As we get ready for beach season, it’s certain that dieting is high in our social consciousness. Everyone’s thinking about ways to get a body they feel good about.
Unfortunately, the act of dieting rarely yields long-term loss of body fat and has a number of negative side effects.
As early as 1945, researchers realized that food restriction and dieting caused severe changes in human’s relationship with food that make maintaining fat reduction nearly impossible.
Since then, scientists have compiled mountains of research showing that calorie-restricted diets do not work for the long term but that hasn’t changed the message to “eat less, move more.”
This article will help you understand why dieting is bad advice and provide a roadmap for getting sustainable fat loss results.
#1: Yo-yo Dieting Leads To Poorer Body Composition & Worse Health
Several studies show that dieting is actually a consistent predictor of future weight gain. How can this be?
Consider the typical scenario of what happens when you diet: You cut back on calories and increase your exercise for a set period of time. This makes you feel deprived and hungry, and it causes you to lose precious muscle just as fast as you lose body fat.
Metabolic rate drops precipitously so that as soon as you increase calories, or reduce the amount of exercise you’re doing, you regain all the weight, replacing the fat with fat and the muscle with fat.
Not only will you be fatter than when you started, but yo-yo dieting leads to inflammation, raising disease risk. People who have a history of dieting have higher rates of heart disease and diabetes than those who don’t diet or exercise and remain at the same weight.
#2: Dieting Won’t Solve Poor Body Image
How people feel about their bodies is related to how they feel about themselves as a whole. Body image and self confidence are related. Dieting or even losing fat won’t solve this complicated relationship.
In fact, a habit of dieting, especially when it coincides with calorie restriction over the long term, is associated with depression, mood disorders, and poor self image. These cognitive changes don’t resolve even if you are able to lose body fat and reach your goal weight. Dislike of one’s body often persists despite a decrease in body fat.
#3: Dieting Increases Susceptibility To Eating Disorders
How about this for a scary fact: Eating disorders are the mental illness with the highest mortality rate. And a habit of dieting significantly increases the chance that you’ll develop a full-scale eating disorder, with certain populations such as college students and female athletes at greatest risk.
Researchers are still untangling exactly how dieting leads to disordered eating. We know that calorie restriction is a major stressor for the body that leads to neurological changes in the brain that result in an increased preoccupation with food. Combined with habits linked to restricting food or limiting certain foods, dieters often adopt pathological eating habits that develop into full-scale eating disorders over time.
#4: Dieting Leads To An All-Or-Nothing Approach to Food
Raise your hand if you’ve started a diet, been determined to be perfect, then slipped up and eaten everything in your refrigerator, promising yourself that you’ll start afresh the next day. A related mindset is when people label foods as “good” or “bad,” basically moralizing food in an effort to restrict their eating only to the foods they deem healthy.
Both of these mindsets are associated with feelings of guilt when people don’t live up to their all-or-nothing paradigm. They are associated with depression and anxiety around food and are not part of a healthy, sustainable habit-based approach to eating.
#5: Dieting Disconnects Us From Our Bodies
Dieting requires you to ignore hunger and disconnect from the natural messages your body is giving your brain. Over time, dieting is associated with reduced sensitivity in the brain to leptin, a hormone that helps reduce hunger and allows for a feeling of satisfaction after a meal.
Once people become resistant to leptin it is very difficult to restore sensitivity so that hunger is kept reasonable levels. This is one reason that dieting often leads to compensatory binge eating in which people can eat thousands more calories than they need and still feel hungry.
#6: Dieting Increases Perceived Stress & Raises Cortisol
In order to lose body fat, you need to achieve a calorie deficit (more calories going out than are coming in). Anytime you have a calorie deficit, levels of the stress hormone cortisol will increase as the body mobilizes fat burning since incoming energy is insufficient to meet your needs. Assuming your stress response is normal, this won’t be a problem and it’s possible to reduce body fat.
Dieting, especially calorie counting, is mentally stressful and makes the body feel threatened, raising what is called perceived stress. This leads to an even greater release of cortisol, and a vicious cycle ensues, with high cortisol fueling anxiety, and exacerbating dissatisfaction with body image. It may also contribute to preoccupation with food and the development of unhealthy or disordered eating habits.
#7: Dieting Offers False Hope
There’s abundant evidence that dieting doesn't work:
- As much as 97 percent of dieters regain all they lost and then some
- Less than 20 percent of dieters are able to maintain just 10 percent of the weight lost during long term interventions.
Yet, we’re still bombarded with the message to eat less and move more to lose body fat. Ask the average person on the street how to lose fat and they will tell you to diet and exercise. Even most doctors think eat less, move more is the advice we’ve all been waiting for.
The reality is that everyone thinks they are going to be the exception to the rule. After all, the motivation is there: There’s nothing that most people would like more than to lose excess body fat. According to the limited metabolic science most people know, dieting should work.
Unfortunately, the human body is much more complex than most people (and doctors) understand. The bottom line is that to achieve a lasting reduction in body fat, you have to adopt habits that don’t make you want to pull your hair out. Here are five things to try instead of a diet:
#1: Focus On Food Quality Over Food Quantity
Instead of counting calories of low-quality foods like cereal, protein bars, canned soup, sandwiches, chips, crackers, and fast food, you need to design meals around whole foods: Meat, fish, nuts, seeds, eggs, vegetables, fruit, diary. These foods have lower energy density but greater nutrition than most refined foods, which allows for greater meal satisfaction and the elimination of constant hunger.
#2: Train With Weights
Instead of focusing on calorie burning, your first mode of exercise should be to train with weights because this will maintain muscle mass so that you sustain the amount of calories your body burns daily. It also leads to beneficial metabolic adaptations such as increased fat burning, a higher resting energy expenditure, and better blood sugar management.
#3: Design Meals Around Protein, Especially Breakfast
Studies consistently show that high-protein, low-carb eating programs result in a natural reduction in calories, which is why they are so effective for fat loss. Protein for breakfast is especially important because it will suppress appetite and subsequent eating over the course of the day. Choose eggs over waffles or salmon over cereal.
#4: Cope With Your Stress
If you’re trying to lose fat but you haven’t taken your stress levels into consideration, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Stress raises cortisol, which triggers food intake of high-carb foods. The hormone insulin, which is released in response to carbohydrates, is a cortisol antagonist, which means that when insulin goes up cortisol goes down. Carb cravings are essentially a protective way for the body to manage stress.
#5: Take Responsibility For Your Results
It’s possible that one reason diets are so popular is they put the responsibility in someone else’s hands. It makes it easy to blame it on the diet if you don’t get results, when in reality, it was you who deviated from the program.
When you take responsibility for your nutrition and physical activity, it makes you accountable to yourself for your mistakes. If you’re blaming some diet for skipping a workout or eating something you don’t actually want to, how can you improve?
The solution is to figure out a way of exercise and eating that you enjoy and allows you to avoid regular hunger. If you hate it, it’s never going to work. You’ve got to find gratification in the day-to-day experience so that you want to keep coming back for more.