Another year, another attempt to lose weight? Sounds like it’s time to ditch that old diet and try these top new fat-shifting tips instead 
Once upon a time, staying a healthy weight was easy. It could be summed up by the phrase “calories in equal calories out”. To lose weight you simply had to practise the reverse of home economics – spend more than you earned. Unfortunately for many, but perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that people are rather more complicated than bank accounts.

A lot of research has gone into unravelling the intricacies of our personal fat accounts – driven by the dream of winning the billion-dollar prize of an effective fat pill. Some of the findings have been, to put it mildly, counter-intuitive. They also suggest whole new ways of dieting.

To stay a healthy weight, you need a hormone called leptin to work properly. It sends “I’m full” messages from the fat cells up to the brain, where they go, among other places, to the same pleasure centres that respond to sex and drugs like cocaine. Obese people produce plenty of leptin, but the brain doesn’t seem to respond to it properly. Last year, researchers at the Oregon Research Institute scanned the brains of overweight people and found their reward circuits were underactive. They were eating more to try to get the enjoyment they were missing. In other words, the study showed that fat people are actually the opposite of greedy – because they get less pleasure from eating than others do.

There’s a lot of evidence for the fact that most, if not all, of us have a set point around which our weight can vary by about seven to nine kilos, but anything beyond that is a real struggle. This goes for naturally thin people trying to gain weight as well. Making changes is hard, particularly if your body is working against you, because – as the leptin example shows – the whole weight control system is intimately interconnected with our pleasure centres.

So if your body is sabotaging your efforts to lose weight, why not ditch the traditional approaches and try some new methods, based on the latest research, that work with your body rather than against it . . .

The eat-every-other-day diet

Of course you can still follow the well trodden route of cutting calories, and by sticking to around 1500 a day you will lose weight. Other upsides are that the kilos will stay off and that you will become very healthy: the risk of all the big killers – heart disease, cancer, diabetes – will plummet, along with that of allergies, asthma and infectious diseases. The downside is that you will be constantly hungry and miserable. But what if you could get all those benefits without being in a permanent state of semi-starvation?

Well, maybe you can. The trick is to try an “alternate-day” diet. Several years ago researchers at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore reported that when they gave rats very little food one day and allowed them to eat plenty the next, they showed virtually all the benefits of a permanent calorie restriction diet. The same goes for humans, according to Dr James Johnson who has set up a website with information on how to do it. (

How does it work? Besides forcing the body to burn fat, it may also trigger hormonal changes, such as ramping up the activity of two anti-ageing genes called SIRT3 and SIRT4. Most people say that the diet takes a bit of getting used to, but is not as grinding as trying to cut back on an everyday basis.

Just-published research from the University of Illinois at Chicago of a ten-week trial on obese patients who followed a form of the alternate-day diet revealed a weight loss ranging from four to 13 kilograms, whereas the researchers expected an average of only two kilograms. Blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol were also lowered.

Keep cool

Older dieters may remember some-thing called brown fat. Unlike the undesirable white stuff, this was a dieter’s dream. Instead of storing excess energy as fat, brown-fat tissue burned it off to keep you warm – at least in mice. Brown fat fell out of favour because researchers couldn’t find much in humans but now, thanks to the New England Journal of Medicine, it’s back in fashion. The idea is to expose people to cold temperatures. They then make more brown fat and their weight drops. Women kept at 22˚C used up 27 more grams of body fat a day than those at 27˚C. So turn on the air-con.

Check your testosterone level (men only)

If you are a middle-aged man whose middle is spreading, it may not just be that you are exercising less and eating more, but that you are making too much of the female hormone oestrogen.

Although we talk about male and female hormones, we all make both, and we all use testosterone to make oestrogen. This is particularly significant for older men. As we age, we not only make less testosterone, we also turn more of it into oestrogen.

The extra oestrogen encourages more fat to be laid down around the middle – just the place where fat stores are linked with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. This sets up a vicious circle. The newly stored fat pumps out more of the enzyme that turns testosterone into oestrogen.

To break the circle, you could exercise to give yourself energy and build muscle – although your reduced testosterone will make that option less appealing. A testosterone supplement, which a few doctors prescribe if your level has become very low, may help. You could also stop drinking because having to clear away regular large amounts of alcohol means your liver is less efficient at getting rid of the extra oestrogen.

Get in the sun without sunblock (or take vitamin supplements instead)

Vitamin D is the new nutrient superstar, linked with lower risk of all sorts of disorders including heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatism. And now it looks as if it helps with weight loss, too.

During the summer of 2008, in a small trial of 38, a researcher from the University of Minnesota reported that those with more vitamin D in their blood lost more weight. For every extra nanogram per millilitre (ng/ml) they lost an extra quarter-kilo.

Other trials, too, have linked higher vitamin D levels with less obesity. But why? All vitamin D experts agree that lots more research is needed – but in the meantime, one interesting theory is emerging from Imperial College London. Because sunlight is the main source of vitamin D, a low level of vitamin D may make the body think that colder weather is on the way, and therefore that it has to store more food.

There’s also much debate about how much you should be taking. The official recommended daily allowance is 200 IU (international units) but many experts are now suggesting 1000 or even 2000. A daily dose of 1000 over several months would raise your blood level by 10ng/ml meaning you could lose an extra two kilos on top of what you’d expect to on your diet.

Be plump and proud

But is being overweight necessarily unhealthy in all cases? A ground-breaking study in The Lancet in 2007 found that about 30 percent of people classed as obese (ie, with a body mass index of 30 or more) were actually metabolically very healthy, with low cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar.

They were also responsive to insulin – which isn’t supposed to be true about fatter people.

In short, one in three of those being endlessly cajoled to lose weight may not need to. It may, in fact, be actively harmful. Researchers from the University of Montreal compared the effect of a low-calorie diet on a group of metabolically healthy obese people with a group who were obese and at risk. They found insulin resistance (a marker for diabetes) improved by 26 percent in the at-risk group but it got 13 percent worse among the metabolically healthy.

So even if your BMI is officially dangerously high but you eat pretty well, take regular exercise and feel fine, then have your metabolic markers checked out: if they are healthy, then maybe just enjoy your extra kilos!

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