A client recently came in completely distressed after having been on one diet or another her entire life. Through tears she explained that after completing a 30-day cleanse, she is now at her heaviest weight ever and is miserable with how little she is eating and how unhappy she is feeling. She was done with dieting but felt lost as to where she could go from here.
Her story is one I hear often and is most likely similar to many of yours. You've tried cutting out carbohydrates completely, you've tried eating things that are green and clean, you've tried Dr. Oz's latest "can't fail" diet. But counterintuitively, you lose less weight with each new diet and you gain more weight after you give in to your temptations and fall off the wagon.
Unfortunately, this scenario is a common example of what dieting can and will do to your body over time the more we try to restrict foods. Dieting in the US is at an all time high and studies have shown that diet-like behaviors are a strong predictor for overeating. According to a UCLA study, two-thirds of people who initially lose weight will gain the weight back and then some in a 4-5 year period. But is this really all that surprising? How many times have you restricted your favorite foods for a period and then find yourself with some one-on-one time with that forbidden food? Well, at first, you probably resisted and said no, nope, not me, I'm not going to eat it! Perhaps you then tried bargaining with yourself with having just one chip; only half a bag a night; 3 chocolate covered pretzels a day. Then finally, as if it was fate, a bag of those chips or pretzels finds its way in front of you in the break room and you cave. Sound familiar? Since it is known that merely contemplating going on a diet can cause you to have cravings then it is almost a certainty that when your diet begins your cravings will grow exponentially!
The key (perhaps shocking to some) takeaway from the study is that most people would have been better off not going on any diet EVER in the first place. Why? Because science. In short, it is the cycle of dieting that causes you to stay the same weight or even gain weight in the long-term, not your willpower or your food choices at yesterday's dinner. If you think about this though, it's a pretty straightforward application of how our metabolism works. It all starts off more or less the same. The first time you go on a diet you will most likely lose weight fairly easily, typically 5-10% of your body weight, as your body has never experienced this new way of eating before and it is surprised when you eat completely differently or more restrictively. You may lose the weight you want in a few weeks or perhaps a few months. Then slowly but surely your old habits return and you wake up to the same weight you were before you lost weight, or even worse, you now weigh even more.
Your body is smart but it is not a mind reader. Your body does not know the difference between whether you are choosing to go on a diet or if your body needs to conserve energy because you do not have access to food. This is our bodies' biologically normal and natural survival instinct. The less you eat, the more your body's metabolism slows down, and with slower metabolism, your body will conserve every last morsel of food you eat as it thinks it is doing you a solid. Your body is wired to do this and no amount of you telling yourself otherwise will change this!
This game of dieting is not your fault. It is not your willpower, your "good" or "bad" food choices, or your less-than-ideal options available on your 2-week business trip. It is simply that when dieting, you are following a plan created by someone else that was too restrictive and not ultimately sustainable for your lifestyle. And in any event, the game of dieting confuses your body's metabolism so that over time, it slows down faster than if you had not dieted originally.
This all made sense to my client, but she still felt confused and so I continued to explain that there is an answer. The answer is to stop playing the dieting game by accepting that dieting is not a solution to sustainable weight changes or healthy eating habits. It was time to throw out the magazines, dieting books and unfollow those influencers on instagram that make you feel bad about your food choices. This anti-dieting step is often the most difficult because we often find comfort in doing what we know, even when we know that doing it is not the best path forward. It may be tempting to ignore this and go back to counting out the number of cashews you are going to snack on at your 2:30 pm conference call (or insert any other diet rules), but instead, through the process of intuitive eating, you may notice that 6 cashews is NOT satisfactory and that you might not even like cashews in the first place! Eating intuitively does not happen over night and it certainly takes time and training. But it is long-term behavioral changes that will actually make a difference. Only after you get over this initial hump do we transition on to the next steps in focusing on the foods that make us feel good and healthy (more on that later!).
Oh and PS, that client LOST weight after reintroducing carbohydrates!