Does dieting make me FATTER?
To quickly recap: human evolution took place over a span of about 6 million years in which the greatest threat to our survival as a species was starvation. Mother Nature created a masterpiece of design to combat this threat: the human body is beautifully equipped to store and hang onto body fat to protect us from starvation. It is NOT designed to lose fat easily and will resist doing so. While this is frustrating to modern humans who have access to food 24/7, it's important to remember that this design is the reason we survived as a species!
Does Dieting Make Me FATTER?
Here's the unfortunate truth: Yes, dieting can make you fatter over the long term. Studies show this to be true. This study published in the journal of The American Dietetic Association showed that dieting predicted weight gain in adolescents. That means children who went on diets were more likely to be fat later on in life! Still not convinced? Check out this study or this one or this article. Scary stuff considering that at any given time 45 million adults in the US are on a diet, and the diet industry makes a whopping 65 billion dollars every year...you would think we should be the leanest humans to have ever walked the planet!
How does dieting make me fatter?
The body perceives a diet no differently than a famine. All it knows is that energy is suddenly in short supply. When you begin to restrict, especially if you are on a lose-weight-as-fast-as-possible diet, your body immediately perceives a threat to your survival. The response to this "famine" involves hormonal shifts and changes in your brain chemistry, all of which are completely involuntary (this means you don't control it, much like breathing or heart rate).
Here's a simplified version of what happens in your body when you go on a self-induced "famine" (i.e. a diet):
- The hunger hormone ghrelin is up-regulated. I call ghrelin the hunger gremlin...it's the hormone that makes you hungry. With more ghrelin circulating in your blood stream, you begin to think about food constantly, and "food-seeking behavior" increases (often subconsciously). This is the reason portion sizes tend to creep up over time. It's also the reason you may morph into Cookie Monster around pizza, donuts, cookies, cakes, bread, and pasta.
- The anti-hunger hormone leptin is down-regulated. Leptin is the satiety hormone, or the hormone that helps you stop eating and inhibits hunger. With less leptin circulating in your bloodstream, you are forever-hungry and normal amounts of food often don't satisfy you.
- Thyroid hormone, often called the master regulator of your metabolism, is suppressed. This is basically a forced slow-down of the number of calories your body burns, which leaves you very low on energy. This is also the reason why weight loss plateaus happen despite calories being very low. Your body shuts down your metabolism to match your intake. Believe it or not, if you only give your body 800 calories per day, it will learn to function on 800 calories per day. Do you really want to live on 800 calories per day for the rest of your life? Sounds to me like a pretty sucky way to live.
- Finally, estrogen and testosterone are down-regulated. After all, if there's a famine and you are about to starve, sex and having babies is ill-advised. You need all the energy you can spare to look for food! Libido drops in both sexes, and if you are a woman your cycle may become dysregulated or even cease. Drops in libido and changes in the female menstrual cycle are red flags!
Your body is super smart.
Each time you lose weight and subsequently regain it, your body learns to launch these hormonal and brain changes even faster the next time you diet. Unfortunately, the human body has not developed an opposing mechanisms for weight loss. Your body will never become more efficient at losing fat...only gaining it. This is the reason that it often seems like the weight comes back on more quickly each time a diet fails...and also why it seems harder and harder to lose the weight again. It's not your imagination...it really does become easier to gain and harder to lose!
Bottom Line: Yo-yo dieting causes a cascade of changes in the brain and a major shift in hormones and other chemical messengers in the body. The more times you go on a diet (i.e. a self-induced famine), and the more times your weight yo-yo's, the more you are teaching your body how to gain and store fat as fast as possible in preparation for the next "famine" (i.e. the next diet).
To recap this and the previous blog post:
Is my metabolism damaged after years of dieting? No. Our bodies evolved complex biological mechanisms to keep us alive during a famine. This is how we survived as a species over the past 6 million years. Dieting simply trains your body to be very efficient at doing what it's supposed to do.
Does dieting make me fatter? Long term research points to YES. Dieting causes a cascade of brain changes and hormonal shifts that make you extremely hungry, increases binge and overeating behavior, and saps your energy. And the more times you "expose" your body to this type of stress, the faster your body elicits the "starvation response". Diets train the body to store fat more efficiently.
How can I lose weight permanently? The good news is that you can lose weight in a way that doesn't trip your body's ancient "warning system". In next week's post, I'll discuss how to reach your happiest and healthiest weight...even if you've trained your body to be a fat-storing machine!
Thank you for reading! If you want to keep up with the latest news, tips, and programs, I invite you to subscribe to my email list! Just scroll down to the bottom of the page and enter your email! If you're ready to get started on a program that will help you heal your relationship to body and food, contact me today to set up a FREE consultation!