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When Intensive Weight Loss May Not be the Best Course of Action

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

The health risks of obesity are well-known, but the answer to this complex and highly stigmatized disease isn’t as straightforward as many believe.

Weight-loss has been proposed as the simple solution to combat obesity, however the research has uncovered some confusing patterns when it comes to the long-term effects of this strategy.

Weight loss is rarely as straightforward as it’s made out to be. Intentional weight loss is associated with periods of weight cycling characterized by successive phases of weight gain and loss. This in itself is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular and total mortality. One long-term study showed that while intensive weight loss shows short-term advantages with respect to cardiovascular health, the benefit was erased after a ten-year follow up.

These results are counterintuitive in a society that stigmatizes weight gain while glorifying weight loss. We expect a clearer connection between weight loss and well-being. To explain this contrary evidence, scientists have traced a connection between our chemical exposure and the largely overlooked protective role that fat plays in our bodies.

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are a subset of fat-loving chemicals with long half-lives that we absorb from our environment and the food we eat. On average people are exposed to over 200 harmful chemicals everyday.

Known as “toxins” in the mainstream wellness world, when these inflammatory chemicals circulate in the bloodstream, they can make their way into vital organs including the brain and kidneys, where they have devastating effects. These chemicals are difficult for the body to break down and eliminate. In addition to this, the sheer volume of POPs we are exposed to overwhelms the system and the elimination pathways become compromised and inefficent. As a protective mechanism the body sequesters the POPs in fat stores known as adipose tissue. POPs are then released slowly from the adipose tissue for elimination as the body strives to maintain a safe blood concentration.

The concentration in the blood can become high enough to elicit symptoms in the case of intense weight loss. Intensive weight loss releases increased quantities of POPs into the bloodstream as the fat tissue where they accumulate is broken down.

These chemicals have long half-lives and are difficult to metabolize, once released, they can remain circulating through body tissues for years. If not eliminated, they make their way to vital organs where they can contribute to chronic illness. Low-grade exposure has been shown to contribute increased cancer risk, reproductive disorders, immune system dysfunction, neurological impairment, endocrine disruption, genotoxicity and increased birth defects.

POPs accumulate in the body over time, so we see that older populations have more densely concentrated POPs stored in their fat deposits. POPs have been seen to cause more harm in the elderly due to the greater chemical load. The dangerous effects of POPs are multiplied in this population because individuals tend to have existing cellular dysfunction as well as impaired ability to break down and eliminate POPs as efficiently as younger cohorts. Similar dangers are seen among those living with chronic disease who may also have some cellular dysfunction or impaired metabolism and elimination pathways.

These findings suggest that slow, sustainable weight loss that is in line with the body’s ability to eliminate POPs is the best course of action, especially for older clients or those living with chronic disease.

Rapid weight loss increases the body’s load of circulating inflammatory POPs. Other signs that a client that may be struggling with an increased chemical load may include:

  • pain

  • fatigue

  • insomnia

  • acne

  • mood changes

  • gastrointestinal disturbances

  • frequent infections

When we see these symptoms accompanying a weight loss program, we can control the chemical burden by slowing weight loss while supporting the body’s innate detoxification pathways. Diet and lifestyle strategies can strengthen the elimination of POPs.

Bile emulsifies fat globules so that the chemicals stored within can be broken down and eliminated from the body. To optimize bile formation, secretion and flow we can use the following strategies.

  1. Include sources of phospholipids like seeds and nuts and eggs in the diet. These fats appear to increase bile formation and transportation.

  2. Try milk thistle. Certain phytochemical-rich herbs and plants have been shown to increase bile salt production. Silymarin from milk thistle is particularly effective. In addition to this, it regenerates liver cells. This is important because the liver is where the metabolism of these chemicals occurs in the body

  3. Incorporate intermittent fasting. Time-restricted feeding has been reported to increase bile flow as it provides more distinct gallbladder filling cycles.

Once bile production and flow are working efficiently, we can enhance POP elimination by blocking recirculation. Fibre absorbs POPs from bile and increases the rate of excretion. Oats, chia and green leafy vegetables are effective fiber-based binders.

Finally, limiting POP-contaminated animal fat, including fish which is a significant source, can help reduce the chemical load entering the system.

Weight loss is a complex topic but research on POPs clarifies some of the contradictory evidence we see in practice. By working with at-risk clients to set realistic weight loss goals and achieve them at a sustainable pace we can support holistic long-term healing. An anti-inflammatory diet rich in plant foods and phospholipids can be adopted alongside any weight loss program to support the healthy elimination of POPs.

Stay tuned for a free dietary mini-protocol to enhance the removal of POPs in at risk populations!


Camila Montaner is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner dedicated to supporting those in search of balance in a demanding world. Camila’s background in communications launched her into a busy career before she had developed tools to manage the pressure. Decades of stress and anxiety led her to the world of holistic nutrition where she learned, through much trial and error, how to develop a more grounding routine. Today, she uses her communications background to bring the wellness techniques she learned to others struggling to find their own equilibrium. Her approach to wellness harnesses the power of plants and accessible lifestyle strategies to restore energy, mood and wellbeing.

In the rare moment she’s not cooking, eating or writing about food, you’ll find Camila getting lost in the woods, the waves or the pages of a good book.

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