"Calories in, calories out" has traditionally been the mantra of doctors counseling women on weight loss. While your best friend can eat hot fudge sundaes without gaining a pound, you look at a bagel and it seems to go straight to your thighs. Your doctor may tell you you're clearly consuming more calories than you realize. But if you feel that you are starving and the scale doesn't budge, consider another part of the weight-loss equation--your hormones.
Estrogen and progesterone work in delicate balance to drive a woman's monthly menstrual cycle and fertility. Some women experience cyclical weight gain and loss each month as hormonal levels fluctuate. Pregnancy, breastfeeding, hormonal birth control and menopause can all disrupt the body's delicate equilibrium, making weight loss exceedingly difficult.
During the childbearing years, a woman's body produces three distinct types of estrogen--estrone, estradiol and estriol.
As menopause approaches, the ovaries' production of estradiol decreases dramatically. In an attempt to restore hormonal balance, the body strives to add belly fat, which is a reliable producer of estrone. The more belly fat you have, the more estrone you produce. As your body fat composition increases, your lean muscle mass decreases and your metabolism slows. Your daily caloric requirements also decrease with age. It's no wonder the average woman gains 12 lbs. during menopause.
Progesterone is considered the body's "feel-good" hormone. An imbalance in the estrogen-to--progesterone ratio caused by hormonal birth control, exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals or estrone-producing belly fat can lead to symptoms of estrogen dominance. These include severe PMS, depression and, of course, weight gain. Estrogen dominance and obesity can also lead to an increased risk of breast cancer and heart disease.
Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas that essentially tells the body to store ingested sugar as fat. A diet high in refined carbohydrates eventually leads to a syndrome of insulin resistance, which can be a precursor to diabetes. Insulin resistance also plays a role in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a leading cause of infertility.
Michael Aziz, M.D., author of "The Perfect 10 Diet," notes that the low-fat diet touted by doctors for years for weight loss has led to overconsumption of refined carbs and a virtual epidemic of insulin resistance.
A key component to breaking the vicious cycle of hormonal imbalance is the low-glycemic index diet. Eat a diet high in protein. Consume healthy fats containing omega-3s such as nuts and monounsaturated oils. Choose whole-grain carbohydrates, which contain filling fiber, and also keep the digestive system functioning optimally. Keep your insulin levels balanced throughout the day by eating frequent, small meals and avoiding the appetite spikes that starches and refined sugars cause. As your belly fat melts away, you store less estrogen, and your weight loss accelerates.
Natural remedies such as chasteberry and black cohosh are generally considered safe and effective for regulating minor hormonal imbalances. Under a doctor's supervision, bioidentical hormone supplementation may also be considered.
Exercise is a key to any weight-loss program and is crucial to regulating insulin levels. Eat organic food when possible and try to minimize contact with endocrine-disrupting chemicals in substances from cosmetics to plastics.