Why is it that so many people are obsessed with ‘quick fixes’ as a way of losing weight when they are unlikely to be able to stick to them. Even worse, most people end up heavier than when they started! It seems that the body conspires against us so that, despite our best efforts, losing weight becomes a never-ending battle.
The reality is that the odds of losing weight are stacked against you.
The key problem is that fat cells never go away. When you lose weight, the fat deflates just like a balloon, and because your body wants to preserve the ‘status quo’, it produces more hunger hormones. This means that you never feel full. That hunger is not psychological - it is real and encourages you to break that diet.
If you do manage to resist the temptation to eat when starving and actually lose a few kilos, you need to eat less to maintain that weight. Practically speaking, you are carrying less weight up the stairs and around the supermarket. This means that if you go back to eating what you did before your diet, you will gain weight.
The ultimate ‘quick fix’ is a crash diet. We have all been enticed by ridiculous far-fetched claims such as ‘How to drop a dress size in just five days’ or ‘Get your beach body perfect in 1 week’! Well you might shed the pounds quickly but this is mostly water. The body is forced into ‘starvation mode’ which is designed to protect it in times of famine. This means that you lose muscle rather than fat which will lower your metabolic rate and the number of calories you burn each day.
It is not easy trying to stick to a diet and binge eating is a common reaction to this kind of calorie restriction which leads to feelings of guilt and shame and a new resolve to start another diet. It doesn’t take long before people are caught in a vicious battle between weight and food. It is hardly surprising that a survey found that the average woman spends 19 years of their lives losing weight and 23 years putting it back on!
Even extreme exercise to build up muscle does not prevent your metabolism from slowing down. A shocking study on participants in ‘The Biggest Loser’ competition showed that not only does metabolism slow down with weight loss, but that it continues to slow down even after regaining weight. Participants’ actual metabolism was measured at the end of the competition and even though they managed to lose fat rather than muscle through fairly intense exercise, it was 275 calories per day less than would be expected. However, 6 years later, despite regaining 70% of the weight loss, their metabolism continued to slow down and was 500 calories less than would have been predicted. This suggests that the body fights tooth and nail to hang on to its fat and might explain why people find it harder and harder to lose weight despite their best efforts.
Worrying about our weight and going on a diet has another unfortunate effect - excess belly fat. The stress hormone cortisol encourages the storage of abdominal fat. We are also not in tune with our own hunger as we are relying on external rules and willpower as to what we can or can’t eat. When you have exhausted your willpower the most likely option is to overeat, particularly, when despite sticking resolutely to your diet, the scales haven’t moved.
For all these reasons dieting can muck up your body and make losing weight even harder. However, for people who are entrenched in the dieting culture it is not easy to break the habit. Part of the problem is that after a lifetime of dieting, people are conditioned to think that if they get off the treadmill, they will gain loads of weight.
In fact, the reverse is true as people who eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full are less likely to be overweight. However, suggesting that constant dieters make small, realistic changes to their eating habits is not particularly helpful, as their consumption tends to veer from ‘feast’ to ‘famine’. Making changes is psychologically challenging and needs a new way of thinking.
Old habits die hard so getting off the band wagon will not be easy. It will require a leap of faith to believe that, if you do take the brakes off, you will not be that child let loose in the sweet shop. Therefore, instead of focusing your energy on attempting to lose weight, try engaging in healthy behaviours such as reducing alcohol consumption, increasing vegetable intake, not smoking and finding an exercise that you enjoy. Differentiating between real hunger which develops gradually rather than emotional hunger which appears suddenly. Genuine hunger is usually accompanied by other signs such as a rumbling stomach and low energy levels. Lastly, try eating mindfully and savouring each mouthful as we tend to eat more when we are not fully concentrating.