feeling great, having more energy, improving your outlook, and stabilizing your mood.
And the right foods power up the hormones that do all of those things. The right eating strategy can increase metabolism, energy, mood, and your brain power.
Using this approach at every meal keeps your blood sugar stable, your energy up, and boosts the glucagon that burns fat (it also works in opposition to insulin, which signals the body to store fat and increases appetite and cravings). Adding fiber to each meal also increases adiponectin, which regulates glucose levels.
Taking in a steady supply of protein throughout the day is also important, because it boosts the hormones that help us burn fat (glucagon) and those that control our appetite and make us feel full (like peptide YY in the gut), every time we eat it. Furthermore, the essential amino acids found in almonds and leafy greens—the building blocks of protein necessary to produce thyroid hormone, serotonin, dopamine, melatonin and growth hormone—cannot be manufactured by the body, so they must be a vital component of our diet.
This includes the range between the minimum amount needed to preserve your muscle mass and the ideal amount you should consume to encourage muscle growth. You have a daily range of 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
On the days you strength train and do yoga, you need to consume protein based on the 2.2 gram calculation. On other days, you should not go below a minimum amount of protein, calculated at 1.6 gram per kilogram. (To calculate your protein intake range, divide your weight in pounds it by 2.2 to find your weight in kilograms, then multiply this amount by 1.6 and 2.2 to find your daily range of protein intake.) I recommend sticking to your calculated minimum if you have more than 40 pounds to lose.
Sticking to a high-protein breakfast increases thyroid hormone and sets your dopamine levels for the day—which means you will enjoy better appetite control and stay craving-free while avoiding that mid-afternoon slump. This means breads, cereals, bagels, etc., are off limits. The first few days may feel challenging, but I promise it will quickly become second nature.
Skipping fruit and other carbs at breakfast helps to keep you in the same ketogenic (fat-burning) state that happens overnight and lasts until your first carb-containing meal of the day. I don’t usually recommend this right away when you set out to lose weight—I like to save it as a tweak for later use. You may want to kick in the carb-free breakfast as a means of tricking your metabolism, though, if you feel your results are slowing down or if you’ve hit a weight-loss plateau.
We’ve been hearing about the importance of eating three square meals a day for years, and the advice might not be as outdated as it seems. If you consume enough protein, avoid excess carbs at mealtimes and eat regularly, you can avoid messing with the hormones that keep weight off. But if you skip meals, wait too long between meals, fail to consume enough protein, or eat the wrong foods, your body will experience more dips and spikes than it should—and that will throw your hormones, such as insulin and cortisol, out of whack.
Specifically, waiting too long to eat between meals causes a blood sugar drop, which triggers a stress response in your body, which in turn releases cortisol—causing you to crash hard. That means you’ll probably overeat at your next meal, leading to a blood sugar and insulin spike. You can break this cycle by eating three or four square meals. If you choose to eat four times a day, have a meal that contains whey protein as your third one, to cut cravings and balance cortisol so you will eat less at your next meal.
The concept of eating your carbs early in the day because you will have a better chance of burning them off could actually be setting you up for cravings all day long. Eating a starchy carb—like potatoes or beans—early in the day creates cravings for them later. So I suggest you eat only one with your last meal.
Do not combine your starchy carb selection with fruit in your evening meal. Chose one or the other, not both. At this point in the day, that carb will raise your serotonin levels, which helps with sleep. And sleep is one of the best fat-burning activities when we create the optimum conditions for it.
Consuming at least one starchy carb per day also helps to maintain testosterone. A diet free of starchy carbs lowers testosterone and serotonin and increases stress hormones, all of which are bad for weight loss.
Last, don’t forget the impact that eating starch only with the evening meal has on boosting adiponectin during the day. This can lead to greater weight loss and seems to be easier to do than restrict carbs at night. And we all know that any diet you can stick to is the one for you.
Why the cheat meal? Continuous caloric restriction is not an effective long-term fat-loss solution; it is simply not sustainable. The short-term victories achieved with that type of eating are always followed with rebound weight gain. Whether we like it or not, hormones will kick in to return the body to its status quo.
From a physiological standpoint, a cheat meal serves to increase your thyroid hormone (particularly the conversion of T4 to T3), lower levels of reverse T3 (which can block the action of T3), and generally boost your metabolism. Remember that the human body is an adaptive machine—when you reduce overall calories, the body adapts and lowers your metabolism as a survival mechanism. Believe it or not, introducing a weekly cheat meal keeps your metabolism guessing and actually increases your long-term success. It prevents hunger and cravings and refuels your muscles’ energy stores, particularly glycogen, which helps to maintain strength and endurance for your workouts.
Go for the hormone-boosting foods. There are certain foods with additional hormone boost properties that you may want to include in your diet:
- Nuts, especially walnuts, as a fat source.
- Pears—think of them as the new apple. Have them a few times a week as your carb selection at a meal.
- Low-fat cheese is a protein source to have at least once daily, if you can tolerate dairy.
- Whey protein should be the protein source for your 4 p.m. meal (options include ricotta cheese, whey protein powder, Greek yogurt, and protein bars with whey protein base, such as the B-UP bar).
- Olive oil or hemp hearts are my favorite option for your fat at breakfast. Olive oil boosts adiponectin and shrinks the size of your fat cells. Hemp hearts provide a rich source of GLA oil, which is great for combating belly fat, reducing inflammation and moisturizing your skin.
- Tomato juice—I always go for this option on flights—with water to combat sodium. Although it may sound like strange advice, the natural acidic quality of this tasty drink offers us weight-loss benefits. And because it boosts adiponectin when consumed once a day, it can reduce belly fat. Drinking something acidic after your meal is known to reduce the glycemic load (or blood sugar impact), which then blunts the increase of insulin and leads to less sugar being stored as fat.
- Blueberries—Adiponectin is naturally released when we exercise. Produced by our fat cells, it increases metabolism, improves insulin sensitivity, and reduces inflammation and the risk of heart disease. It appears that blueberries are the only fruit to stimulate the release of this hormone, thanks to a phytonutrient found in blueberries’ skin. Additionally, blueberries help fat loss by improving insulin balance. A recent study showed that obese people who drank one blueberry smoothie a day for six weeks had a 22 percent improvement in insulin sensitivity, which ultimately equates to better fat metabolism. Just a half a cup per day will do the trick.
If your diet is hormonally balanced, you should be craving-free. An out-of-control appetite or desire for something sweet, however, usually means you are not consuming enough protein, are taking in too much carbohydrate, or are sleep deprived or stressed out.