Why Dieting and Deprivation Can Make You Fat
You wouldn’t expect a weight-loss program to actually make you gain weight, but it can. Sustainable weight loss is an often elusive goal.
A natural reaction to wanting to lose weight is to go on a quick weight-loss diet. Lured by magazine headlines that promise: “Drop a Dress Size in 4 Days”, we inevitably seek a quick fix in the form of a calorie-restricted regimen.
Along with cutting out many of our favorite foods, we also get an accompanying sense of deprivation.
Like countless others, you may have followed this same path… many times: disciplined yourself and lost some weight, only to find you put it all back on . . . along with some brand new extra pounds as well.
Einstein defined insanity as “Doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome”. Yet when it comes to weight loss, the tendency is, repeatedly, to cut down calories (and hope to fit in more exercise) in the belief that denying your body food and pounding away at the gym will help you reach your goal.
Unfortunately, this is the same thing many people have tried, again and again, without lasting success.
It’s important to recognize that your body is not a calorie bank account!
Effective, sustainable weight loss requires that we stop thinking in terms of an account in which the only deposits and withdrawals are in the form of calories and exercise. In reality, our bodies are a complex, finely tuned and highly integrated chemistry laboratory. For this laboratory to function optimally, you must view yourself in a much broader frame.
Here’s a start:
Back to basics. There’s a primitive part of your brain, known as the hypothalamus, that controls your metabolic rate, or the rate at which you burn food to create the energy your body needs to function. When you suddenly restrict your food and calorie intake, the hypothalamus is programmed to act as if a famine is coming. In a protective reaction, it slows down metabolism to conserve energy and ensure prolonged survival.
With lowered metabolism and energy, you require less food to survive. Your hypothalamus, however, sees this reduced food intake as a further sign of the coming famine and, in an attempt to increase your survival chances, triggers your body to begin storing energy . . . in the form of fat!
Here’s what’s happening: The sudden reduction in calories first results in the loss of muscle tissue. Muscles are metabolically more active than fat, that is, they produce more energy. Therefore, the loss of muscle caused by reduced food intake results in a net loss of energy production. In defense, your body starts to quickly store the food you are eating as fat, safely depositing calories in your energy savings account.
But we’re not done with the negative effects of dieting yet!
While “dieting”, your body is functioning at a lower rate of metabolism; it’s drawing as much energy as possible from every morsel you eat. If and when you go off your diet, the body is still programmed to stockpile calories, adding further to the fat bank account.
This whole approach seems to say: “You’re damned if you do (eat), and damned if you don’t (eat)”. But, take heart, there are weight-loss programs that work!
Getting the food part right. Let’s begin with the food aspect of achieving a desirable weight. (Read more about nutrition and weight loss in Clinical Nutrition.)
For your metabolism to run at a high (optimal) level, the body needs to receive plenty of water and small regular healthy meals with minimal grains.
To consistently reduce fat stores while improving health, daily food intake should include
- 8 glasses of pure water,
- three small serves of protein,
- 3-5 cups of vegetables, including 2-3 cups of green vegetables,
- no more that 2 serves (1 cup) of fruit,
- 2 small serves of carbohydrates, such as bread or pasta
- a small handful of nuts and seeds,
- up to 2 tablespoons (total) of healthy oils, such as cold-pressed virgin olive oil or fish oil.
It’s also important to increase your incidental movement and enjoy 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily. This can include such activities as walking, dancing, swimming, a game of tennis or working out at the gym or at home. Focus on movement you enjoy and that’s realistic to do regularly.
For a visual look at the healthy diet and lifestyle we should all be following, check out the Wellness Pyramid.
Depriving yourself of the foods your body needs—or every thing that you enjoy—rarely creates long-term success, when trying to implement change in your life.
The other side of weight loss
Going on a diet is often accompanied by thoughts such as: “I have to give up everything that I like” or “I should go on a diet because I’ve been bad or undisciplined”. You may, by this point, have come to not like yourself very much either, and it’s difficult to do nice things for someone you don’t approve of—even if it’s yourself.
With such a mindset, your attention becomes fixed on all the things you now cannot have, rather than on what you do have or on the foods and actions that would help you feel good about yourself.
When we are emotionally focused on such a negative attitude towards our food intake, our brain begins to see that very food everywhere and think about the very thing we are trying to avoid! (For further understanding of this pattern, see also, Our Three Brains.)
For example, you likely have seen a small child with a wide variety of toys available to play with, yet this child can become focused on the toy that another child has or one he or she may have been told they can’t have—even if the object being denied is as basic and plentiful as a rock!
As adults, we generally don’t like to be told what to do or what we should be doing. When we feel deprived, but are doing what we think we should be doing, eventually the saboteur within us will emerge, urging us to, ”Go on have a little bit, it won’t hurt”. When we give in and do indulge, even a little, we’re filled with remorse and guilt. Thinking we’ve blown our diet, we reason that we might as well indulge some more. Next thing we know, we’ve eaten a whole heap more.
In truth, however, if you “fall off the wagon”, don’t give up, simply get back on and keep going.
And don’t despair, an occasional moderate treat won’t hurt. When you do choose to eat some cake or a treat, employ the following strategy: Serve yourself a small amount, focus on it, give it your full attention and eat it slowly, allowing yourself to savor it thoroughly. You’ll be surprised at how satisfying the treat is and how little you really need to satisfy your desire.
Please remember, though, that in the early weight-loss phase, a sweet treat transitions your body out of its fat-burning mode, which can take as long as five days to re-establish. Also be aware that some people have a sugar addiction and, as with alcoholism, even a little sweet treat can set up a physical reaction that leads to craving more.
And if you are more than 10 kgm (23 lbs) above your ideal weight, it’s important to be aware of the complex nature of obesity and the many factors that could be creating weight-loss resistance.
Your health is your wealth. Maintaining your ideal healthy weight whilst experiencing improved health and vitality is a lifestyle choice.
Without good health, the rest of life is more difficult. When you focus on improving your health, energy and sense of wellbeing, you’re moving towards a positive goal.
And a healthy lifestyle has room within it for the enjoyment of a large variety of the things you love. It also brings with it the sense of wellbeing and flourishing that come with achieving and maintaining perhaps one of life’s most important goals.