10 hormonal hacks to prevent holiday weight gain without counting calories

The holidays creep up to you, don’t they? The gigantic turkeys. The buttery stuffings. The apple pies. I kid you not.

I managed to lose 3% body fat over last fall and kept it off over the holidays. Thanksgiving and six major parties in December didn’t ruin my hard-earned work. Here are 10 things I discovered that helped me keep it off.

10 Hormonal Hacks to prevent holiday weight gain

1)   Control your insulin

I lost the weight with a low glycemic impact program, and it naturally stuck with me.

Here’s the catch: low glycemic impact diet is the least hormone-wrecking diet you can follow. If you have issues with insulin (an obvious sign is that you tend to accumulate fat around your tummy), it is wise to follow eat low glycemic impact to get your insulin in check.

It is more forgiving to have that gobble of fat when your insulin isn’t spiking, like when you just have that glass of coke.

One amusing aspect of low glycemic is that the actual glycemic impact of what you are eating depends on the content of your stomach. So, if you wind up eating a high glycemic impact item (e.g. cakes, rice, very ripe fruits, ice cream), it is wise to cut down the impact with some protein, fat and fiber. Never eat desserts or drink anything with sugar (juice included, even 100%) on empty stomach.

Oh, and remember one fact, dairy may spike your insulin at whatever state it is.

2)   Resistance training and high intensity interval training (HIIT)

When you pump iron, a few things happen in your body that use energy in a not-so-obvious ways. That’s especially the case if you are a beginner.

Firstly, your nervous, structural and respiratory systems have to adapt. For example, you build more neuronal connections with your muscles. Secondly, you create energy deficit from destroying your muscles during your training sessions. Those processes are more energetically costly than those numbers you see on the elliptical machines. Last but not least, when you follow a well-planned, well-periodized program (and that doesn’t mean complicated) with proper recovery, you build and retain muscle mass.

Muscle burns more calories and they make you look smaller at the same weight. You will also be stronger and feel like a superhero.

Muscle makes more room for glycogen, reducing your odds of storing excess energy as fat. The 2 fold effects is that 1) when you eat a lot of food (especially carbs) after your workouts, your muscles look more full as opposed to your belly, or tummy, or thighs.

There are many breeds of resistant training, as I just learned. The best ones for this purpose is perhaps the high volume bodybuilding style training, density training and lactic acid training.

I would define HIIT as cardio intervals so hard that you feel like your lungs would explode at the end of each interval. Repeat 10 times. Well, that’s how I do it. But I would warn you that you should not be working out that hard if you have never done it, are de-conditioned or have lots of risk factors for heard diseases.

The thing with HIIT is similar to weight lifting. You burn more calories by 1) creating energy debt by using anaerobic respiration during your exercise and 2) forcing your body to adapt to the torture, so you feel less like a torture next time you do the same thing.

Remember, adaptation takes calories.

And you don’t need lots of time, either. I was a cardio queen with extraordinary endurance. I swam 60 laps in the pool with no rest and biked 70 km/day. But boy, just one Tabata workout that took 4 min made my lungs feel like they would explode by the end of the 2nd minute.

3)   You may want to eat what you don’t normally eat, but don’t eat to the point of discomfort.

Your body has a natural barometer for measuring how much you should be eating. Try not to override it.

We evolved to eat natural, unprocessed foods from the wild, not chocolate cakes, stuffing and sausages.

So, it’s best to focus on the least processed foods or what you can recognize in its natural state. The rest of it, eat it only when it’s really worthwhile, make it a real treat.

And don’t eat to the point that makes you suffer. Who likes food coma, anyway?

4)   Intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting is the practice of stopping eating for a period of time, and then eating again. More and more fitness figures are practicing this.

It might sound kinda crazy, like, “whoa, aren’t you gonna lose your muscles?”

I have seen too many bodybuilders do this to worry about that. For a reference, check this out for reference.

A simple rationale is that, the morning after the party, I would usually not feel like any food if I had my good share of party foods. It feels gross. And the last thing I would feel like doing is to eat.

So when that happens, it’s the body telling you that it has enough foods in the system to last for a while, that you don’t need to eat right then. You may be tired because your body still takes energy to digest the food, deal with new food allergens in the body, or clear out the alcohol. It’s telling you that it has enough work to do with foods.

So what I do is, I skip a day of foods and maybe even workout before I eat again. I make sure the first meal after the fast is full of protein and veggies, some good fats with very little carbohydrates. That’s my typical breakfast, anyway. It breaks the fast. NOT breakfast cereals.

5)   Supplements

I take my CORE supplement before carb-heavy or beer-heavy parties. It’s my security blanket with no side effects. It has the natural carbohydrate absorption inhibitor from white kidney bean, chromium that helps with insulin sensitivity, and leptin support herbs that reduce my appetite. This combination helps blunt the blow and reduce the odds of an endomorphic gal like me storing things as fat.

And if you happen to be eating lots of potatoes, breads and sweets, definitely supplement with chromium, Omega-3 and vitamin B complex. They help with metabolism of carbohydrates and insulin sensitivity.

There are also things like fat blocker (ever heard of Alli?), which I have tried myself. The problem with these is that they make you run to the bathroom with no mercy, and caused bad abdominal cramps. I’m not into this enough to recommend it, but it may be worth it if you are considering inhaling a whole wheel of double cream brie or boatloads of fried foods. While I’m a big fan of good fats, we all know that eating such amount of fats is a recipe to feeling like crap. So you decide.

6)   Find the basis behind your cravings

Cravings often have biological basis. It’s your body telling you something. Either you have a hormonal imbalance or a real dietary deficiency.

Believe it or not? You are often craving what you are allergic too. When you get hurt, your body secretes endorphins to reduce the pain. When you hurt yourself by eating things you are allergic to, you may become addicted to that endorphins. I know, I know. I crave chocolate, too and I am allergic to it. L Do you know anyone who won’t part ways with breads, and pasta or dairy?

A chocolate craving is often a sign of mineral deficiency.

A salt craving is a sign of stress or corticosteroid imbalances.

Carb cravings usually means that your body doesn’t handle carbs very well, and that you tend to store them as fat. It also means that you tend to get your blood sugar in extreme swings.

7)   Eat clean for the rest of the time

If you know you are going to party hard that day, it is wise to not show up ravenous or pre-stuffed with junk.

Make sure you eat lots of vegetables and lean protein sources consistently for the day, or better yet, for the week.

8)   Find out what your food sensitivities/allergies are and avoid them like plaque

It takes a bit of time, real patience and will power to go on a hypoallergenic diet before experiment with potential food allergens. You can do a lab test for food allergies, if you would like.

If you notice some symptoms such as rash, major changes in energy level, mucus, etc, associated with certain foods, it is a good idea to avoid that item.

Overloading your digestive system with what your body doesn’t like may sensitize your body to become more allergic to other things. It can also compromises the functions of your digestive system in the long run.

9)   Know a few favorite recipes of a side, a salad and a dessert that are “safe” for you nutrition-wise and food-sensitivity wise

If you really like some items and would rather have them in your life, it may be possible to invent a healthy version of it. I invented healthy chocolate cakes, mousse pies and cheesecakes that I have no shame in sharing with people or eating the whole thing by myself. Bring that to parties, impress people, and enjoy it! Check out my foods sections for a few ideas or feel free to ask for a recipe makeover.

On the other end of the spectrum, it’s also a good idea to bring a salad or a healthy dish with lots of veggies over so you can ensure that there is something that is consistent with your goals at the party.

10) Don’t get yourself into OCD mode.

Nobody is perfect, really.

Attempting to count foods or calories, or beating yourself up for eating party foods will drive you nuts. Stress hormones doesn’t make for good health or body composition.

You want to enjoy life. Keep it simple.

Go right back to eating clean and exercising, even if there’s still 1 or 3 next parties. Even if it’s not next year yet.

Move. As much as possible. It doesn’t have to be in the gym. It could be a few sets of air squats in your living room.

Lastly, don’t be that annoying person that’s always not easygoing and complaining how fat you get. You are responsible for what you put in your body. Just you. Take it.

Overall health vs cardiovascular health? Is low cholesterol really healthy?

My mom loves seafood and it rubbed off on all of her kids. As we drooled over the 12 oz. lobster tails and octopuses at the specialty market, she passed on those things saying, “These have high cholesterol.”

She is fairly educated and definitely not stupid, but I find it interesting that the cholesterol propaganda has caused her to think that cholesterol is absolute poison and that all high cholesterol foods should be avoided. Unfortunately, lots of yummy and nutritious foods are usually high in cholesterol.

It is intuitive to think that eating high cholesterol foods will raise blood cholesterol levels. That is simply not true because the body produces most of the cholesterol depending on the needs. If we eat more cholesterol, it produces less. We need cholesterol to stabilize the membranes of every single cell in our bodies, as well as to make hormones and vitamin D. Stress and inflammation increase the needs for cholesterol, and that may raise cholesterol levels. Humans with genetic defects that prevent them from making cholesterol, either die shortly after birth or exhibit mental retardation and developmental abnormalities.

I myself have experienced having very low cholesterol. A few years back, I was mega-dosing a plant sterol supplement to control my allergies and eczema, but I wasn’t aware that plant sterols are potent cholesterol reducers as well as immune stimulants. At the same time, I was going through a lot of stress in graduate school, working out 12 hours a week and dieting to lean out. My total cholesterol level was borderline hypocholesterolemia (low enough to need intervention) at 4.1 mm/dL or 158.3 mg/L. Although the number may not be out of range, it was definitely too low to be healthy for me. Alas, my doctor told me that my bloodwork looked perfect.

Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 9.37.22 PM

My perfect bloodwork while I was a complete mess.

Generally, stress and inflammation may increase cholesterol because there is greater needs to produce the stress hormones cortisol, among other things. However, because my cholesterol was artificially lowered, my body wasn’t able to produce enough cortisol and sex hormones; I experienced what many people call “stage 3 adrenal fatigue.” The adrenal crash, together with the immune stimulating effect of the plant sterol and my stress levels, caused the biggest eczema and allergy flare-up I had ever had. My upper body was nearly covered in eczema. I became allergic to things I had not been allergic to my entire life. Also, my cycles were prolonged to up to 50 days in between. I was also very depressed and had very little energy, possibly because of low sex hormones, vitamin D, cortisol, and everything else that was made of cholesterol. I’ve since stopped the culprit supplement, and gobbled up some butter, my cycles have normalized, I cleared up the eczema completely (mostly with nutrition) and the depression is gone.

I’m absolutely not saying that no one on the planet needs to lower their cholesterol. We need to be reminded that all diseases, including cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), are multi-factorial. It usually takes more than one factor to cause heart disease or stroke. The total cholesterol number alone is not indicative of heart disease risk, unless it is more than 330 mg/L. Generally, factor that put people at higher CVD risk include smoking or oxidative stress, being overweight, diabetes or insulin resistance, hypertension, lack of physical activity and unhealthy diet. If you are curious, try the Framingham Risk Assessment Tool to estimate your 10-year risk of developing CVDs.


The general model of how CVDs occur is that there is an insult to the arterial wall, such as a tear and then the body attempts to repair the tear by depositing oxidized cholesterol, fat, calcium and blood clot. As with any tissue repair process, this involves inflammation. People with more inflammation levels have faster plague buildup than those who don’t. The initial insult to the arterial walls happen because of oxidative stress and blood pressure. Also, oxidized fat and cholesterol get deposited in the plagues. While there is no direct scientific evidence that high cholesterol on its own cause diseases in humans, reducing cholesterol in people with previous heart attacks reduce the risks of subsequent heart attacks given that they also have high cholesterol.

In addition, there are subclasses of LDL (the generally called “bad” cholesterol) which are not commonly tested for in standard bloodwork.  Small, dense LDLs with oxidized fats and cholesterol are much more likely to cause CVDs than larger, more buoyant LDL particles. It seems like diets higher in refined carbohydrate, rather than dietary saturated fats or cholesterol, increase bad LDLs.

With all of that said, the way to manage your cardiovascular risk is not by avoiding high cholesterol foods. If you are reading this, I assume that you are in shape and eat a healthy diet. Here’s my take on how I usually help my clients manage their CVD risks if that is their concern.

  1. Eat a low glycemic impact diet
  2. Cut back on fructose
  3. Reduce inflammation with a fish oil supplement. In some cases I may recommend additional antioxidants such as curcumin. Also, maybe I would put them on an elimination diet or run a gut pathogen screen to reduce inflammation.
  4. Eliminate all sources of refined high-omega-6 oils (i.e. vegetable oils), especially ones that has been heated. Focus on monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, avocado oils and macadamia nut oils.
  5. Manage stress
  6. (If the doctor clears) exercise
  7. Supplements like plant sterols (in moderate dose), niacin and vitamin C may help reduce cholesterol.

For many athletic people, rather than cardiovascular concerns, the converse is true that they need to maintain healthy cholesterol levels while keeping oxidative stress in check. Therefore, if they have symptoms of hormone imbalances, I generally recommend adding fattier cuts of meats from healthy sources to their diets. Since exercise increases oxidative stress, athletic people could benefit from diets higher in antioxidants, and perhaps supplementation.

In case you are wondering about the blood numbers to look for, check out Dr. Spencer Nadolsky’s blog post.

Also, if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below.


blind spots people have that guarantee they fail new years resolution #3 & 4

3. Relying on exercise to lose weight

Most fitness coaches that consistently deliver result will say that diet is 80% and exercise is 20%. Fitness models may need to live on bland and regimented cardboard diets comprising of chicken breasts and broccolis. However, for the general population, very often switching from processed foods to whole foods and relying on appetite cues often produce great results, as long as the hormonal environment is fairly optimized.

Exercise alone rarely significantly change body composition in the long run (with some exceptions, of course), because the human body is very good at adapting the metabolic rate and appetite to match the calories burned. Those of us who struggle with weight loss also tend to reward ourselves with high calorie foods.

Sitting is the new smoking. It’s now clear that exercising for 1 hour a day may not mitigate the harm of being sedentary for the other 23 hour of the day. Therefore, for weight loss and general health, it may be more beneficial to move regularly and/or do short bursts of intense exercises throughout the day than to visit the gym for a long exercise session.

The fitness guru and my mentor Ben Greenfield says that exercise is not necessary to lose weight, but movement is.  So, whereever you are in your fitness journey, make it a point to stand up, walk around, stretch and do burpees every hour or so. Even better, get a standing desk or a treadmill desk.

4. Measurements fail

When new year resolvers attempt to lose weight, they only use the scale as their sole progress measurement. It’s called “weight loss” for a reason.

Your weight is simply a measure of gravity on your body. It doesn’t imply what your body is comprises of – fat, muscles, bones, water, and many more things. In fact, I’ve ran into many women who are up to 20 lbs lighter than me, who look larger than me.

Being fixated on weight can also cause backward progress. People who do a lot of long steady state cardio exercise and restrict calories to extreme ends or go on crash diets often lose weight that comprise mostly of water and muscles. It can even cause them to gain fat. Since most people have weight fluctuations, they will get more skinny fat over time. Being skinny fat means that they have more body fat and less muscle mass, which is worse for their metabolic and overall health.

The best thing to measure is body composition – how much lean mass you have and how much fat you have. It is indeed possible that you weight will stay the same once you do things that help with muscle retention, such as resistance training and eating sufficient amount of proteins. Heck, you may even gain weight but get smaller. Muscles are denser, and they store glycogen, which attract water.

None of the ways to measure body fat is perfect, unless you have access to some expensive lab equipments. So, when I work with my clients, I use at least 3 – 4 different ways to assess progress. These include weight, girth measurements, caliper skinfold measurements, Tanita scale (a Bioimpedence machine), and pictures. If someone is obese, it may be possible to drop a lot of weight, especially when they just start a new diet and exercise program. However, for leaner people, it gets more difficult to tell from measurements over time, but it is highly likely that pictures will show significant changes in muscle definition.

One of my client's caliper and weight measurements over 5 months. Her weight barely changed, but she lost 10% body fat.

One of my client’s caliper and weight measurements over 4 months. Her weight barely changed, but she lost almost 9% body fat and gained more than 10 lbs of lean mass.




My Story: Falling down the hormonal flight of stairs as a gym warrior and climbing back up like a scientist

How to rescue yourself after falling down the hormonal flight of stairs as a gym warrior.

Sign up to be notified when a free hormone balancing webinar is scheduled HERE.

I used to think looking good in a bikini and beasting out were the keys to being healthy, after years of chronic cardio had let me down. I love pumping iron so much that I became a personal trainer to empower other women with strength training.

Exercising, dieting and fasting is good, so more must be better?

Yet, I became constantly fatigued and depressed, my periods became nearly nonexistent, my skin broke out, my stomach went haywire and my cravings were rampant. Falling down this hormonal flight of stairs also led to months off from work and a breakup. I had to pay a steep price for the resulting hormonal imbalances.

Even worse, the fat I had worked so hard to get rid off creeped back up on me on the same “clean” diet and beastmode training.

All the while my bloodwork was spiffy perfect and doctor after doctor gave me a clean bill of health.

Rather than getting on ten medications to take care of all the issues that I had, the scientist in me knew that there was another answer. I knew that something was fundamentally wrong with the way I treated my body, although I was the perfect poster child of the fitness industry.

On my quest to understand what had happened, I discovered functional medicine, the real Health Care, not Sick Care. As a life-long scientist, I find that the more I learn about functional medicine, the more it makes scientific sense to me. Through health detective work (nutrition, supplementation, stress management, functional lab testing, hormone balancing, environmental optimization, manipulating exercise variables, etc) and leaving no stone unturned, I restored my health while getting stronger.

As I heal myself, I encounter countless weightlifting sisters who face similar issues. I just can’t help but sharing what I’ve learned along the way, such as:

1. Women have different physical training needs from men.

2. Stress is cumulative. Dieting and Exercising are ALWAYS  stressors and will be beneficial only if I can recover from it. It is possible to find a hormonal sweet spot to be lean, strong and healthy. This can be done by balancing out stresses from exercise and everything else in life, but unnecessarily stresses must be eliminated.

3. While it is better to prevent catastrophic health situations as described, it is also possible to restore health to feeling like my hottie badass self again.

Being the passionate person that I am, I can’t keep my mouth shut, which is why I do free live trainings for you fellow strong sisters.

Want to learn how to balance find your hormonal sweet spot?

Sign up to be notified when a free hormone balancing webinar is scheduled HERE.