Medical Compass: Micronutrients for the win with weight loss

Medical Compass: Micronutrients for the win with weight loss

METRO photo
Focus less on balancing protein, carbohydrates and fats

By David Dunaeif, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

The road to weight loss, or even weight maintenance, is complex. There are many things that influence our eating behavior, including food addictions, boredom, lack of sleep and stress.

Knowing a food’s caloric impact doesn’t always matter, either. Studies assessing the impact of nutrition labeling in restaurants gave us a clear view of this issue: knowing an item’s calories either doesn’t alter behavior or can actually encourage higher calorie purchases (1, 2). The good news is that controlling weight isn’t solely about exercising willpower. Instead, we need to change our diet composition.

In my clinical experience, increasing food quality has a tremendous impact. Focusing on foods that are the most micronutrient dense tends to be the most satisfying, rather than focusing on foods’ macronutrient density, such as protein, carbohydrates and fats. In a week to a few months of emphasizing micronutrients, one of the first things patients notice is a significant reduction in cravings.

Are refined carbohydrates bad for you?

Generally, we know that refined carbohydrates don’t help. Looking deeper, a small, randomized control trial (RCT) showed refined carbohydrates actually may cause food addiction (3). Certain sections of the brain involved in cravings and reward are affected by high-glycemic foods, as shown with MRI scans of trial subjects.

Study participants consumed a 500-calorie shake with either a high-glycemic index or a low-glycemic index. They were unaware of which they were drinking. The ones who drank the high-glycemic shake had higher levels of glucose in their blood initially, followed by a significant decline in glucose levels and increased hunger four hours later. The region of the brain that is related to addiction, the nucleus accumbens, showed a spike in activity with the high-glycemic intake.

According to the authors, this effect may occur regardless of the number of calories consumed. Commonly found high-glycemic foods include items like white flour, sugar and white potatoes. The conclusion: Everyone, but especially those trying to lose weight, should avoid refined carbohydrates.

What’s the right balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats?

We tend to focus on macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and fats — when we look at diets. Which has the greatest impact on weight loss? In an RCT, when comparing different macronutrient combinations, there was very little difference among study groups, nor was there much success in helping obese patients reduce their weight (4, 5). Only 15 percent of patients achieved a 10 percent reduction in weight after two years.

The four different macronutrient diet combinations involved overall calorie restriction. In addition, each combination had either high protein, high fat; average protein, high fat; high protein, low fat; or low protein, low fat. Carbohydrates ranged from low to moderate (35 percent) in the first group to high (65 percent) in the last group. This was another well-designed study, involving 811 participants with an average BMI of 33 kg/m², which is classified as obese.

Focusing primarily on macronutrient levels and calorie counts did very little to improve results.

What’s the relationship between           micronutrients and weight?

In an epidemiological study looking at National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data, results demonstrate that those who are overweight and obese tend to be micronutrient-deficient (6). Micronutrients include carotenoids, such as lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin, as well as vitamin B12, folate and vitamins C, E and D.

Unfortunately, taking supplements doesn’t solve the problem; generally, micronutrients from supplements are not the same as those from foods. With a few exceptions, such as vitamin D and potentially B12, most micronutrient levels can be raised without supplementation, by increasing the variety of foods in your diet. Please ask your doctor.

Long-term benefits of reducing              cortisol levels

Cortisol raises blood-levels of glucose and is involved in promoting visceral or intra-abdominal fat. This type of fat can coat internal organs, such as the liver, and result in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Decreasing the level of cortisol metabolite may also result in a lower propensity toward insulin resistance and may decrease the risk of cardiovascular mortality.

The good news is that once people lose weight, it may be easier to continue to keep weight off. In a prospective (forward-looking) study, results show that once obese patients lost weight, the levels of cortisol metabolite excretion decreased significantly (7). This is an encouraging preliminary, yet small, study involving women.

Controlling or losing weight is not solely about calorie-counting. While calorie intake has a role, food’s nutrient density may be more important to your success and may play a significant role in reducing your cravings, ultimately helping you manage your weight.


(1) Am J Pub Health 2013 Sep 1;103(9):1604-1609. (2) Am J Prev Med.2011 Oct;41(4):434–438. (3) Am J Clin Nutr Online 2013;Jun 26. (4) N Engl J Med 2009 Feb 26;360:859. (5) N Engl J Med 2009 Feb 26;360:923. (6) Medscape General Medicine. 2006;8(4):59. (7) Clin Endocrinol.2013;78(5):700-705.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit or consult your personal physician.