The future of weight loss: understanding your body's biochemistry

A comprehensive analysis of a person's biochemistry - the way we use vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins to function - may prove the secret weapon in the battle of the bulge

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 March, 2015, 6:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 March, 2015, 6:16am

Have you committed to a healthy diet and exercise, but the scales aren't budging? Maybe it's time to consider your body's biochemistry.

Unfortunately, there's no secret to weight loss. It's about making the right food choices and exercising regularly over time. But here is a secret worth knowing: while diet and exercise are essential, deficiencies and other imbalances in your body's biochemistry may be the reason you're gaining weight in the first place.

Increasingly, experts are relying on comprehensive testing to look at the reasons behind patients' ill health, manifested as weight gain.

Your body's biochemistry refers to the way it uses vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins to function. Eating your breakfast muffin and walking to work this morning caused a flurry of complex chemical interactions within your body, but if those systems and pathways function incorrectly it may be the reason you're not the size you ought (or want) to be.

"Your body's biochemistry affects many aspects: your energy levels, how nutrients are utilised, how toxins are excreted, how your immune system functions, how cells communicate with each other and how your genes interact with the environment. Basically, it affects everything and plays a key role in weight loss," says Dr Laurena Law, an aesthetics and anti-ageing physician at Dr Kenny TW Ng & Associates.

At one time, our bodies ticked along without any need for tweaking, but Law believes understanding your biochemistry has become increasingly important.

"We are exposed to so many pollutants and toxins our ancestors weren't exposed to, and we need proper nutrients to get rid of those toxins," she says. "But the problems with our food these days - pesticides, early harvesting, transport and storage - is that a lot of the nutrients are not there in the levels they once were."

Mineral deficiencies, for example, are a common issue. "Iron, iodine and selenium are important for the formation and activation of thyroid hormones, but I find many of my patients are low in these essential nutrients," says Law.

Thyroid hormones play a part in producing energy, so an underactive thyroid will reduce one's metabolism and lead to weight gain.

Iron deficiency, common among women, is a chief reason people feel fatigued. "And when you have low levels of iron you don't have the energy to work out," says Law.

Zinc, responsible for regulating appetite and taste buds, is another crucial mineral. Without it, "our taste buds are blunted, so we may crave foods that are extremely sweet or salty (and often high in fat) to satisfy our appetites," she says.

Hongkongers are chronically lacking in minerals, according to a study released in 2014 on the typical Hong Kong diet by the Centre for Food Safety. Sampling 150 food items normally consumed by the local population, it was found that dietary intakes of calcium, iron and potassium of the general adult population did not meet the recommended intake.

Intake of other minerals, such as copper, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus and magnesium (which is crucial in more than 300 biochemical mechanisms in the body), was also inadequate in more than 20 per cent of Hong Kong adults.

Minerals are not just crucial building blocks to health, they're essential in the fight against toxins and heavy metals.

Firouze Zeroual experienced the effects of too much aluminium and mercury in her body 10 years ago while living and working in Hong Kong. She gained 20 kilograms in a year, was exhausted and also suffered from "brain fog".

A mineral hair test analysis revealed the toxic culprits, and a year-long detox regimen ensued before she was back on track and functioning normally. "I could not imagine that some small changes could make such a big difference," says Zeroual.

She has since gone on to co-found her own mineral hair testing company, Reset Yourself, to help others identify whether toxins are affecting their weight and health.

But there are simpler reasons why you may not be shifting the final few kilograms, according to Miles Price, a functional medicine practitioner and certified clinical nutritionist at Life Clinic.

"A food intolerance to something such as gluten or dairy may to blame," says Price. A food intolerance, unlike an allergy, is not life threatening and may take hours or days to appear. Undiagnosed, intolerances may increase inflammation levels in the body.

Broad testing takes out the guesswork for those at the end of their tether
Miles Price, clinical nutritionist

"Uncontrolled and prolonged inflammation in the body will produce more cortisol, [the stress hormone] which can lead to the accumulation of fat primarily in the trunk area," says Price.

Just removing food intolerances alone has been shown to have a positive effect on weight loss, as well as improve physical and mental quality of life, a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Obesity & Weight Loss Therapy reveals.

University of Miami researchers carried out an Immunoglobulin G (IgG) food sensitivity test on 120 obese adults and eliminated all reactive foods from the participants' diets. After 90 days, the subjects had reductions in weight, body mass index, waist and hip circumferences, and resting diastolic blood pressure, and showed improvements in all indicators of quality of life.

Hormonal imbalances also make weight loss "nearly impossible", says Price. Oestrogen dominance, adrenal fatigue or hyperthyroidism are common examples. "These metabolic and sex organs play an essential role in body fat regulation, so they need to function optimally for those systems to work," he says.

Even odd food cravings can be explained by biochemistry. "Cravings are usually caused by depletion of certain amino acids, part of chemical messengers [neurotransmitters] in our brain that regulate our mood, motivation and appetite," says Law.

Depletion of certain amino acids in the body has been linked to anxiety, stress, binge eating and anorexia.

Do you suspect your biochemistry is out of whack? Law says there is no one test that will answer all questions, but the right test can give you vital information.

Blood testing is commonly used, but is not always the most accurate, says Law. "Hormone testing is conventionally done using blood, which can point out gross excesses or deficiencies but can miss some of the more subtle imbalances," she says. "Further testing may be needed from urine or saliva."

Food intolerance testing is best assessed through an elimination diet, says Price, but other diagnostic tools, such as the Alcat test, an immune system test for up to 150 food items, may be useful.

This is not cheap: from HK$5,000 to HK$20,000, depending on the tests required and number of consultations.

Self-testing systems such as finger-prick blood tests and mineral hair testing are slightly cheaper alternatives. Reset Yourself's mineral hair testing system offers a comprehensive test, consult, eating and exercise plan for less than HK$10,000.

Another type of igG testing, called the York Test, is also available through PathLab for about HK$2,500.

"But without access to laboratories, these tests can be misleading," cautions Price. "Mineral hair testing has only been approved by FDA for heavy metal exposure, but it's not really accurate for assessing the minerals in the body."

Comprehensive testing - which you need to do only once a lifetime - is a worthwhile investment in one's health, Price says. Once you've identified any abnormalities, the hard work of losing weight can finally begin.

"It takes out the guesswork for those who are really at the end of their tether," says Price.

"But for most people, eating a balanced diet, with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, quality proteins and quality fats, combined with regular exercise, is all they need."