The fact that dieting works is one of the most widespread myths of the western world.
So many women are stuck in the constant cycle of calorie restriction, deprivation followed by rebound overeating and weight gain.
The problem is that we don’t see it as a cycle. We see it as lots of separate, successful diets with periods of failure on our part in-between. We see the diets as being successful due to our initial weight loss and then blame ourselves for “falling off the wagon” and gaining back the weight. Then of course, we see the only solution as starting a new diet.
What we don’t realise is that with every cycle our body becomes better equipped to deal with the perceived famine.
- Our digestive systems slow down in an attempt to squeeze every last calorie out of the food that we eat, leaving us feeling bloated and sluggish.
- Our metabolism slows down so that we waste less energy as heat, resulting in a drop in our body temperature and symptoms such as cold hands and feet and sensitivity to cold.
- Growth of our nails and hair slows down as our bodies try to conserve energy and we may experience disruption to our menstrual cycles.
- Even we slow down as we start to feel the effects of being in a chronic energy deficit such as fatigue and muscle aches and pains.
Basically, everything slows down! Not only that, our bodies develop ways to persuade us to eat more, increasing our hunger signals and cravings for sweet and fatty foods making us feel like we just don’t have the willpower that we used to. Often, we feel like we have no control around food and start to think about it wayyyy too often.
Even though our society views dieting as the healthy and often even the moral thing to do, chronic calorie restriction and yoyo dieting are some of the most damaging habits for our bodies long term.
Really, calorie restriction can go one of two ways:
- Sustained weight loss / chronic calorie restriction
Yes there are people who lose weight and successfully keep it off. However, it is important to realise that those who lose weight through dieting need to eat less and less as they get older in order to maintain their weight. Sometimes this is referred to as “metabolic damage” but in reality it is actually our bodies getting super efficient!
Being in a calorie deficit is a stressor for our bodies, causing cortisol levels to sky rocket. Short term, this has the effect of raising our blood sugar and increases the breakdown of lean tissue for fuel. Long term, chronic stress affects all systems of the body causing digestive issues, a suppressed immune system and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease… and we thought going on a diet was healthy!
- Weight cycling / Yo-yo dieting
Cycling between extreme calorie restriction and rebound overeating is a trap that many dieters fall into. One of the issues with this is that we can end up depriving our bodies of essential nutrients. In the dieting phase, we might be eating healthy food (or not!) but if we are not consuming enough calories then it is unlikely we are getting the nutrients we need. In the rebound phase, our bodies are desperate for energy so we are much more likely to reach for calorie dense, processed foods that provide that quick surge of energy but still don’t provide the nutrients our bodies need. Of course, this is another survival mechanism as if we were in a true famine it is much better to survive with a slight nutrient deficiency than to waste away from lack of energy. But when we are practicing this pattern again and again throughout our lives we can get into trouble.
In addition, each weight cycle results in loss of muscle as well as fat which can change our body composition significantly over time. Reduced lean mass leaves us with a lower resting metabolic rate, meaning that each time we fall of the wagon we seem to regain weight quicker and each time we diet it gets harder and harder to lose weight.
So if dieting is off the cards, what is the solution?
Jumping off the diet wagon and learning to eat intuitively is one of the healthiest things you can do for your long-term health. I really recommend the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole as a guide to escaping the diet cycle and tuning into your body’s needs. It is definitely a journey rather than a quick fix as it take time to unpick old habits and form new ones but one that is so worth it!
Right now, I am in the healthiest place I ever have been with food. I probably weigh 15lbs more than my old “ideal weight” but in time I am realising how warped my view of ideal actually was. Plus, I am maintaining that weight on twice as many calories than I used to eat which is so liberating. I eat food that I love and that I know is nourishing for my body and eat A LOT of it. And when I want to treat myself I do. I go out to eat knowing that I can have whatever I want with no guilt and I eat until I am satisfied (sometimes more and that is ok too!).
If you are currently stuck in the dieting cycle, please please please take a moment to write down a timeline of your dieting history and look at the patterns. I know for me it really helped to see on paper how long I had been chasing my tail – just how many times I had lost and gained the same 5lbs and just how many “fresh starts” I had had. Sit and really think about the emotions that you feel during each phase of the cycle and ask yourself whether it is worth it. And if not, know that there is a way to step out of all of that and into food and body freedom 😊