“Stress Makes You Fat” and Other Diet Deceptions

“Thank you for calling the Weight Loss Hotline. If you’d like to lose a half pound right now, press 1 eighteen thousand times.” – Randy Glasbergen

With nearly 72 million Americans on a diet, it’s no wonder that diet options abound. But many of these so-called solutions won’t make a big difference in your fat-loss efforts. And some can have serious negative effects.

Fortunately, you can lose fat safely and easily. But first, you need to know just why you should avoid three of the most deceptive diet choices around.

The Cortisol Blame Game

Visit the website for the diet pill CortiSlim, and you’ll see a newly transformed woman claiming, “Stress was piling on the pounds!” The makers of this diet pill advertise that cortisol is to blame. Cortisol is a natural hormone that’s produced by your adrenal glands in response to stress – but does cortisol add weight? No.

Have you ever seen a caged animal at the zoo that appears to be stressed by living in captivity? When animals are under stress, increased cortisol will suppress their appetite. Over time, they become thin and start to waste away. The same is true of humans.

Cortisol gives your body the chance to pool all of its stress-fighting resources in order to deal with a crisis. Under those conditions, your appetite will disappear. Think back to the last time you were panicked or upset. Having lunch was probably the last thing on your mind.

Several weight-loss products try to link cortisol to weight gain by pointing to a single Yale University study published in 2000 that showed that women who respond poorly to stress tend to have a belly. True, excess cortisol can affect where your body stores extra calories as fat. But cortisol itself does not cause weight gain.

Fat Burners and Metabolism Boosters

Products in this category claim to help you lose weight by raising your metabolic rate. Contrary to the hype you may have read, the increase is very slight.

Even ephedra, one of the best, is only modestly successful at raising metabolism – perhaps by a fraction of a percent. This natural herb was banned by the FDA, but that ban was overturned by an appeals court in August 2006. Today, ephedra is starting to make a comeback, despite the fact that its metabolism-boosting properties are negligible.

One of the more popular fat burners claims that you can eat anything you want and still lose weight. This product uses a less-effective ephedra substitute, synephrine, which is supposed to increase your metabolism without the “harmful stimulants” used in other weight-loss products. Other ingredients in this product include caffeine, glucuronolactone, and taurine – the same ingredients found in Red Bull. If you feel any effect from it, it will be from the combination of synephrine and caffeine.

You should think of products like these as stimulants – not fat burners. They may help wake you up and give you a temporary jolt of energy, but so does a good cup of coffee.

Carb Blockers

To ease your guilt after splurging on bagels or pasta, carb blockers may seem like the answer. The term “carb blockers” sound magical… until you realize that what they’re actually blocking is an important digestive enzyme.

The idea of taking something that will interfere with your body’s ability to digest food is not a good one. In fact, it’s dangerous. Your body absorbs essential vitamins and nutrients in the form of carbohydrates. By blocking them, you are robbing your body of what it needs to survive.

The active ingredient in most carb blockers is a white kidney bean extract called phaseolus vulgaris. This substance prevents the enzymes in your stomach from digesting starches.

Dietrine, a well known carb blocker, states on its website: “One Dietrine capsule taken prior to a meal can block up to 1125 calories from fat and carbohydrate foods.”
There are no reliable clinical studies to support such a claim. In fact, the only respectable study, published in the Alternative Medicine Review, concluded that “no statistical significance was reached.”

Flip Your Body’s Fat-Burning Switch

Truth is, I have had more success with my patients by using a single exercise strategy than I’ve seen with all the dieting and supplement strategies combined. If you’re a regular ETR reader, you’ve heard me talk about this strategy before: Exercise in short bursts. By exercising this way, you can burn fat for up to 24 hours after you finish. Even while you sleep.

This type of exercise teaches your body that storing energy as fat is inefficient. Fat is a low-energy, slow-release fuel. It’s not good for providing you with quick high energy. So if you don’t exert yourself long enough to make good use of your stored fat during your actual exercise routine, your body gives it up afterward, during the recovery period.

You can use any number of exercises to turn your body into an automatic fat burner. The only rule is that the activity has to use enough muscle mass to challenge the rate at which you’re using energy. I like bicycling and swimming, because they’re low-impact and don’t have as much risk of injuries as high-impact exercises like jogging. What you choose will depend on your level of fitness.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Perform a light warm-up and stretch before each exercise session.
  • Begin with 20 minutes every other day. (This averages to only 10 minutes per day.)
  • Exercise at an easy pace at first, and increase it gradually.
  • As your fitness improves, increase the intensity of each session.
  • After a few weeks, break each session into two short bursts of exercise – two six-minute sets separated by six minutes of focused recovery at a gentle easy pace.

Eventually, you can go with even briefer episodes of gradually increasing intensity.

The most common error people make is assuming you must work at a higher level of perceived exertion to get results. This is not true. The point is to start with what is a comfortable level of exertion for you. Then, as that level of activity gets easier, you focus on increasing the level or resistance of the activity rather than the duration.

[Ed. Note: Dr. Sears is a practicing physician and a leading authority on longevity, physical fitness, and heart health. Short bursts of activity form the basis of his PACE program.]