Interviewer: Cassie Jewell, LPC
An Endocrinologist’s Thoughts On Health and Sustainable Weight Loss
On a typical day, what are your patients’ complaints and how do you resolve them?
As an endocrinologist, I care for patients with all types of gland and hormone disorders. The most common reasons patients come to see me include diabetes (both type 1 and type 2), concerns about growth and puberty, thyroid dysfunction, hirsutism (unwanted hair growth), polycystic ovarian syndrome, and adrenal disorders. I also provide gender-affirming hormone therapy for transgender individuals. Depending on the patient’s symptoms and diagnosis, I may order lab tests and/or radiology studies such as thyroid ultrasounds or bone age xrays as part of my evaluation. Once we have a diagnosis, I work with the patient to create a personalized plan for treatment and follow up.
What about common questions or concerns?
Regardless of the reason they’ve come to see me, many patients are concerned about fatigue and weight gain. Everyone loves to blame these symptoms on the thyroid gland, but there are many other possible contributors to both fatigue and weight gain, including lack of quality sleep, sleep apnea, suboptimal eating habits, and infrequent exercise.
How does diet impact health?
A balanced diet and good nutrition are essential for optimal health. The only way to nourish and fuel our bodies is through food, and multiple studies have shown the benefits of good nutrition on health. People who eat a diet composed of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins have lower blood pressure, better cholesterol, and decreased risk of obesity than those who follow a typical Western diet. There is a lot of research going on right now investigating the health effects of switching to a whole foods plant-based diet. A study comparing gut bacteria found that individuals following vegan and vegetarian diets had a more diverse selection of microbes in the intestines, which can lead to better health. Another study published in Clinical Nutrition this year found that people with high cholesterol had improvement in their cholesterol numbers when they followed a whole foods plant-based diet. Their cholesterol worsened when they switched back to a diet containing animal products and refined carbohydrates. We only get one body in life, so it makes sense to treat it well by fueling it with the healthiest, most nutritious foods.
What are the main risk factors for diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is an acquired metabolic disease associated with insulin resistance and high blood sugars. Until relatively recently this was a disease of adults, but in the past few years more and more children have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes as well, partly because of the increase in obesity. Risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes include being overweight or obese, carrying extra weight in the abdominal area, lack of regular physical activity, a family history of type 2 diabetes, and being diagnosed with prediabetes. Gestational diabetes during pregnancy is also a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes later on. A person will not necessarily develop type 2 diabetes just by eating a lot of sugar, but a long-standing pattern of unhealthy eating, lack of exercise, and weight gain will certainly increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes down the road.
Can diabetes be treated with lifestyle changes?
Lifestyle changes are vital in diabetes treatment! Medicines can help to lower blood sugar, but the underlying cause of type 2 diabetes is insulin resistance, which is exacerbated by weight and lack of regular activity. We know that people who exercise on a regular basis tend to have lower blood pressure, better cholesterol, and are more likely to be at a weight considered to be healthy, than people who don’t exercise often. Part of the reason for this is that exercise improves the body’s sensitivity to insulin. When we exercise, our bodies don’t have to work as hard to turn the food we eat into energy and fuel for our cells. Studies have shown that people with type 2 diabetes who exercise after a meal have lower blood sugar levels than those who don’t. Exercise and a healthy diet are important for everyone, but these elements are especially crucial for people who are looking to improve their health.
Which is worse: Fat or sugar?
Ooh – tough question. I would say both and neither. Both fats and sugars come in healthy and unhealthy forms. Omega-3, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fatty acids help lower cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease. These healthy fats are found in nuts, peanut butter, avocados, flaxseed, and olive, canola, and soybean oils. Some eggs contain omega-3 fatty acids as well, depending on whether the chickens that laid them were given supplementation. Unhealthy fats include saturated and trans fats. These types of fats are found in fatty cuts of meat, poultry skin, fried foods, high fat dairy products, processed and prepackaged foods, and solid oils such as shortening and lard.
Healthy sugars include those occurring naturally in fruits and vegetables. A good rule of thumb is to try to choose foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. For example, when you eat an apple, rather than drinking apple juice, you get the added benefits of the fiber from the apple, and vitamins from the skin. These added health benefits of eating whole fruits and vegetables allow the sugars to be absorbed more gradually by your body, and are lost when foods are processed.
What is one food you’d never eat and why?
Cracklins. This southern delicacy consists of fried pieces of pork fat and skin, flavored with Cajun spices. Although I’m sure they’re very tasty, they’re also oozing with saturated and trans fats, contain almost 500 calories per serving, and are high in sodium. You could eat an entire avocado and two slices of whole wheat toast for fewer calories. This alternative snack is not only delicious, it also comes with the added benefits of healthy fats, whole grains, and fiber.
If given the opportunity, is there anything you’d change about the current dietary recommendations?
The current dietary guidelines are a good place to start. They recommend eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, making at least half of our grains whole, and limiting saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium. I wish they went a little further though, by emphasizing the health benefits of whole rather than processed foods, and offering alternative options for people looking to follow a plant-based diet. There are some really great dairy alternatives out there, including nut milks (almond, cashew, macadamia), soymilk, plant protein products, and tofu. Many of these are made without added sugar, and are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, so the nutritional content is quite similar to the animal-based versions.
What are your thoughts on the obesity epidemic in America?
Obesity is a growing problem in our country, and it’s going to keep getting worse unless we as a society make some major changes. Obesity is a multifactorial disease, with many different levels of influence. Personal dietary choices have a role of course, but so does the environment in which people live. If a family lives in a food desert, and the only place to buy groceries is the convenience store where one banana and a 6-pack of ramen noodles each cost $1, parents are veritably forced to choose the less healthy, but inexpensive and filling options to feed their children. Many children in the U.S. eat both breakfast and lunch at school through the federally subsidized National School Lunch Program. This program is underfunded, and as such is unable to provide the highest quality, most nutritious food for the children who need it most. There are so many barriers to optimal health that exist at societal and cultural levels; it’s going to take a lot of work to tackle obesity. It’s possible, but change will need to happen from the top down.
What advice do you give to patients who are trying to lose weight?
At the end of the day it’s all about math: Energy in = energy out. If we put more calories into our bodies than we burn, our weight will go up. Alternatively, if we burn more calories than we eat, our weight will go down. Metabolism plays a role, certainly, and we all know people who can eat a dozen donuts without gaining a pound, which is just not fair, but overall consistent, purposeful, portion control is the key to sustainable weight loss. Exercise helps, but it’s really hard to burn enough calories by exercising to offset what we eat. A typical adult woman walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes burns around 150 calories. As a comparison, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Money contains 1,160 calories. You would need to spend nearly 4 hours on the treadmill to burn off that pint of deliciousness, and nobody has time for that. It makes more sense to limit your total calorie intake through portion control and careful meal planning. Everyone should have a treat now and then, just plan for them ahead of time and pay attention to the nutrition label including serving size.
What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about hormones?
It’s probably not your thyroid. Seriously though, endocrinology is an amazing branch of medicine. Since our glands make hormones that then flow into the bloodstream, they have effects on so many different parts of the body. Endocrinologists have to consider the entire person when making a diagnosis, and this makes the field both challenging and exciting.
As an endocrinologist, what are the most useful things you’ve learned?
Weight loss is hard, but possible. Diabetes sucks, but you are strong, so don’t let it take over your life. Everybody loves to talk about food. Patients and physicians work best as a team. Good health is priceless.
Dr. Lisal Folsom is a board-certified physician who specializes in endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism. She also provides gender-affirming hormone therapy for transgender individuals. Dr. Folsom’s medical research has been published in the academic journals Endocrine Practice, The Journal of the South Carolina Medical Association, Current Osteoporosis Reports, Journal of Adolescent Health, and Endocrinology & Metabolism Clinics. She has been practicing for nine years.