It’s true, diets can make you fat – regardless of whether it’s Atkins, a juice detox or just avoiding carbs. Neuroscientist and author Sandra Aamodt, from California, says the belief that diets work is a common misconception. Here, she reveals the eight ways our obsession with weight loss can actually make us fatter.
Your brain thinks you’re starving
While we may think that dieting is a good idea, our brains don’t agree and we often find ourselves behaving like victims of starvation.
A study at Rockefeller University allowed scientists to observe what happened when obese people lost weight. Results soon showed that patients would regain weight once they went home. It was found that the patients developed some of the psychological and physiological consequences of starvation whilst dieting as they established an intense obsession with food. As a result, when the inpatients went home, they would break their diet habits or binge eat which led them to regaining their lost weight.
It’s a stressful experience
Calorie counting, food diaries, finding tasty low carb meals and only shedding a few pounds a month, there’s no doubt that dieting is a stressful experience – in fact, we have proof that is. As mentioned before, from the brain’s perspective, dieting is basically starvation.
Calorie restriction produces stress hormones in people, and what does stress often lead to? Weight gain. Most would believe that people gain weight because they have no self-control, yet this might not be the case.
A study conducted by psychologists shadowed two types of eaters – controlled and intuitive. Controlled eaters routinely watched what they ate, kept food diaries and would think about the consequences before they ate, while intuitive eaters would listen to their body’s signals, eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full.
It was found that intuitive eaters were less likely to be overweight and would maintain a stable weight as they spent less time thinking about food.
While long-term dieters, are more likely to binge eat, eat for emotional reasons or eat because food is available.
There are voices in your head
There’s a reason why every McDonald’s advert has you craving a Big Mac and large fries. The brain plays a big role in being devil’s advocate when it comes to dieting as it constantly competes to control our behaviour – that’s why we often find ourselves reaching for the family size bag of crisps.
A hormone called leptin, which is also known as the ‘fat hormone’, the ‘obesity hormone’ and the ‘starvation hormone’, is produced by fat cells and travels in the blood to the brain. It tells the hypothalamus how much stored energy is available and reduces the value and attractiveness of food for those who have a normal amount of energy. Dieting and weight loss can reduce our levels of stored energy and leptin levels which means food and pictures of food, become more attractive and rewarding to us.
Diets don’t work in the long run
Ever feel like diets just don’t work? You feel like you’ve lost a tonne of weight but the scales say otherwise?
According to Monte Nido, a US-based residential eating disorder treatment programme, 95 per cent of diets fail and most will regain their lost weight in one to five years.
Additionally, 15 long term studies which followed dieters from one to fifteen years also found that those who diet are more likely to become obese than non-dieters.
How is that possible? Well, when dieters begin to regain their lost weight, they gain fat faster than they gain muscle, meaning they must either replace their muscle with fat or recover their strength at the cost of putting on more weight.
Metabolism will take over
Metabolism was great when we were kids, we could eat whatever, whenever and not have to worry about the consequences – metabolism would handle it.
But now, metabolism is not so much our friend as we first thought.
Once you start dieting, it’s seems inevitable that the scales will creep back up.
There’s a reason for this – metabolism changes when people move outside their defended weight range – the weight your brain wants you to stay in order to be stable.
If your weight goes above or below this ‘defended weight range’, the brain will do anything in it’s power to try and get you back in to your defended range.
If your body weight is ten per cent below your defended weight range you typically burn 10-15 per cent fewer calories than those who’s weight is within their defended range.
For dieters, that means that you need to exercise for longer in order to burn off the amount of calories you have eaten.
Worse yet, low metabolism can last up to six to seven years after weight loss, hence the reason we find ourselves piling on the pounds later down the line when the dieting is done.
Willpower can run out
You’ve gone out for your morning run, you’re hitting your calorie count and you haven’t given in to the donuts just yet.
But then the food thoughts take over and you find yourself envying those who can eat what they want, when they want.
Many people believe dieting is a battle between willpower and temptation, but it might be more than that.
Managing a food diary and counting calories requires vigilance and willpower, but years of steady dieting and eating less than what our body wants doesn’t always work.
Once again, our inner ‘weight thermostat’ tries to keep our weight within our defended weight range but at the same time, our rewards system tempts us towards calorie dense foods.
Calorie counting and label trouble
Information on grocery store labels may look precise but actually they can only provide an approximate amount of energy a person will get.
A five per cent error in energy balance overtime is enough to cause a noticeable weight gain. So managing food intake with strict calorie counting is something that should be considered when starting diets.
Weight cycling not loss maintaining
Maintaining a stable weight can become a lifelong project and for most people, it’s a struggle.
In one study, among a group of people who had managed to keep off 14kg for a year, more than one third went on to gain weight the next year.
Additionally, out of those who managed to reach their end goal weight, only half said their weight had been stable throughout the year.
Many of us become weight loss recyclers not weight loss maintainers when dieting, as we go round in circles gaining and losing the same number of pounds.
Of course that doesn’t mean that diets don’t work in helping us lose weight, it’s maintaining the weight loss that’s the hard part as we can’t stay dieting for decades.