Ok, so I know I said we’d spend this week talking about macronutrients. But in preparing this post, I realized that maybe we should talk about diets and why they don’t work. My ultimate goal is to explain why its important to eat whole foods and keep your macronutrients balanced, and I think it’ll make a whole lot more sense if we talk a little about fad diets first. So, sorry for the teaser, but I think you’ll find this information very enlightening, especially at this time of year when you may be trying to find your own dietary plan.
First of all, let me start this post by saying I’m not really fond of the word “diet”. When most people think of diets, they think of calorie restriction, self-denial, and inevitable failure. Not exactly something people get excited about it. The word diet can actually just mean whatever food you eat on a normal basis. But, for the sake of this post, we’ll talk about diets in the negative sense. Like I said, most people don’t get excited about the word, and for good reason: your body knows they don’t work. Even if your brain has fooled you into thinking that the quick path to health is found in the is the latest diet book hitting the store shelves, your body isn’t fooled. For those of you who have dieted multiple times over the years, I’m sure you are quite familiar with the dread, the drudgery, and the sheer willpower involved in sticking to a diet. It turns eating, one of man’s greatest pleasures, into something it was never meant to be.
Most diets start out with a lot of calorie restriction. While it is true that taking in an excessive amount of calories leads to weight gain (in the absence of increased activity to utilize the calories), it isn’t necessarily true that restricting calories will always lead to weight loss. When you restrict your calories, you do initially see a weight loss. Yay! The diet must be working. Over time, however, your body reacts to the trend. Remember, our bodies were made for survival. When you lose weight too quickly, your body thinks that its because of a food scarcity. It’s response is to slow down metabolism. When your metabolism slows down, you don’t burn as many calories at rest. 60% of the calories you burn are for your basic metabolic functions, not for exercise. So decreasing this metabolic rate has a HUGE impact on your metabolic expenditure, way more than exercise does. Not only that, but your stomach actually starts to turn against you. It reacts by increasing production of a hormone called ghrelin. This is a normal hormone that signals your brain to feel hunger, only when you lose weight, you’re making even more of it than normal. In addition to all this, as you lose fat tissue, your body stops making as much leptin, the hormone that decreases appetite. Again, your appetite goes up, your metabolic rate stays down.
At this point you’re not losing weight, and you’re hungry all the time. You don’t have as much energy as you used to because of your decreased metabolic rate, so you have even less motivation to stick with the diet. You decide that it isn’t working, so you go back to eating the way you did before. Here’s the problem: your metabolism is lower than when you started. So you eat the same amount of calories that you did before the diet, only this time, you’re burning less of them. You gain the weight back and then some. Fabulous, this is just what you wanted to accomplish, right? Now, depending on if you’re a glass half full or a glass half empty kind of person, you think one of three things: I didn’t try hard enough, or There’s really nothing I can do to change my body, I’m destined to be overweight my whole life, or, for the optimist: It must just be that diet, there must be another one out there that works!
You can’t change the fact that you tried a diet and it didn’t work. I applaud you for trying! What you can change is how you react to the failure. The first response is a guilt trip that won’t get you anywhere, and most likely its not even true. The second is so far from the truth, yet so pervasive in our culture. When did we decide to give up control over our own lives? Yes, some people have predispositions to store more fat, and there are hidden factors that contribute to obesity that make losing weight harder for some than for others. We’ll talk about those eventually, but for now, get this thought out of your head! The third is partially true, depending on where you go with it. Yes, there is a “diet” out there that works, but it isn’t one that requires you to learn a secret handshake or buy prepackaged food designed for it. It’s much more common sense than you think.
Food is meant to sustain us, to nourish our bodies and give us the building blocks we need to maintain our health and achieve our goals. It’s meant to be pleasurable, and it isn’t meant to be complicated. If you’ve tried diets before and failed, I hope this information encourages you that it wasn’t because you failed, it was because you had the wrong information. So don’t rush out and buy the next diet book to come on the scene. Keep reading, resist the temptation to grab a soda and next time you go to the grocery store, buy something that doesn’t come in a box or a bag. Your body will thank you.
This post is linked to Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop.