The Hazards of Dieting

The New York Times recently published a story titled “After the Biggest Loser, Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight” that has generated a lot of buzz.  The gist of the story was that by 2015 most of the contestants from the 2009 Biggest Loser reality TV show had regained the weight they had lost.

Their experience highlights just how hard the body fights to regain weight. As the contestants lost weight, their metabolism slowed down as their bodies fought to restore the lost weight.  However, as years went by and they started putting back on the pounds, their metabolisms did not recover.  “It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.”

A few days after that first story, the New York Times published a column by Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist, titled “Why You Can’t Lose Weight on a Diet,” which expanded on the topic.  She pointed out that research shows that dieting is rarely effective in the long run and does more harm than good.  “The root of the problem,” she writes, “is not willpower but neuroscience.”

Each of our bodies has its own natural weight—called a set point—which it wants to maintain.  Set points vary by person and are determined by genes and life experience.  When your weight drops below your body’s set point, your body reacts by slowing metabolism (burning fewer calories) and producing more hunger hormones.  As a result, diets rarely work.

Whether weight is lost quickly or slowly has no impact on later regain.   Cutting out certain foods—like carbs or gluten—has no impact on later regain.

Dieting, in fact, seems to make people prone to gaining weight.  One study of identical twins found that dieters are more likely than non-dieters to gain weight.

In our practice at Columbus Park, we find that many of our patients with binge eating disorder have a history of serial dieting.  When they diet, their bodies issue powerful hunger signals that trigger a binge, and so the cycle goes—diet, binge, diet, binge…

So what is the answer?  It’s obviously not as simple as “eat this” or “don’t eat that.”  For long-term weight management, the answer lies in reprogramming the brain to rely on hunger signals rather than rules.  It’s easier said than done.  Here’s the essence of what I tell patients:

  1. Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.

    We so often eat for reasons outside of actual hunger: boredom, celebration, loneliness, or simply the food tastes and feels so good you don’t want stop enjoying it.  Try promising yourself that when you’re hungry you’ll eat… and if you’re not actually hungry, then instead you’ll explore what it is in that moment that you really need – besides food.

  2. Exercise is important for both health and weight management

    (but remember, research shows exercise doesn’t actually help much for weight loss). Choose to move in ways that you will enjoy.  Punishing yourself with exercise is not sustainable and furthermore, the associated stress is bad for your waistline (stress hormones increase fat storage particularly around the abdomen!).

  3. Eat with awareness.

    We tend to overeat when we are not paying attention to what we’re putting in our mouths.  We often eat while reading, watching TV, working, or simply spacing out. It’s also worth noting that when you eat without awareness, you’re not even able to truly enjoy the food.  And how are you supposed to know that you’re full if you’re not present in your body?

  4. Accept the power of your set point.

    Each of our bodies has a range it will fight to maintain.  Eating when hungry and stopping when full will likely bring you to the lower end of that range.  But as we know from the research, trying to go further usually backfires.  Most of our clients actually find this fact very liberating.  While the concept of “just finding the right diet” fuels ongoing hope of the ultimate body, it also results in never-ending, looming pressure.  Letting go of dieting opens up the time, headspace and energy for living.