Perhaps you’ve heard the maxim that drastically cutting calories will slow down your metabolism or send signals to the body to hold onto fat.
Recently, there’s been some attention given to the dismal prognosis for those who lose weight on The Biggest Loser. One study followed contestants for a number of years and found that very few of them sustained their trim status. Any weight-loss study that follows participants over an extended period of time tends to reveal a similar outcome: The data are not optimistic regarding our ability to maintain weight loss.
Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, author of the book, “Why Diets Make us Fat,” says that dieting literally sets us up for weight gain over time.
Aamodt cites a wide body of research to support her conclusion. For example, among identical twins, those who diet are significantly more likely to gain weight than their non-dieting twin. Similarly, studies show that calorie restriction leads to weight gain for those who are not overweight yet go on diets — for instance, athletes who restrict calories in order to attain a particular weight (wrestlers, gymnasts, etc.).
Why is this the apparent outcome of dieting? Aamodt proposes a few explanations.
First, dieting tends to yield stress and, as a result, the increased production of stress hormones (such as cortisol). These hormonal changes may trigger weight gain rather than loss.
Second, diets that significantly restrict calories have been shown to lead to binging behavior in mammals. Such binges appear to biologically alter us. Neurotransmitters in the brain seem to be impacted after calorie restriction and, unfortunately, the resulting changes appear to be long-standing.
Aarnodt theorizes that dieting is problematic because it teaches us to ignore the body’s signals of hunger and satiety and instead rely on external cues to eat. When we diet, we eat when we think we “should” eat, not when our bodies tell us we need food.
Many of us eat for reasons other hunger — in social settings, when we are emotionally stressed or even merely because it’s the right “time” of day to eat.
Diets reinforce our reliance on external triggers to eat and encourage us to disregard our internal triggers ... the ones we should be paying attention to.
So, if diets aren’t the answer, what SHOULD we do? Are we to abandon any effort to seek a healthy weight? Certainly not, but diets appear to be as much the problem as the solution.
A few suggestions that may be worth directing your energy to:
1. Focus on eating mindfully and paying attention to cues that indicate hunger and satiety. Studies have demonstrated that those who eat mindfully and pay attention to physiological rather than external cues are more likely to maintain a healthy weight in the long run. Eat in response to physiological hunger and stop when you are full or almost full.
2. Concentrate on healthy habits rather than weight loss. Even if you are overweight, remind yourself that most health improvements come from healthy habits not a number on the scale. For example: getting regular exercise and consuming vegetables are two habits that will serve you well.
3. Forget about dieting or anything that you cannot maintain permanently. Anything you are unable to continue to do long term is likely to be counterproductive and perhaps even a set-up for future weight gain. DO focus on eating lots of fresh veggies and fruits, whole grains and lean sources of protein. If you can’t sustain a diet for the long haul, you will regain the weight you’ve lost (and a few extra pounds are likely to come with it).
4. Pursue fitness. Many indicators suggest that being in shape may be more important than having low body fat. Cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength may be more determinant of your health that how much you weigh.
The bottom line: Dieting does not appear to lead to long-term health or weight loss. It’s likely much more helpful to change specific life habits. So if you want to be healthy and maximize your odds of maintaining a healthy weight, here’s your prescription: Eat mindfully, eat healthy foods, think big picture and get lots of regular exercise.
Maggie Williamson is a health coach and NASM-certified personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist and weight-loss specialist. She has a master’s degree in social work and a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Her business, BoiseStrongMom.com, specializes in working with women seeking to improve their overall health and well-being.