The End of Dieting

We all drank the koolaid. It wasn’t our fault, really. We have grown up on decades of ever-evolving, ever-contradictory nutritional advice, all of it seemingly focused on controlling weight, with a touch of health thrown in for good measure. Even worse, weight has been sold to us as a synonym for health, and we bought it, hook, line, and sinker. What a tragedy.

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Add up all the time, energy, and suffering you have given to this fallacy. The time spent planning exactly what you will eat and when, adding up calories you increasingly do not feel entitled to. The energy you've spent punishing your body. The suffering you have felt by measuring your worth by a number on the scale, feeling less-than, unworthy, or ashamed of your body for existing in its natural state. 

I’m sucker for a redemption story, though, so the tragedies can end there, if you believe these magic words:

Diets don’t work.

You know that old tongue-in-cheek saying about insanity? Doing the same thing over again and expecting different results? I’m pretty sure they invented it in response to dieting. Maybe you already know this, but you keep dieting anyway, imagining the science couldn't possibly apply to you. I’m a former smoker, so I get it. I can’t tell you how many times people would say to me (utterly unsolicited), “you know that smoking will kill you right?” I never did this, but in my fantasies I would drop the cigarette like a snake bit me, stamp it out, frantically shake the person’s hand, thank them gratuitously for this new information, for saving my life, just to see what would happen. My point is, I KNEW smoking was harmful, but I did it anyway. Some of you have heard that dieting and restricting is harmful, and you do it anyway. If that is the case, I hope you don't mind one more pitch for camp non-diet.

I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, though. I think that most of you don’t know that diets don’t work. You think you don't work, that your body doesn't work, and you are broken in some way. I’m hoping to free you from that and from every New Year’s resolution to “lose weight” from now on.

I’m going to tackle some of the common things I hear to justify dieting and break down why they don’t work. For the sake of mutual understanding, I’m defining dieting as taking in less energy than your body requires (roughly 2500 calories/day for women and 3000 calories/day for men) and/or restricting or eliminating entire food groups for no medical reason/for the primary purpose of weight loss or weight control. 

You might do this by skipping meals, cutting down calories or portion sizes, using gum or distractions to ignore your hunger, using low calorie replacements, omitting nutrients (like carbs or fats), always choosing the "healthy" option when dining out, not eating after certain times, filling up on water before meals, and so on.

“2500 calories?! My body doesn’t need that much food.”

Out of sheer curiosity, I looked up the recommended daily calories for my 4 year old. It was 1500-1700 calories. Why wouldn’t your body need more energy than a 4 year old’s??

Let’s break down those calories.

Your brain uses roughly 700 calories/day alone. Its primary fuel source is glucose, aka carbs.

Your basic body functions that support staying alive (heart, lungs, etc.) take another 700-1000 calories/day.

The rest of those calories go to giving you energy to think, move, and get shiz done during the day. And yes, even *your* body needs them.

"Weight loss is calories in vs. calories out, so if I cut some calories, I'll lose weight."

Not necessarily, and definitely not long term. 

Our bodies are complex, dynamic creations, so why would something as important to sustaining life be a simple in/out equation of only one factor?  In truth, the equation looks more like this:

Source: www.precisionnutrition.com

Source: www.precisionnutrition.com

So what does all that mean? It means weight gained or lost is determined by these factors minimally (not to mention hormones and role of genetic expression):

Actual calories eaten: self explanatory

Calories not absorbed: Not everything we eat is absorbed. Additionally, some people engage in purging behaviors that decrease the number of calories absorbed. (Fun fact: Calorie absorption begins immediately in the digestive process. Even if you purge immediately after a meal, you still absorb about 50% of the calories. You absorb most calories eaten, if not all, even if you are misusing laxatives.)

Resting metabolic rate: This is the energy required for those "basic body functions that support staying alive."

 Thermic effect of eating: Ever hear of the meat sweats? Eating and digesting energy takes energy.

Physical activity: Exercise and what not.

Non-exercise thermogenic activity: The energy your body uses daily getting shiz done.

All of these are interconnected, and changes to any part will affect the whole, a whole metabolic system designed to keep you around a "set point" weight where it functions optimally. 

“I have a slow metabolism, so I need to eat less.”

Or

“I hit a plateau, so I need to cut more calories.”

In the words of Willie Wonka, strike that. Reverse it. You eat less, so you have a slow metabolism. You need to eat more calories.

Ever had that annoying experience of dieting super hard to only lose a few pounds, or, more infuriating, GAIN weight while dieting? Your body’s not flawed. It’s doing what it’s supposed to do.

Your body doesn’t know the difference between dieting and starving.

Remember that metabolic equation? Here's what happens if you restrict:

Source: www.precisionnutrition.com

Source: www.precisionnutrition.com

Restricting calories suppresses metabolism and thermogenesis ("burning" energy), so you don't necessarily lose weight (and may actually gain weight).

Even if you are "successful" at losing weight, your body will have suppressed your metabolism because it thinks you are in a famine, and it has utterly no awareness that you would like to fit into your skinny jeans. So, it does you this favor. Additionally, because your body loves you, it will stay suppressed for a bit causing you to put on weight once you stop dieting so that next time you’re faced with a famine, you can get through it. (Don't worry, your metabolism CAN recover after a period of eating sufficiently.) Bodies are pretty amazing. Why?

We have to eat to live.

This is a biological need. Wanting to eat more when dieting is not a lack of will power. It is not a failure. It is your brain and body doing what it is supposed to in response to the biological need to eat to live. It is not “bad” that you want to eat, that you need to eat. 

On top of this, when you are dieting/semi-starving, your body releases hormones designed to both drive you to eat AND make food taste better. Your body is all, “well, food’s not coming. Let’s make it taste even BETTER to eat, and maybe it will come.” This sets you up for overeating or binging while dieting. Your brain and body are pulling out all the stops, trying to get you to feed them.

Besides, dieting is stressful. So stressful that you will release cortisol in response to undereating, making you more irritable and (again) more likely overeat.

“What about ketogenic diets?”

There is no reason for you to be on a ketogenic diet unless prescribed by a physician, and usually then only to treat seizure disorders.

See above re: brain fuel. You see, when the brain gets no energy (aka carbs) from your meals, it will switch into a process called ketosis. Long story short, it will convert fat in your body into something sort of like glucose that your brain can sort of use. Only, ketosis can only meet about 75% of your brain’s daily needs. Additionally, prolonged ketosis will break down not only fat, but your muscles, leaving you more prone to injury and breaks.

This means your memory will suffer, your sleep will suffer, and your mood will suffer.

Sounds totally healthy, huh?

“Then why do I feel so energetic when I cut out carbs?”

I can’t say for sure. People with a genetic predisposition to eating disorders will often experience a calm or even ecstacy when restricting or eliminating food groups. If you experience this, you need to be extra vigilant in eating adequate amounts.

The opposite is more common, and there are TONS of articles out there on “how to overcome low energy when low carb.” Reframe this as “how to ignore the fact that your brain is starving when refusing to eat carbs because you want to lose weight,” and it starts to sound more and more questionable.

“I'm not on a diet, it’s a lifestyle change.”

Oh, ya’ll. This one really gets under my skin. In what life do you want to miss out on the glories of cheese, ice cream, melty pizza, or a perfect croissant?

Let me tell you about the lifestyle you have chosen.

You started X diet (excuse me, lifestyle) and you were committed. You counted calories or macros or exchanges. You took up spin classes. You lost weight, you met your goal, and you started to feel more comfortable with the occasional indulgence. You told yourself you “earned” it. Over time the constant need to meal prep and hit the gym every day became hard to sustain. The weight came back, and then some. You vowed to "get back on track" to lose the weight. You have repeated this cycle every few years (or months or less), each time blaming yourself for "falling off" the diet, when your body was never built to diet at all! 

“I don’t feel hungry, so why should I eat more?”

Dieting messes with your hunger and fullness hormones. For most people, dieting results in a drop in fullness hormones and a rise in hunger hormones (that whole your-body-doesn’t-want-you-to-undereat thing).

After long-term dieting and/or overeating (disordered eating), the signaling can be so damaged that you no longer feel hunger or fullness. The paradox here is that not having hunger is actually a sign that you need to eat more to repair those hormones.

(This may not hold true you eat often and don't allow yourself to feel hungry, in which case exploring any fears or feelings about hunger may be useful.)

“I’ll eat normally once I lose the weight.”

I’m going to pick on religion for a second here. Does anyone else remember True Love Waits? Is it still a thing? When I was in high school, participants signed a pledge to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. Participants were frequently told that sexual desires are sinful and in need of control. What do you think happened once participants married and have sexual relationships? There are often years of association between sexual desire and shame to undo. (More on this in this month's podcast.)

Now, if you lose weight, your brain will not stop wanting to fix the malnourishment, and you will also need to undo years of association between eating and shame.

“But what about all the negative health outcomes associated with obesity?”

Did you know that people in BMI category 25-30 tend to live longer that those in BMI range 20-25? Weight is associated with some health outcomes, but I think/hope we all learned at some point that correlation does not equal causation.

We need to ask why the link exists, what are the contributing factors – like job type, diet, physical activity, the stress of stigma, and disparities in medical care that may all play a role in negative health outcomes. Regardless, dieting is known to end up in greater weight gain. Why risk more weight gain by dieting if weight IS the issue?

“Okay, fine. What do I need to do?”

Stop dieting. Seriously. ASAP. Stop counting calories, creating a meal schedule, leaving out food groups, “earning” calories, and on and on. Eat enough, eat from a variety of food groups, pay attention to how different foods make your body feel, eat foods you like, and let your emotions play a role in what you eat (they do anyway).

Easier said than done, right?

Start focusing on healthy habits that are related health goals. Things like:

___ Cut the time it takes me to walk a mile (or be able to run a mile)
___ Be able to touch my toes
___ Be able to keep up with my kids/grandkids without getting
completely winded
___Think about food less often
___ Balance my breakfast
___ Become more self-confident
___ Minimize the negative self-talk
___ Sleep better
___ Feel more energetic
___ Progress to using a heavier free weight
___ Cook at home more often
___ Manage my blood pressure
___ Find safe places to express myself
___ _________________(Fill in the blank.)

If weight loss happens as a result of these behaviors, it happens. It may not. Your weight may not change at all. If you were under your body's optimal weight, you will likely gain weight. Your healthiest self may not look or weigh what you hoped, but health is far more than weight. 

Now, undoing years of nutritional misinformation and coming to terms with how you *feel* about allowing your body to do this is a longer post for another day soon!

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