Beyond Calories: How Fat Loss Works
A calorie is not a calorie.
It’s a line that has created more confusion and debate than almost anything else in nutrition. But -- when understood -- it’s a theory that can finally help you understand how fat loss works, what will work for your body, and how mushrooms can have a surprising impact on how your body processes and stores food.
Making sense of calorie confusion means you have to understand the idea of “energy balance.” In the most basic sense, you consume energy via food, and you burn energy via exercise and movement. But that’s really only part of the story. There are many aspects that influence both how you burn and store energy. Your lifestyle, the kinds of food you eat, even your mental state can exert an incredibly powerful effect on your waistline. When you understand how to maximize the burning and minimize the storage, that’s when fat loss becomes a reality.
Balancing Blood Sugar with Mushrooms
Let’s start with food.
“The type of food you eat can make weight loss a lot easier or a lot harder,” says Leyla Shamayeva, MS, RD, a New York City-based dietitian. “It is much easier to consume a thousand calories of brownies than It is to eat a thousand calories of mushrooms.”
Calories certainly matter, but it’s not just whether or not you hit a calorie goal, it’s how you get there. It’s food quality — protein, fiber, fats, and nutrients — not just food quantity. And picking high quality foods will ultimately have a much bigger effect on satiety, wellness, and weight loss.
Let’s start with one of the most misunderstood macronutrients: carbohydrates. When you eat carbohydrates (and a little when you eat protein), your body releases insulin, which works to take the sugar out of the bloodstream and into your organs, mostly the liver and muscles where it can be used for energy.
Consuming a lot of refined carbs a lot of the time means a higher likelihood of releasing more insulin. And in a manner that’s a little like how drinking coffee every day makes you less sensitive to caffeine, eating a lot of refined carbohydrates like sugar, white flour, and most junk food can make you less sensitive to insulin.
When you’re less sensitive to insulin (or “insulin resistant”), your body needs to release more and more insulin to have the same effect of moving sugar out of your bloodstream. Eventually, the pancreas (which produces insulin) gets exhausted and stops being able to release it properly, which is when Type 2 diabetes occurs.
But there’s a spectrum between perfect insulin sensitivity (which is probably unattainable for most people) and diabetes, and most people fall somewhere between the two extremes.
What does this have to do with fat loss? Insulin resistance doesn’t just move you closer to diabetes, it increases the risk of thyroid problems, several kinds of cancer, and it also makes it harder to lose fat because the body has a harder time processing carbohydrates. So if you’re insulin resistant, even if you’re eating the right amount of calories, you’re more likely to store body fat.
You can improve your insulin sensitivity first and foremost by sticking to fibrous carbs that digest slowly, like whole grains and legumes (exercise helps too), but there are also some foods that contain compounds that are specifically linked to better insulin sensitivity.
Many cultures have used mushrooms for various health benefits for hundreds of years. Gradually, modern research has also been catching up with this ancient wisdom. A significant amount of the carbohydrates in mushrooms, called polysaccharides, have been linked to lower levels of blood sugar and anti-diabetic effects — and that’s in addition to their anti-obesity, anti-carcinogenic, and anti-viral properties. There’s more and more evidence that high molecular weight polysaccharides found from mushrooms can be used as prebiotic agents to prevent gut dysbiosis (translation: bacterial buildup in your intestines).
So if you want to maximize your fat loss, it’s important that you improve your insulin sensitivity. This can be done by making sure each meal includes protein and fiber, and be sure to consume polysaccharides as well, which is what you receive from mushrooms.
Fat Loss Fix: Offsetting Stress
Stress can be hard to define, but you know it when you feel it because it is indeed a physiological reaction to your lifestyle. Stress isn’t just a mental phenomenon, it’s physical.
There’s a very big difference between the momentary stress of asking your boss for a day off, the chronic stress of a high pressure job, the post-traumatic stress felt by war veterans and everything in between. However, stress is common enough that the American Psychological Association has deemed it a major health problem in the United States. Money and work were named the leading causes of stress for over 75 percent of Americans in a 2006 poll, and nearly half of Americans report that stress has a significant negative impact on their personal and professional lives.
You might be aware that stress has been linked to a variety of ailments like high blood pressure and heart attacks, but it’s less well-known that it’s strongly linked to weight gain as well.
“Paying more attention to stress management has been a real game changer for many of my clients who struggle to lose weight,” says Jake Boly, CSCS, a personal trainer and weight management specialist based in New York City. “Constant stress is a common problem with weight gain in modern society, and many people don’t know it. One of the reasons is that stress releases cortisol, along with increasing our hunger hormones. This can in turn make us consume extra calories unknowingly.”
Basically, you feel stressed because you feel threatened, and your body reacts as though there’s an actual predator you need to do battle with by releasing adrenaline. That's why stress can make you fidgety, anxious, and energetic — it’s really a “fight-or-flight” mechanism that ramps up blood pressure to prepare the body to either run from or attack a threat. (A threat that is typically a less corporeal problem like a missed deadline, but of course, your nervous system doesn’t quite understand the difference.)
Adrenaline taps your stored energy reserves, and hormones like cortisol and ghrelin stimulate your appetite so that you replenish your energy stores…. even if you didn’t really use them. Worse still, these hormones make you crave high calorie foods, the kinds of foods that are useful in the wild, but less useful when you’re a stressed out desk jockey.
But not only do these hormones make you less likely to stick to a low-calorie diet, they also mess with hormones related to body fat. For example, cortisol reduces testosterone, and testosterone is a super important hormone that’s not just linked to better mental health, but also better body composition, meaning your body fat levels.
Put simply, studies have shown that more cortisol means more belly fat. Even if you keep your calories in check, you’re more likely to store excess fat if you’re not managing your stress well.
“There’s no shortage of information out there about how to manage stress and cortisol, but the most effective way to do so is to make absolutely certain you’re getting eight hours of deep, restful sleep per night,” says Boly. “Exercise, particularly weight training, also helps with stress management and it increases your testosterone levels as well, which will have a beneficial effect on your body composition.”
What gets less attention is the fact that the nutrients you consume can improve stress levels as well. Magnesium, for example, is often called a “relaxation nutrient” as it has a significant effect on stress levels, sleep quality, and blood pressure. The best dietary sources are leafy greens and nuts; another reason to eat your spinach.
But science is also beginning to realize the extraordinary power of adaptogens, naturally occurring substances that protect the body from stress by stabilizing and optimizing its physiological functions.
Adaptogens support immune functions to help protect you from disease, and help your body adapt to the daily stresses it endures, whether mental or physical. Many plants and mushrooms—such as cordyceps and reishi—are well known for their adaptogenic properties.
Hopefully, you now understand that weight gain is about much more than just calories in, calories out. It’s about the quality of food you consume and key nutritional compounds that your body needs to handle stress and stabilize blood sugar. And when that happens, the concept of “calories” and the fat loss process begins to feel much less complicated.