Why Diets Fail
Why Your Body Wants Your Diet to Fail…
and What You Can Do About It
By Erin McDermott, BA, CPT
New research in weight loss demonstrates the problem we see today is not actually with losing weight, it’s with keeping it off. Most people lose a significant amount of weight during their lifetime, but almost no one can maintain it. It doesn’t matter which diet they use or what food they eat, almost all dieters only experience temporary success.
The problem with popular dieting strategies is that they fail to recognize the most important aspect of weight loss: dieting elicits the same physiological response as starvation and this forces your body to fight back. If you want to be successful in the long term, you must learn how to work with your body, and stop fighting against it.
When you reduce your calorie intake, your fat cells start to shrink. This is a great thing for your waistline, but a bad thing for those cells. You see, adipose tissue (body fat) is an endocrine organ, meaning it’s alive and communicates with other parts of your body. When your body senses a change, it fights back by slowing down the fat loss process.
This reaction is a defense mechanism developed through evolution, as our ancestors were subjected to ice ages, famines, and starvation.
When food became scarce, their bodies responded with a three-step process to defend them against starvation. Unfortunately for us, the defense mechanism works in the same way. Seeing as 95% of diets fail, it’s clear our bodies are highly successful at sabotaging our efforts.
Current research shows there are four main ways our body defends us from losing too much body fat (whether on purpose or not). The first thing that happens concerns the way our bodies use the calories we eat. In order to ration out as much energy as possible for later use, our calorie expenditure is reduced. This means that the different ways you were burning calories before, now burn far less.
For example, the calories used to keep your brain, heart, lungs and other organs alive, as well as the calories burned through exercise, are now significantly lower. This reduction in calorie burn is enough to halt anyone’s weight loss and is commonly referred to as a weight loss plateau. However, as your body thinks it’s defending you from a real threat, it does not stop there.
As the calories-out are reduced, your body desperately tries to increase the calories-in. When your fat cells shrink, they send signals to your brain telling it you’re hungry, attempting to increase your food consumption. Therefore, when you’re on a diet you tend to think about food all the time. It’s an intelligent strategy to plump up those fat cells, just in case we need that energy for later. If the weight loss plateau doesn’t make you give up your diet, the constant hunger certainly will.
The third strike to your diet is the preparation for restorage of body fat. Our bodies are so ingenious, they know with the sabotage conducted above, it’s only a matter of time before you give in and gorge! Thus, during a diet, our individual fat cells prepare themselves to capture all the calories we’re (inevitably) going to consume. This is why when you’re dieting and you overeat, you gain more fat than if you overeat when you’re not dieting; your body does not want to waste any of those precious calories.
Although this is quite frustrating, keep in mind your body is doing this to protect you. If you think about it from the perspective of someone dying from starvation, if they happen to eat food, their body would be very efficient at capturing every bit of that energy. It works the same way when you diet. It all is part of the effort to keep you alive.
The final nail in the coffin is the increase in the size and number of your fat cells. Generally, after your teenage years you have a set number of cells that never go away, they simply grow and shrink.
However, there has been some new research indicating that during or after a diet, if you overeat too much, you can not only increase the size of your fat cells, but also increase the number of them. This makes it very easy to gain fat in the future, but much harder to lose it.
This is the reason yo-yo dieting tends to make you gain weight, rather than lose it. If you do on-again/off-again dieting, chances are you’re not only eliciting the defense response discussed above, but you could actually be causing an increase in your body fat.
The good news is that all hope is not lost! There is a proper way to diet, that takes these physiological adaptations into account, but it may take a change in your mindset. The first step is to stop focusing on short term goals and start focusing on long term health. Too often people become obsessive over the amount of weight they want to lose and will do anything to reach that number.
Thus, the short-term goal shapes the dieting strategy, leading to crash dieting, giving up all the foods they love and taking on a “good food vs. bad food” approach to nutrition. These are all the worst things you can do for long term results and will further exacerbate the body’s defense response.
A great way to avoid crash dieting and ensure you are fueling your body properly is to track your calories. Although counting calories is a means to restrict your food intake, it is also a useful tool to ensure you’re eating enough nutrients.
You should begin your diet with a few weeks at a high number of calories, high enough to maintain your body weight. Subsequently, reduce your calories by 50-100 at a time and try to find an amount that will allow you to lose weight slowly. If you lose more than 2 pounds a week, you’re going too fast and it will cause your body to fight back.
Simply continue this pattern until you reach your goal weight. Keep in mind, dieting in this way will be much slower, and it may take many months of trial and error with your calories before you find what works for you.
Another change you should make to your dieting mindset is to think about adding in, not subtracting out. For example, try to add in lean sources of protein, non-starchy vegetables and a few extra glasses of water each day.
Avoid thinking about all the food you need to cut out of your diet, or which foods are “good” or “bad.” There are no foods that guarantee weight loss, just as there are no foods that guarantee weight gain. All foods are okay in moderation, so don’t restrict yourself too much.
In the end, what weight loss boils down to is whether you can start working with your body and stop warring against it. If losing that last 5 pounds means cutting out all the food you love, damaging your metabolism and forcing your body into starvation mode, is it worth it? Certainly not! None of the health benefits of losing weight are worth the damage done by putting your body in starvation mode.
Our body’s only goal is to do one thing: survive at all costs. Therefore, if you crash diet, your body will fight back; it’s in our nature. If you want to be successful, stop doing the very thing that makes your diet fail: living on low calories. Learn to be patient with your weight loss and consistent with healthy habits, and the results will come.
Why Diets Fail