Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
It's clear that there's a lot more to weight loss that just calories in and calories out, but what are those other dynamics at play? Research suggests many stem from inflammation, which means reducing inflammation is not only essential, but also a good first step to long-term weight loss.
But how exactly does inflammation prevent the body from losing weight? I'm breaking down the connection, plus five ways to prevent inflammation from stifling your weight-loss goals.
Inflammation and Body Weight
When inflammation is present, even those with the most disciplined eating and exercise habits may find they can make little progress losing weight. The reason stems largely from changes seen when the body gains weight or is carrying excess weight, many of which are cyclical and build on one another. Here's a brief look at how inflammation and weight are connected.
Inflammation increases with weight gain.
Weight gain is associated with increased inflammation in the body. A 2019 study found that levels of a key inflammatory marker in the blood known as C-reactive protein (CRP) increased as weight increased. This inflammation appears to be triggered by hormonal and metabolic changes and remains until excess weight is lost.
Inflammation and weight gain leads to insulin resistance.
Inflammation in the body can lead to insulin resistance. This is due to inflammatory compounds that impair the way insulin works. This leads to higher glucose levels, as well as fat accumulation in the liver which further contributes to insulin resistance. They can then start to fuel one another, causing a viscious cycle: weight gain causes more insulin resistance, and insulin resistance leads to more weight gain.
Weight gain triggers leptin resistance.
Leptin is a key hormone that tells the brain when to eat, when to stop eating and when to speed up or slow down metabolism. However, research suggests that leptin functioning is altered with weight gain and inflammation. The effect is that the brain doesn't get proper feedback, so leptin levels remain low which triggers appetite to increase and metabolism to slow (as if the body were starving) making weight loss pursuits even harder.
The inflammatory combination of weight gain, insulin resistance and leptin resistance build on each other, but may also be exacerbated by things like stress, lack of sleep, eating processed foods and a sedentary lifestyle. Looking at these inflammatory effects associated with weight gain, it's easy to see why simply monitoring calories-in versus calories-out just doesn't work.
How to Reduce Inflammation to Lose Weight
Whether you're carrying an extra 10 pounds of body fat or an extra 60 pounds, you're likely experiencing some level of inflammation, which makes the body irritated and stressed. In a situation like this, the body's primary focus is survival and healing, not weight loss. So, to lose weight, it's key to reduce inflammation and other potential irritants to help the body get back to more "normal" operating conditions.
So, how do you reduce inflammation to lose weight? Here are five things to do.
Skip processed foods and added sugars.
Chemicals, additives, coloring, added sugars, and other compounds in processed foods are all potential sources of irritation. Avoiding these ingredients by choosing more whole foods and minimally processed products foods is key to reducing inflammation to lose weight. When purchasing a packaged produce, take a look at the ingredients list. Are the ingredients listed what you might use if making the food from a recipe at home? If the answer is yes, then this is likely a minimally processed product and a good choice. If not, try to opt for something else.
Incorporate anti-inflammatory produce and fats.
While getting rid of irritants, it's also just as important to refuel with foods that contain compounds that have anti-inflammatory effects like antioxidants, phytochemicals and omega-3 fatty acids. Good sources of these are vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish and healthy fats, such as plant-based oils, nuts and avocados.
So load up on leafy greens and cruciferous veggies like cauliflower and broccoli; snack on berries and nuts; incorporate fatty fish like salmon into your menu two times per week and use moderate amounts of healthy oils like extra-virgin olive oil.
Go to bed on time.
Did you know that many health professionals now consider sleep just as important to weight loss as diet and activity? Adult bodies need approximately 7 to 8 hours of continuous sleep most nights to rest, repair and recharge for the next day. Sure, caffeine may help energy levels temporarily, but the effects of inadequate sleep go a lot further. Routinely not getting enough sleep (6 hours or less) leaves the body without the resources it needs to function properly, creating new inflammation and aggravating existing inflammation.
Incorporate gut-friendly foods.
Strengthening the gut's microbe barrier is essential to reducing inflammation because it can prevent future irritants from slipping through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream. To do this, try to incorporate foods every day that are fermented or contain active live bacteria cultures such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso or kimchi.
As much as we want to focus strictly on food and exercise for weight loss, mental and psychological health is just as important because low-grade inflammation won't go away if stress levels run continuously high. Finding a way to escape that stress—such as doing yoga, meditating or a walking for 10 minutes a day—provides quick relief psychologically and anti-inflammatory effects physiologically. If stress is too much of daily problem, learning how to manage and cope when it does occur is key for not triggering new inflammation or aggravating existing inflammation.