Most people believe that dieting is the only way to lose weight, or maintain a healthy weight. We are told we need to restrict our calories to 1800, 1500 or even 1200 calories a day. Or that we need to cut out all treats and always choose low fat or low carb options. I remember as a young teenager reading the pages on weight loss and celebrity diets in women’s magazines. I thought that restriction and deprivation was the price to pay for beauty and success. In this article I want to talk about why calorie restricted diets don’t work long term!
The fact that restrictive dieting works for weight loss is one of the most widespread myths of the western world. Yes, dieting works in the short term but what happens a few months or years down the line? The fact is that calorie restricted 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 without seeing any results.
Most “successful” diets are 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 most people don’t see the yo-yo dieting as a cycle. They don’t realise that calorie restricted diets don’t work. Instead, they view things as lots of separate, successful diets with periods of failure on their part in-between. Often people see the diets as being successful due to an initial weight loss. They then blame ourselves for “falling off the wagon” and gaining back the weight. Of course, the only solution is starting a new diet.
Why calorie restricted diets don’t work: your bodies’ response
What most people don’t realise is that with every dieting cycle your 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. Creating symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog and muscle aches and pains.
Basically, calorie restricted diets don’t work because everything slows down when you don’t have enough energy input! Not only that, your body develops ways to persuade you to eat more when you diet. This includes 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. And it knows exactly which chemicals to create to make you go ut and eat them!
For this reason, calorie restriction can lead to intense cravings for sweet and fatty foods. This makes you feel like you just don’t have the willpower that you used to! It is normal after dieting to feel like you have no control around food and start to think about it wayyyy too often. You blame yourself and try to diet harder. When in reality it is the restrictive dieting that is causing the problem. I repeat, calorie restricted diets don’t work long term!
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:
1) 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 your energy requirements decrease as you get older. So it’s much better to keep our metabolic rate as high as while you are young.
Restrictive dieting doesn’t only mean you are eating less calories. 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. Calorie restriction causes 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.
Chronic stress can lead to digestive issues, a suppressed immune system and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. It can also cause your body to hold onto extra “survival weight”, especially around your mid-section. And we are told that calorie restricted diets are healthy??
2) 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 you can still end up depriving your body of essential nutrients. In the dieting phase, you might be eating healthy food. However, if you are not consuming enough calories then it is unlikely you are getting the nutrients you need. In the rebound phase, your body is desperate for energy. This means you are much more likely to reach for calorie dense, processed foods.
These foods that provide that quick surge of energy. Unfortunately they often don’t provide enough of the essential nutrients for a healthy, thriving body. Of course, this is another survival mechanism. If you were in a true famine it is much better to survive with a nutrient deficiency. Better than to waste away from lack of energy. But when you are practicing this pattern of yo-yo dieting and calorie restriction again and again throughout your life, you can get into trouble.
In addition, each weight loss cycle results in loss of muscle as well as fat. This can change your body composition significantly over time. Reduced lean mass leaves you with a lower resting metabolic rate i.e. the amount of energy you burn in a day with no activity. This means that each time you fall off the wagon you seem to regain weight quicker. Each time you diet it gets harder and harder to lose weight. Sound familiar?
So if calorie restricted diets don’t work, what is the solution?
As I said in a previous post, you can definitely lose weight on any diet in the short term. This includes diets which restrict types of foods you eat, such as a paleo, keto or vegan diet. I don’t think these diets are doomed to failure. However, 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. Or if you 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!
My story, evidence that calories restrictive diets don’t work!
I grew up believing that I needed to restrict my calories and fight my hunger to stay slim. It worked for a while but once my body learned my tricks, it fought back! I was tired, cold and miserable. My hair thinned and my periods stopped. Not only that, I had a huge appetite and craved carbohydrates all of the time. I spent years struggling with binge eating at night and restricting my calories the next day to compensate. I was baffled and could not understand why I was having such intense cravings. Why I could “be good” with food all day and then go crazy at night. I saw various doctors seeking help for my binge eating problem and no one could help me.
Eventually I realised that calorie restricted diets don’t work and that restriction was the root cause of my binge eating. By letting go of calorie restriction I was able to heal my body and my relationship with food. Right now, I am in the healthiest place I ever have been. I probably weigh 15-20lbs more than my old goal weight. But in time I am realising how warped my view of my ideal body weight actually was. Now I am at a healthy weight for my body. 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. I eat until I am satisfied, sometimes more and that is ok too! My story is living proof that calorie restricted diets don’t work and I would never go back to that hell.
Today’s challenge: Reflect on your history with dieting and calorie restriction
Today’s challenge is to take a moment to write down a timeline of your dieting history. Look at the patterns and see what there is to learn. What worked and what didn’t? Think about what might be the best approach for you and your specific preferences, tastes and lifestyle.
I know for me it really helped to see on paper how long I had been chasing my tail. 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 dieting cycle. Then ask yourself whether it is worth it? If not, know that there is a way to step out of all of that and into food and body freedom.
Over to you…
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