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I've listed being overweight under disease conditions even though it's not normally thought of as a disease. However, I consider being overweight, especially when it's associated with thyroid disease, as a disease condition. It is very often an abnormal health condition which is the result of nutritional deficiencies.
Before getting into the discussion of weight control, however, I'd like to preface it with a warning. Current fashions have set the ideal body weight at an extremely low value. In prior years a woman who was 5'4" tall was considered attractive if her weight were 20 pounds more that what is considered ideal today. Today the emaciated look is considered stylish, but I don't think that being extremely thin is best for health. I think a person's first goal is to get healthy even if that means not being extremely thin. You should try to get to a weight where you maximize energy, vitality, and strength and be happy with that weight whatever it is. Some people, because of body build and genetics, are going to be heavier or lighter than others. Find the optimum weight for you and don't get obsessed with attaining an unhealthy thinness.
The important factor concerning body weight is that it is a measure of your overall health. Being underweight or overweight is an indication that something is wrong with your health. Body weight is an observable measure of your health which you can use to determine if you are making progress.
There are a lot of nutritional and activity factors that affect weight. Many of these factors control the body's rate of metabolism, or how fast energy is produced from the food eaten. A person with a fast rate of metabolism uses calories up fast and is generally thin, while a person with a slow rate of metabolism is more likely to process food into fat. Exercise is known to raise the rate of metabolism for a period of time afterward (6-8 hours), so that a person will burn more calories in the hours after exercise as well as during exercise. In addition there are many nutrient factors that regulate the rate of metabolism. Before we get into those factors, let's look at what determines the rate of metabolism.
THYROID EFFECT ON WEIGHT
The thyroid controls the rate of metabolism in the body. How fast energy is produced in the body's cells is directly proportional to the T3 (triiodothyronine) that gets to those cells. If the thyroid is not producing sufficient hormone or the T4 hormone that the thyroid gland is producing is not being converted to enough T3 for the cells to use, or the cells are not receptive to the actions of T3, then the rate of metabolism will be low. A low metabolic rate is the main reason for being overweight.
A person with low thyroid function can exercise an hour or more a day, eat 1500 calories or less a day, and still gain weight. A person with high thyroidal function as seen in hyperthyroidism will lose weight including muscle mass even if they don't exercise and eat 3000-5000 calories a day. The lesson here is that thyroidal function is the most important variable in controlling weight. Exercise and caloric intake are factors, but are very small factors compared to the effect of thyroid hormone.
There are people who take thyroid hormone such as Synthroid for the sole purpose of keeping their weight down. This is not a good idea since it doesn't correct the underlying nutritional deficiencies which are causing the weight gain. Our thyroid glands have tremendous capacity to increase and decrease production of thyroid hormone as our bodies need changes. Getting our thyroid to produce the right amount of hormone naturally is much preferable to having to constantly monitor and adjust the amounts of an ingested hormone supplement. Let's look at how to increase thyroid output so that our bodies don't accumulate fat.
STEP ONE: DON'T FAST OR RESTRICT CALORIES
Most people know the lesson of how dieting affects metabolic rate but it's worth repeating. Restricting caloric intake causes the thyroid to reduce production of thyroid hormones and thereby lower the metabolic rate. This is an innate mechanism which has the result of preserving life when food is scarce. By eating less you lower your rate of metabolism and when you resume eating you gain weight rapidly.
Fasting and caloric reduction interspersed with periods of eating freely are the very best ways to gain weight and this technique is recommended for underweight persons. The problem is that this causes the thyroidal function to remain depressed, with consequent low energy levels, until the proper cues cause the thyroid to resume normal output. The lesson here is that if you want to lose weight don't do things to convince your body that there is a famine so that it reduces the metabolic rate to preserve body fat.
STEP TWO: CONVINCE YOUR BODY THAT FOOD IS ADEQUATE
Our bodies use many cues in determining how to set the body's thermostat, the thyroid. If protein or fat are restricted, the body senses that food is scarce and lowers the thyroidal output. If you consciously lower your protein and fat intake you will consume more calories than necessary because you'll have to eat more carbohydrates to make up the needed calories. Eating carbohydrates to the exclusion of fats and proteins causes you to overeat in order to get all the protein and fat that your body requires. Eat adequate amounts of protein and fat to satisfy your body's needs most efficiently without requiring it to sift through vast amounts of food to get these nutrients.
If protein and fat get severely restricted, thyroid output increases to the point where hyperthyroidism results. This is basically the body's last gasp to give you enough energy to go out and find some food to prevent death. Nutrients are severely depleted and the body begins to consume its own tissues for needed nutrients. Hyperthyroidism causes weight loss but this is not a good way to lose weight. It greatly increases long term nutrient deficiencies which take a long time to completely correct.
STEP THREE: GET ALL THE NUTRIENTS YOU REQUIRE TO AVOID NEEDING TO OVEREAT.
We crave food to satisfy our needs for all the essential nutrients. Besides essential amino acids in proteins and essential fats, we need minerals and vitamins. By eating foods which are deficient in nutrients, we need to eat an excessive amount of food to obtain all the essential nutrients. This is the reason eating white flour products and white sugar products causes weight gain--the lack of nutrients requires us to eat more of other foods to make up for the deficient nutrients.
Some of the foods that we eat will be deficient in key nutrients, usually minerals, because the soil on which they were grown was deficient. Eating a wide variety of foods and taking mineral supplements is the best way to avoid overeating in order to obtain all the necessary nutrients.
One of the ways that exercise helps us to lose weight is that it burns up calories allowing us to eat more food. With this increase in food intake, we take in more nutrients and and more likely to get the nutrients that we need.
This same principle applies when we are gaining weight. We are eating more food so we are getting more nutrients. The opposite happens when we try to eat less to lose weight: we become deficient in nutrients because of the reduced food intake. This is one reason why taking nutritional supplements helps lose weight: we don't need to eat a huge amount of food to obtain the required nutrients.
STEP FOUR: TRUST AND FOLLOW YOUR CRAVINGS
A food binge is an uncontrollable need to eat a particular food or class of foods. Our body's primitive brain which is wired for survival takes over because the thinking brain has made decisions which have led to a nutrient deficiency. While a food binge is a failure of will power, it's in the interest of the body to overpower the will.
Some people have extremely strong will power and can resist any food temptation. They develop an eating plan based upon their own or other's ideas and rarely give in to their temptations. They are completely subverting the body's innate mechanisms to obtain needed nutrients and they usually pay with increasingly poor health. I've been one of these people and seen lots of these people. You get sicker and sicker and wind up with many "food allergies" and chemical sensitivities which eventually cripple your life. Eventually you'll probably get hyperthyroidism or another endocrine disease. Trust your body to tell you what to eat.
If you have food binges, then it's important to find out what this indicates about your deficiencies. Sometimes by studying the foods you crave you can determine what nutrients you are missing. Sometimes the nutrients are obscure trace elements and you may never figure it out. However, if you can figure out what nutrients, which are usually minerals, that you are craving, you can supplement these and thereby reduce the need to eat huge amounts of the food which contains them.
Binging usually scares people because their eating feels completely out of control. To regain control, people put themselves "in jail", i.e. they go on a diet. However, if this diet does not contain all the needed nutrients, sooner or later there will be a "jail-break" and the person will go on another binge. This cycle of dieting and binging is very deleterious to the health and usually has the long-term effect of an increase in fat retention because the body interprets this as a famine-and-feast situation. It is much better to eat the foods you crave so that the nutrients you need don't get severely deficient.
NUTRIENTS WHICH CONTROL WEIGHT
Now that we have a general idea of what to do and what not to do so that our body doesn't "intentionally" slow thyroid function, let's look at the nutrients which affect thyroid function and thereby control the rate of metabolism. First, however, let's look at one factor which is difficult to call a nutrient but which affects nutrients.
If you ever really need to lose weight there is one sure method: eating raw foods. I ate raw foods for a whole year when I was younger and know many people who have done this for varying lengths of time. I know one person who has eaten an exclusively raw diet for about 30 years. He is about 65 years old but looks about 45 years old. In his description, he is "free from disease."
If you want to lose weight and have a tremendous increase in energy, it's possible to do this by eating an all-raw diet. However, there are some rules which you have to follow. The most important and hardest to follow is to restrict fruit consumption. My friend says the general rule is to eat two vegetable meals for each fruit meal. It is very easy and tempting to eat just fruit and you can eat a tremendous amount of fruit and not gain weight. However, eating only fruit depletes you of certain nutrients such as copper and zinc and in the long term you'll get sicker and sicker. Your energy level will drop and you will get thinner and thinner. There is a name for this and it's called malnutrition. Vegetables including ones we don't normally eat raw like squash and pumpkins are important to get all the necessary nutrients.
Eating raw foods will cause you to lose weight. You can eat all you want of any food as long as it's raw and not get overweight. If you ate only raw foods and became overweight it would be somewhat of a miracle.
If you have hyperthyroidism I would definitely not recommend starting a raw food diet. I've tried this and it just makes things worse. It's possible that starting an all-raw diet while hypo may not be a good idea either. The problem is that hypos are usually deficient in zinc and zinc is a difficult mineral to get on a raw food diet. Seeds like sunflower and pumpkin are good zinc sources, but in general zinc is scarce in a vegetarian diet. Selenium is important for hypos and selenium is actually more available in raw foods than in cooked foods. Cooking makes selenium less available for some reason. I wouldn't recommend to anyone who has a thyroid disease to start a raw food diet without a guide, someone who has done it and who can show you the way.
The important message about raw foods for those who wish to lose weight is that raw foods increase the rate of metabolism and will not cause weight gain. The foods that cause weight gain are cooked foods. Eat as high a percentage of raw foods that you are comfortable with and try to gradually increase that percentage.
If you are overweight and hypo remember that fruits are good for losing weight. The sugar in fruits will not cause you to gain weight. You can eat 10 pounds of fruit a day and not gain weight. I know because I've done it and known others who have done it. I don't recommend eating this much but just don't avoid fruit because you believe the sugar will make you gain weight. Cooked sugar will probably cause you to gain weight but not raw sugars in fruits.
Raw nuts and seeds are an excellent way to get raw proteins, fats, and minerals. These foods contain every nutrient necessary for life because they will grow into a plant. Eat raw nuts and seeds every day and use them to get your fat instead of eating cooked fat.
So if you are trying to lose weight, consider all raw foods to be "free" meaning that you can eat all you want of them. You only have to be careful about overeating cooked foods. For example if you are craving potatoes, eat raw potatoes (peeled--don't eat the skin) instead of cooked potatoes. At the end of the day when you are wired from eating raw foods all day, you may crave some cooked foods to help you relax.
Start each day as if it were going to be an all-raw food day. Try to go as long as possible. You'll find that raw foods will add to your energy level and get you through the day much easier than eating cooked foods, which have half their vitamins destroyed. At night or when you crave cooked foods, eat them. If you crave a hamburger or a pizza, go for it. Remember, don't deprive yourself of eating the foods you crave. Just try to postpone the cravings to the end of the day so that you have a good chance of satisfying those nutrient needs with raw foods first. Don't go to sleep without getting your day's food (remember nutrient) cravings satisfied.
SUPPLEMENTS FOR WEIGHT LOSS
The supplements which increase weight loss are basically the same ones which are recommended to increase thyroid function for hypos. Nutrients can be divided into two classes: those that increase thyroidal function and those that decrease it. To lose weight it's important to know which ones are which and what foods contain these nutrients. Before we get into specific nutrients, however, let's look at what may be the most important factor: digestive enzymes.
People who have thyroid disease and those who are overweight probably have poor digestion. This seems counterintuitive because you would think that people who are overweight have very good digestion, perhaps too good. However, the problem which causes overweight does not seem to be the amount of food which is converted into calories. Rather it is thyroidal function which determines the rate of metabolism and thereby determines the body weight.
What nutrients get into your cells is dependent on two things: what you eat and what portion of what you eat gets digested so that it can be assimilated. The key to assimilation is digestive enzymes. Without digestive enzymes, your food cannot be broken down and assimilated. There are many specific digestive enzymes that our bodies produce and these digest different types of foods such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. It's possible to have some digestive enzymes and not others so that you can easily digest carbohydrates but can't digest fats or proteins well.
Additionally, these digestive enzymes require trace elements for their manufacture in the body. Once you get deficient in a trace mineral required for a digestive enzyme, the digestive enzyme is not made in sufficient quantities. Your digestion decreases and then your supply of trace elements, fats, and proteins also decreases. This leads to the classic vicious circle where your health condition continually deteriorates. The best way to break this cycle is by taking digestive enzymes until the nutrients are replenished and your body is able once again to manufacture its own digestive enzymes.
People who are overweight because of low thyroid function are probably deficient in trace minerals and this deficiency could be from a lack of ingestion of foods which contain the trace minerals or it could be from the body's inability to extract the trace minerals from the food. I suspect that the latter condition is more prevalent.
What probably happens is that the person is able to digest the simple carbohydrates, i.e. the starches and sugars, well and these are converted into fat because of low thyroid function. What isn't being digested well are the proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates which contain the essential trace minerals. The result is lowered muscle mass from lack of protein and the breakdown of energy producing systems in the body leading to lower energy levels. Eventually you also develop trace mineral deficiencies which hamper thyroidal function and cause the food to be converted to fat.
When I was really hyperthyroid, I started taking digestive enzymes and noticed that my thyroidal function increased resulting in more severe hyper symptoms. Eventually I tracked it down to this: the digestive enzymes only made me more hyper when I also took a zinc supplement. My body was not digesting and absorbing zinc well on its own, and the digestive enzyme greatly increased the bioavailability of zinc.
Hypos are usually zinc deficient and this deficiency is an important cause of their hypothyroidism and weight gain. Zinc seems to be particularly hard to assimilate in persons with digestive deficiencies. This is the reason why hypos and those who are overweight should take digestive enzymes: to increase zinc absorption, because zinc is a key mineral for increasing thyroidal function.
Calcium has recently been found to play a role is weight control. A study on mice found that "How much calcium the animals consumed-and its source-greatly affected what share of their meals turned to fat. Reanalysis of data collected earlier on women supports that finding, another scientist adds."
Interestingly, calcium is also involved in thyroid hormone metabolism. One study on the effect of calcium on thyroid metabolism states: " The present study provides conclusive evidence for two central issues: that calcium is the first messenger for the prompt, plasma membrane-mediated action of thyroid hormone to increase cellular sugar uptake, and that thyroid hormone produces an acute increase in calcium uptake by the heart, an effect that is demonstrable at physiological concentrations and is thyroid hormone specific and, therefore, points to a physiological relevance for this action." Calcium is considered the first messenger of thyroid hormone at the plasma membrane. What this means is that if calcium is deficient, the thyroid hormone will not have the full effect on the cells in increasing the cellular metabolic rate.
In our research we've seen that hypers have to restrict calcium and supplement magnesium (the opposite mineral to calcium) to reduce the impact of the high thyroid hormones. Generally hypers need more magnesium and hypos need more calcium. Now we see that by increasing calcium, it's possible to lose weight because of the effect of calcium on increasing the cellular response to thyroid hormone and the resultant increase in metabolic rate.
You can read the full story from Science News by clicking here: Calcium may become a dieter's best friend
Zinc, selenium, iron, manganese, and chromium may be the most important minerals to regulate body fat because of their important roles in thyroid hormone metabolism.
The following study shows that a weight gain will result if copper is adequate and chromium is deficient.
John... please address weight loss
February 26, 2002
From: Lisa D.
John, I have avidly read every bit of info on your site here and I thank you for your dedication. I have been hypo for about 9 years now. At onset I went from being very thin to twenty five pounds heavier. After two years of not knowing what was wrong I was diagnosed and RX'd Synthroid. I immediately lost 20 pounds. I maintained that for quite a while but as time progressed I began gaining and gaining no matter how little I ate or what I ate (low carb, no carb, low fat, liquid, etc.) or how hard or how much I exercised. So now I am on 2 gr. Armour and on a low carb eating regimin, but I am still about 35-40 pounds overweight. I began your supplement recommendation - I was already taking many of the things you suggest but what I really want to know is if you know of hard evidence that these supplements help hypos lose weight. I know you seem to be more focused on hyper which I understand as it is life threatening but I would really like you to address this if you could. It may seem like it's not as important as other issues but it profoundly affects every minute of my life - I feel like I'm in a strange body. Thank you again for your hard work and for your time in answering this question.