The fact that restrictive dieting works for weight loss is one of the most widespread myths of the western world. We are made to believe that to lose weight, or maintain a healthy weight, we need to restrict our calories to 1800, 1500 or even 1200 calories a day, cut out all treats and always choose low fat or low carb options. I remember being a young teenager and reading the pages on weight loss and celebrity diets in women’s magazines and thinking this is how I need to eat to be beautiful and successful.
Yes, dieting works in the short term but what happens a few months or years down the line? The fact is that most diets don’t work long term. It’s estimated that 95% of people who lose weight on a diet gain it back within 5 years. So many women (and men!) are stuck in this constant cycle of calorie restriction and deprivation followed by rebound overeating and weight gain. Not only is this bad for your physical health but the dieting cycle is bad for your mental health too.
The problem is that we don’t see the yo-yo dieting as a cycle. We see it as lots of separate, successful diets with periods of failure on our part in-between. We see the diets as being successful due to our initial weight loss and then blame ourselves for “falling off the wagon” and gaining back the weight. Then of course, we see the only solution as starting a new diet. What we don’t realise is that with every cycle our body builds it’s defenses against the perceived famine. Your body does this by:
- Slowing down your digestive system in an attempt to squeeze every last calorie out of the food that you eat, leaving you feeling bloated and sluggish.
- Turning down your metabolic rate so that you waste less energy as heat, resulting in a drop in your core body temperature and symptoms such as cold hands and feet and sensitivity to cold.
- Growth of your nails and hair also slows down as your body tries to conserve energy by limiting unnecessary functions and women may experience disruption to their menstrual cycles.
- Even you slow down as you start to feel the effects of being in a chronic energy deficit such as fatigue, brain fog and muscle aches and pains.
Basically, everything slows down when you are on a calorie restricted diet! Not only that, your body develops ways to persuade you to eat more when you diet, including decreasing the hormones which make you feel full and increasing your hunger signals. Your body is smart and it remembers where the the highest sources of calories are. Calorie restriction can lead to intense cravings for sweet and fatty foods making you feel like you just don’t have the willpower that you used to. Often, we feel like we have no control around food and start to think about it wayyyy too often. We blame ourselves and try to diet harder but in reality it is the restrictive dieting that is causing the problem!
Even though our society views dieting as the healthy and often even the moral thing to do, chronic calorie restriction and yo-yo dieting are some of the most damaging habits for our bodies long term. Really, calorie restriction can go one of two ways:
- Sustained weight loss / chronic calorie restriction
Yes there is a small percentage of people who lose weight through dieting and successfully keep it off. However, it is important to realise that those who lose weight through dieting need to eat less and less over time in order to maintain their weight. Sometimes this is referred to as “metabolic damage” but in reality it is actually our bodies getting super efficient. Naturally our energy requirements decrease as we get older so it’s much better to keep our metabolic rate as high as we can while we are young.
Restrictive dieting doesn’t only mean you are eating less calories but you are also taking in fewer nutrients putting you at risk of deficiencies. Remember, weight loss doesn’t always equal health! Being in a calorie deficit is also a stressor for our bodies, causing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol to sky rocket. Short term, this has the effect of raising your blood sugar and increasing the breakdown of lean tissue for fuel. Long term, chronic stress affects all systems of the body causing digestive issues, a suppressed immune system and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease… and you thought going on a diet was healthy??
- Weight cycling / Yo-yo dieting
Cycling between extreme calorie restriction and rebound overeating is a trap that many dieters fall into. One of the issues with this is that we can still end up depriving our bodies of essential nutrients. In the dieting phase, we might be eating healthy food but as I said earlier, if we are not consuming enough calories then it is unlikely we are getting the nutrients we need. In the rebound phase, our bodies are desperate for energy so we are much more likely to reach for calorie dense, processed foods that provide that quick surge of energy but still don’t provide enough of the essential nutrients for a healthy, thriving body.
Of course, this is another survival mechanism as if we were in a true famine it is much better to survive with a nutrient deficiency than to waste away from lack of energy. But when we are practicing this pattern of yo-yo dieting and calorie restriction again and again throughout our lives we can get into trouble. In addition, each weight loss cycle results in loss of muscle as well as fat which can change our body composition significantly over time. Reduced lean mass leaves us with a lower resting metabolic rate (i.e. the amount of energy we burn in a day with no activity), meaning that each time we fall of the wagon we seem to regain weight quicker and each time we diet it gets harder and harder to lose weight.
So if dieting is off the cards, what is the solution?
As I said in a previous post, you can definitely lose weight on restricted diets such as a paleo, keto or vegan diet if you need to. I don’t think these diets are doomed to failure but it’s important to make sure you are eating enough to keep your metabolism healthy and your body feeling safe. If you aren’t feeling full and satisfied after your meals and are constantly wanting more, it’s unlikely you are eating enough. That said, I think jumping off the diet wagon altogether and learning to eat intuitively is one of the healthiest things you can do for your long-term health. I really recommend the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole as a guide to escaping the diet cycle and tuning into your body’s needs. It is definitely a journey rather than a quick fix as it take time to unpick old habits and form new ones but one that is so worth it!
Right now, I am in the healthiest place I ever have been with food. I probably weigh 15-20lbs more than my old “goal weight” but in time I am realising how warped my view of ideal actually was. Now I am at a healthy weight for my body where my hormones are balanced, my hunger levels are in check and I feel fit and strong. Plus, I have maintained this weight for the last 4 years on probably twice as many calories than I used to eat which is so liberating. I eat food that I love and that I know is nourishing for my body and eat plenty of it. And when I want to treat myself I do. I go out to eat knowing that I can have whatever I want with no guilt and I eat until I am satisfied (sometimes more and that is ok too!).
If you are currently stuck in the dieting cycle, today’s challenge is to take a moment to write down a timeline of your dieting history and look at the patterns.
I know for me it really helped to see on paper how long I had been chasing my tail – just how many times I had lost and gained the same 5lbs and just how many “fresh starts” I had had. Sit and really think about the emotions that you feel during each phase of the cycle and ask yourself whether it is worth it. And if not, know that there is a way to step out of all of that and into food and body freedom.
Over to you…
I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on calorie restriction and whether it works long term.
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