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Spotlight on holistic health: What causes overweight and obesity (and what to do about it)

There's a lot more to it: Poor diet, overeating and lack of exercise are not the only reason you could be putting on weight.

THE Australian statistics for obesity are staggering, with 67% of Australians classed as overweight or obese. Why are we struggling so much with weight issues? This month, local naturopath and IDP health and wellness columnist Donna Warr, lists ten causes that could be contributing to those unwanted kilos and the holistic approach to successfully lose weight and keep it off.

Ten causes of weight gain and what to do

I grew up believing that being overweight was because of poor food choices and lack of exercise. (I think most people believe this). But while that’s a common reason for overweight, it’s not the only reason. If you have dieted before, but you still can’t get to your ideal weight, then you might be intrigued by some of the other factors that contribute to overweight and obesity.

1.     Medications. Diabetes medications, antidepressants, antipsychotics and steroid medications may increase your appetite, reduce your metabolism, or even affect your body’s ability to burn fat, increasing your rate of fat storage and overall weight.

2.     Health/ medical issues. Various health issues can predispose you to weight gain, including hypothyroidism, Cushing’s syndrome and polycystic ovary syndrome.

3.     Imbalance in hunger hormones. Hunger and uncontrollable eating are not just caused by greediness or lack of willpower. There are a number of powerful hormones at play. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone. It stimulates the brain to increase appetite, it slows metabolism and decreases the body’s ability to burn fat. It also causes fatty tissue to be deposited over the abdominal area. Eating high levels of fructose is one of the things that stimulates ghrelin. Adding protein and healthy fats to your diet can help to get your ghrelin back onside.

4.     Leptin resistance. Leptin is a satiety hormone. It’s the counter balance to ghrelin. Leptin helps you identify that you feel full/ satiated. It signals the brain that eating can stop. But things start to go wrong with a condition called leptin resistance. Leptin resistance can be caused by overeating, too much of the wrong foods, high insulin levels, too much stress, too little sleep and obesity. You produce a lot of leptin, but your brain doesn’t recognize it anymore. It has become desensitized to it, and the feedback loop breaks. So instead, your body thinks you are starving. You get hungry and eat more and you burn less calories, resulting in more weight gain. Adding vegetables, legumes, lean protein and berries into your diet can help leptin.

5.     Blood sugar dysregulation. Our blood sugar levels rise and fall as we digest and assimilate our food. Levels are regulated by insulin and impacted by the types of food we eat. Generally speaking, low glycemic foods (vegetables, legumes, wholegrains) have a gentler impact on blood sugar. But when we eat processed, sugar rich and high glycemic foods (white bread, white rice, potatoes), this causes spikes in blood sugar, followed by extreme dips (due to excessive insulin secretion). The dips often leave us feeling tired and ‘hangry’ and in search of a quick fuel hit (often easy to access junk foods). This cycle of eating and the choice of food to refuel can increase susceptibility to weight gain. Instead, choose low glycemic foods, lean protein, healthy fats and plenty of fibre (from vegetables) and limit processed and refined foods. The supplement chromium picolinate can help regulate blood sugar.

6.     Addictive eating. When we eat food, the brain’s reward centre releases dopamine, which makes us feel good. This “feel good when you eat” mechanism works to keep us alive. But, eating junk food dumps these ‘feel-good’ chemicals in much higher levels. It gives you a hit. Your brain then seeks to reproduce this hit, causing powerful cravings for more of these junk foods. This can lead to a vicious cycle of addiction. All of a sudden you lose your freedom of choice and compulsions kick in. Breaking this cycle requires physical and psychological changes. Ensuring your blood sugar is stable (using the above strategies) is a great start. I also recommend journaling to identify triggers for emotional eating, creating some healthy distracting routines and practicing urge surfing (mindfulness technique).

7.     Gut bacteria. Your digestive system is host to over 100 trillion different bacteria and microbes, many of which play important roles in health. It’s a delicate and complex ecosystem that we call our microbiome. There are good guys (that help digestion, support our immune system and mental health) and bad guys (which generally don’t cause a problem if they remain in low numbers). Generally speaking, the more diverse our microbiome, the better our health. Recent studies have shown that people with obesity tend to have different gut bacteria than those with a normal weight. Correct the imbalance and weight loss can follow. There are specific strains of probiotics that can help with this.

8.     Excessive Stress. Excessive stress can make it hard to lose weight due to stress-induced behaviours, but it can also cause weight gain. When stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol are released, they trigger the release of glucose into the blood (an energy surge to help you get out of risky situations). Once the risk has been removed, your sugar levels drop, and your appetite increases to correct that drop. This can trigger cravings for high energy foods like sugar and fat, as well as salt. On top of that, cortisol slows down your metabolism making it hard to lose weight… which can cause more stress. It becomes a vicious cycle. Working out ways to bring calm into your life and adding in some adaptogenic and calming herbs and nutrients to help the body better deal with stress can be beneficial (withania, Siberian ginseng, passionflower, magnesium).

9.     Toxicity.  Everyday, we are bombarded with toxins from our food, water, environment and home. Our body naturally processes out toxins and chemicals, but with such an onslaught, it can easily be overloaded (especially if eating a lot of refined, processed and junk foods). The result can be weight gain, inflammation, fatigue and sluggishness. Losing weight can be difficult if your body is struggling with the burden of toxins. Our gut bacteria ends up creating more sugar leading to weight gain, and some of the ‘bad guys’ cause the body to resist weight loss. Stress hormones also feed weight gain. Our body can also deliberately hold onto fat to protect our vital organs against damage from these toxins. The key here is to focus on detoxifying the liver and gut. For a few weeks (at least), cut out processed and fried food, sugar, alcohol, panadol and ibuprofen (which are inflammatory to the gut lining). Focus on eating a diet rich in fibre rich vegetables, berries and some lean meat/poultry. There are some beautiful herbs and nutrients that can help detoxify the liver and digestive system including milk thistle, globe artichoke, dandelion, N-acetyl cysteine and glutamine.

10.  Genes & early years. Research has shown that the genes we inherit from our parents as well as our habits during our early years of life may both contribute to our susceptibility for weight gain. However, before you give yourself over to the argument of faulty genetics and decide that making any change is futile, I would like to challenge you. If you have an overweight family lineage, is it the genes or the learned behaviours (patterns of eating and type of eating in the home) that are the problem?

When it comes to overweight and obesity, there are many factors at play. While you may not have a huge amount of control over your current health conditions, the medications you take and your genetics, there is always something that you can do to create positive change in your life.

The strategy of using willpower and calorie restriction for weight loss is outdated. That’s a punishing and often sabotaging way to deal with obesity. Today, we have the benefit of advanced science and research to better understand the factors contributing to this body imbalance, which then paves the way for specific and targeted dietary and lifestyle changes to restore that balance. Taking a holistic approach that addresses diet and exercise, combined with strategies that address the psychology of eating are most successful. If you are struggling with weight issues, please reach out to your health practitioner. There is a solution out there for you.

Live your best life,


If you need some direction or support, Donna can be reached on 0448 149 944 or

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