Weight Loss

The Body’s Fat Thermometer


Author’s Note: As I write this article, the world is in the middle of the COVID-19, or corona virus, pandemic. As are millions of other people around the world, I am living under a “shelter in place” order for at least another few weeks, possibly longer. Literally everything we see, hear, and read these days is about coping with this life-changing event. So rather than give you one more article highlighting the virus and more coping strategies, I’ll instead write on the topic I’d planned to before the virus struck. I hope this will take your mind off it for a little while, at least. Be safe and healthy, everyone – we will get through this.


Although you might not believe it, permanent, long term weight loss isn’t about cutting calories and exercising more. This has been proven in countless studies, and also the countless frustrations of dieters desperately cutting calories and depriving their bodies of nutrition.

So what then is the key to successful weight loss? According to nephrologist Dr. Jason Fung, the solution lies in controlling your body’s ‘thermostat’ — what’s also known as Body Set Weight (BSW).

Think about how a home’s thermostat works to control the desired room temperature: in the summer when it’s hot, the thermostat turns on the air conditioning. In winter, it detects the temperature is too cold, and turns on the heat. The house stays at the perfect temperature despite varying outdoor conditions.

The human body’s BSW, also called an appestat, is essentially a thermostat for body fatness. There are also many powerful satiety mechanisms built into our physiology to make us stop eating. For example, the stomach has ‘stretch receptors’ that signal when it’s too full. The body also has powerful satiety hormones, such as peptide YY and cholecystokinin, that stop us from overeating.

The BSW sets an ideal body fatness that it defends just as the house thermostat maintains the temperature. If we’re too skinny, it can trigger the body to gain weight. If we’re too fat, it triggers a higher metabolic rate (total calories burned at rest) to lose weight. The body tries very hard to maintain its BSW in the original position. This directly contradicts the calories in/ calories out theory that simply eating too many calories causes body fatness, without taking into consideration the BSW, satiety hormones, or other physiological signals. In fact, if you deliberately overeat, your body will try to burn it off.

Think about it:  a ‘calorie’ is not a physiologic notion. The body doesn’t have ‘calorie’ receptors and doesn’t know how many calories we eat, or don’t. A calorie of carbohydrate is metabolized entirely differently from a calorie of fat or protein. The concept of ‘a calorie is a calorie’ is, honestly, pushed heavily by processed food companies. They want to convince you that 100 calories in a sugary drink is the same as 100 calories in an avocado, in terms of weight gain. Or that 100 calories of sugar is as fattening as 100 calories of kale.

Consider artificial sweeteners as well. They have no calories, and so fool our taste buds –  but won’t fool our appestat. If all we had to do to lose weight was eat fake sugar and fake fat and no calories, we’d all lose weight and there’d be almost no obesity crisis, or Type II diabetes crisis. But these are real, despite all the artificial sweeteners.

So what to do?

First, think again about a home thermostat. Suppose it’s set at 70 degrees, but we want the temperature indoors to be 65 degrees. So, we bring in a portable air conditioner. Initially, the temperature will go down – but then the thermostat kicks in and turns on the heat, returning the room temperature to 70. We keep adding more portable air conditioners to cool it down, and the thermostat keeps cranking up the heat to get it back to 70. It’s a futile, no-win battle.

So how about just turning down the thermostat instead?

Decreasing calories to lose weight gets the same result as adding air conditioners to cool off a room – because doing so completely ignores the BSW, or thermostat. Suppose your BSW is set at 150 pounds, but you want to weigh 120 pounds. Conventional advice says cut 500 calories per day to lose 1 pound per week. Initially, your weight may go down to 140 pounds, but then the appestat kicks in to make you gain weight. You become hungrier, and your metabolism slows down in order to regain the weight. So then what do most of us do? Keep restricting calories! But guess what? The body responds again by slowing our metabolism even further.  This is a continual fight against ourselves in an ultimately futile attempt to lose weight.

Turn down the appestat or BSW

Obesity is a disease caused by excessive insulin, not excessive calories. In other words, it’s a hormonal imbalance, not a caloric one. Insulin, which is produced by the pancreas, does several things. First, it transports glucose (sugar) inside of our cells to be used in the chemical reaction that creates energy. When more insulin is produced than is needed, the body is signaled to store the extra food energy as fat. When we fast, insulin goes down, and we burn some of that stored energy. That’s we don’t die in our sleep every night!

Just like a room thermostat, the BSW uses a negative feedback loop. What this means: excess insulin leads an increase in the size of fat cells. Fat cells, in turn, produce more of the hormone leptin which then signals the brain that ‘we’re too fat’. What happens then? Appetite decreases, we stop eating so much, and insulin levels drop. This signals the body to start burning fat instead of eating and storing it, and to return to the original, desired BSW.

Body weight thermostat model

The BSW is, in essence, the balance of insulin effect versus leptin effect. In obese individuals, the insulin effect has prevailed over the leptin effect. This could be for many reasons, but eating foods high in refined (not whole) grains, eating frequently, and eating lots sugar all keep insulin levels high, despite leptin’s best efforts to curb appetite to lower insulin. On the other hand, if insulin is extremely low, such as with Type I diabetes, the body loses weight continuously, no matter how many calories are consumed.

So as fat cells stay over-filled, they produce more and more leptin in an attempt to fight insulin. However, if the root problem hasn’t been addressed – eating too much sugar, too many refined carbohydrates, eating constantly – then insulin levels also continue to rise. When a persistently high level of a hormone exists, resistance to the that hormone will develop.

Leptin resistance is virtually universal in common obesity. With leptin no longer able to keep up the fight, insulin takes over and causes continual weight gain. The insulin vs leptin battle has been lost, and the BSW thermostat is reset upwards.

Body weight thermostat in OBESITY

The key: lower insulin levels

Cutting calories will not reduce insulin’s effect. Instead, the BSW is unaffected and the body desperately tries to regain the lost weight. Eating frequently means constant stimulation of insulin as well.

The key to losing weight then is to help in the Insulin vs Leptin fight. Leptin is already maxed out, so the only thing left is to lower insulin. How to do that?

  1. Eat less sugar.
  2. Eat less refined grains (whole grains are okay – they have many nutritional benefits).
  3. Eat moderate protein and more natural fats.
  4. Don’t eat constantly.
  5. Eat more real, unprocessed foods.
  6. Exercise: proven to reduce insulin resistance; builds more muscle fibers; allows excess body fat to be burned for fuel; increases resting metabolism.

So there you have it. You don’t need some special diet, expensive supplements, or pre-packaged foods to lose weight. You already have the tools within your own body to get that thermostat down to where you’d like it to be.


Laurie Kelly is a Precision Nutrition Certified Level 1 coach, specializing in behavior-based nutrition coaching. She is also a NASM-certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, a Road Runners Clubs of America Certified Adult Running Coach, and a Certified Professional Triathlon Coach by the International Triathlon Coaching Association. She’ll help you make lasting positive changes that will keep you healthy for a lifetime. Contact her hereor follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.

Strength Training, Weight Loss

How do I get rid of my belly?

Belly fat_Budda

This is without a doubt the most frequently asked question I get as a personal trainer – probably because there’s so much information, and mis-information, available nowadays about this subject. Call it the midsection, core, belly, muffin top, spare tire, or something else – we all have one and we all struggle with getting, and keeping, it looking the way we want.

First, let’s talk about the “core.” It’s technically a collection of muscles that spans from the glutes to the rib cage – front, back and sides. These include the rectus abdominus (what makes the “six-pack”) and transverse abdominus in the front, the groups of obliques on the sides, the hip flexor complex, the glutes complex, and the smaller muscles of the low back. The muscles of the core serve an important purpose: to support and move the spine. This is why core strengthening and mobility are so important. When the core is weak, a host of other problems up and down the chain ensue.

Now, let’s talk about fat. The body contains three types:

Triglycerides: These are fat cells that circulate in the bloodstream. They comprise about 95% of all fat in the body and have many functions.

Subcutaneous fat: The layer of fat directly below the skin’s surface, such as between the skin and the abdominal wall, or the dreaded cellulite in the thighs and upper arms.

Visceral fat: This is what we usually think of as “belly” fat. It’s located deep within the belly, below the stomach muscles and close to the internal organs.

Why do we store excess visceral fat?

There are many reasons why humans store excess body fat. Here are three of the most common ones:

Inactivity and excess caloric intake

As a society, we’re becoming more and more sedentary with rates of overweight and obesity at epidemic proportions. Technology, desk jobs, urban sprawl, and the prevalence of highly palatable, inexpensive, high calorie foods are just some of the contributing factors. When we consume more energy (in the form of calories) than we expend, the extra energy is stored as body fat. [Read:  Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The Debate is Finally Over.]


Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. It’s produced by the fight-or-flight response to perceived threats, most of which nowadays are more imagined than real. Interestingly, other things that we don’t necessarily think of as “stressful” actually place the body into stress mode and generate cortisol production: too much high intensity cardio exercise, and extremely low calorie diets. A steady stream of cortisol, which can’t be used by the body for fight-or-flight, winds up stored as body fat. [Read: More About Cortisol, the Stress Hormone]

Metabolic Syndrome

This condition affects an estimated one-third of Americans. It causes the body to store food as fat instead of using it for energy. Starches and simple sugars are the biggest problem, and even very active people can have it.

Metabolic syndrome is linked with a condition called insulin resistance. Insulin, a hormone, moves glucose (sugar) into the cells to generate energy. With insulin resistance, however, it can’t do its job – so excess glucose remains in the bloodstream instead of getting into cells to be used for energy. This excess glucose winds up stored as fat.

Eliminating belly fat – what doesn’t work, and what does

It seems everyone has some magical prescription for reducing belly fat – whether it’s a pill, potion, special food diet, or exercise routine. One thing is for certain – there is no magic solution. Instead, here are some proven, commonsense ways to achieve a slimmer midsection:

Do:  Stand more and sit less. When we sit, the core muscles are not engaged or active. Standing, however, activates the core just to keep the body upright. Find ways to incorporate less sitting and more standing into your daily activities.

Do: Eat fewer empty carbohydrates and unhealthy fats. Replace them with more fresh fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meats and whole grains. Check the sugar content on processed foods you eat regularly. You’ll be amazed how much added sugar is in so many of the foods we eat, from supposedly “healthy” breakfast cereals to spaghetti sauce. It doesn’t really matter what type of sugar (thinking of the high fructose corn syrup scare from a few years ago). [Read: How to Get Your Eating Back on Track]

Do: Exercise the right way.

  • Forget about crunches: these are the least effective form of core exercise.
  • Whenever possible, avoid using weight machines for strength training. Instead, use dumbbells, stretch cords/bands, barbells, or just body weight. Most weight machines involve sitting, so there’s no core engagement involved. When you must hold your body upright and lift the weight, your core is constantly active. [Read: The Myth of Weight Machines]
  • Recognize that you cannot “spot reduce” fat from specific areas of the body through targeted exercises. Working your abs for 4 hours a day, seven days a week will give you very strong (and larger) ab muscles, but they’ll reside underneath that layer of fat.

Instead, develop a regular weekly exercise program that incorporates full-body strength training two to three times per week, and moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise for at least 150 minutes per week. Short bursts of higher-intensity intervals, with plenty of recovery in between, can also increase calorie-burning without over-stressing the system. Build these into your strength training or cardio sessions to add variety to your workouts.

One final word…

It’s important to emphasize that physical appearance is not nearly as important as having a strong, healthy body. Excess visceral fat can lead to serious health risks. A strong (not necessarily flat) core is foundational to wellbeing, providing balance, good posture, and elimination of aches and pains up and down the kinetic chain from the neck to the knees.

Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES, is a Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist accredited by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Based in Greenwood Village, Colorado, she specializes in helping people in mid-life and beyond to become stronger, fitter, and lead healthy and active lives. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.

Weight Loss

Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The debate is finally over.

women s left and right hand
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

When it comes to body change, there’s no topic more polarizing than “calories in vs. calories out.” Some argue it’s the be-all and end-all of weight loss. Others say it’s oversimplified and misguided. In this article by Dr. John Berardi, Ph.D., he explores every angle of the debate from “eat less, move more,” to hormonal issues, to diets that offer a “metabolic advantage.” In doing so, he answers—once and for all—how important calories in vs. calories out really is and discusses what it means for you. Continue reading “Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The debate is finally over.”

Weight Loss

How to get your eating back on track – Part 2

food sandwich eat fitness

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I introduced some of the simplest ways to fix a “broken diet” and start eating better, including identifying and removing nutritional deficiencies, adjusting food amount and food type, and the pitfalls of calorie counting. In this Part 2, we dive deeper into some more sophisticated strategies around food and macronutrient composition and eating for your body type; meal frequency, and calorie/carb cycling. Continue reading “How to get your eating back on track – Part 2”

Weight Loss

It’s Not About the Scale

blue tape measuring on clear glass square weighing scale

Many people believe that to improve their health and stick to their fitness goals, they should weight themselves every single day. While that may work for some as a motivator, scale weight can often be misleading and demoralizing as a measure of progress toward better health. Why? Because body weight alone doesn’t provide a complete picture of health, and can fluctuate dramatically based on what you ate the day before, how hard you exercised, monthly cycle status, and so much more. Instead of obsessing over the scale, try focusing on these factors instead. Continue reading “It’s Not About the Scale”

Weight Loss

The Secret Weight Loss Weapon Everyone Has Access To, But Doesn’t Know About

person holding gray steel fork with strawberry

Health challenges are usually all about what you can’t eat. But what if you could see real results from a self-experiment that doesn’t make any foods off-limits? Instead of focusing on what you eat, this 30-day experiment emphasizes how you eat. You may just find the results to be transformational, changing both your body and mind. Continue reading “The Secret Weight Loss Weapon Everyone Has Access To, But Doesn’t Know About”

Weight Loss

Fat Burning Workouts – Help or Hype?

Fat Burning Myth_Kickboxing

As a fitness professional, I’m often asked about exercise routines and their effectiveness. What’s so disheartening for me is that so many people are operating under false assumptions – most of them promoted by years of popular media. Case in point: a friend recently sent me her latest exercise routine, which involves lots of burpees, kettlebell swings, box jumps, thrusters, and high speed intervals on the treadmill. She said to me, “This is one of my fat-burning sessions. I want to lose weight, so I’m doing this instead of strength training.” While these kinds of workouts do burn lots of calories, and can improve cardiovascular fitness and endurance – they won’t necessarily make you lose fat. Continue reading “Fat Burning Workouts – Help or Hype?”

Weight Loss

Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The debate is finally over.

Calories InOut Fruit Tape Msr

When it comes to body change, there’s no topic more polarizing than “calories in vs. calories out.” Some argue it’s the be-all and end-all of weight loss. Others say it’s oversimplified and misguided. In this article from author Dr. John Berardi Ph.D., founder Precision Nutrition, he explores every angle of the debate from “eat less, move more,” to hormonal issues, to diets that offer a “metabolic advantage.” In doing so, he answers—once and for all—how important calories in vs. calories out really is, and what it means for you. Continue reading “Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The debate is finally over.”

Weight Loss

Avoid That Holiday Weight Gain – Five Easy Strategies

holiday weight gain

Halloween is behind us, which can only mean one thing: it’s officially the holiday season – and with it, the endless parade of food and treats from now through year’s end that, for the majority of Americans, leads to an average of 7 to 10 extra pounds by the time we’re singing Auld Lang Syne. This year, why not beat the odds? Here are five easy strategies to do just that. Continue reading “Avoid That Holiday Weight Gain – Five Easy Strategies”