Lose 8lbs, gain 9lbs, Rinse and Repeat Until Dead.
How many of us have ever dieted? Millions. The diet industry is worth over 6 billion, and by July 2018 Weight Watchers shares had risen by 170%. Dieting is big business and it’s not going away.
We’re told ‘move more, eat less’ and have infinite products and gadgets available to us, that promise weight loss. So, with all this information, a 6 billion pound diet industry and limitless products available to us, why are we still having to diet?
If Weight Watchers diet is so successful, why is their net worth going up and membership increasing?
This article is not going to explore why we diet but a few of the scientific reasons why dieting doesn’t work and why the industry keeps getting bigger.
When I say doesn’t ‘work’, I mean from evidence, statistically it is highly unlikely that any weight you lose on a diet will remain lost for longer than 1-2 years, and that eventually you’ll regain the weight, plus a few extra pounds. There hasn’t been a study to date that has evidenced a diet participants can adhere to, or that participants lose weight on and keep weight off. A distinct problem of academia is that it is riddled with weight bias and other confounding variables, but more about that later.
The evidence goes back to 1985 when one study indicated a casual relationship between dieting and bingeing. It showed that dieting leaves the person vulnerable to disinhibition and overeating, and that bingeing followed dieting in many cases. Read that year again, 1985, that’s thirty-five years ago! Yet somehow dieting has maintained it’s popularity as a strategy to reduce body weight.
Dieting behaviour is a well researched area. There are literally hundreds of studies, meta-analyses and systemic reviews evidencing that dieting makes us fatter eventually and leads to bingeing or disordered eating. Dieting comes in many forms too, from macro tracking, meal prepping, planning, healthism, moderation and any number of the various diets that cut out entire food groups, veganism can hide a reductionist paradigm (not all vegans, I have nothing against veganism) and pseudo gluten intolerances give an easy vehicle to remove carbohydrates too. Diet culture seeps into our lives invisibly, because it’s we don’t question why we should lose body weight, or of dieting even works.
There is a causal and chronological relationship between dieting and bingeing. The body, fights back.
SO WHY DOESN’T IT WORK THEN?
OK, lets go.
External vs internal motivation
Diets impose rules and regulations upon us from external sources.
A diet usually comes with a set of guidelines, like Weight Watchers points system or Slimming Worlds ‘syns’. These rules are external because they don’t come from within us and this can cause rebound rebellion, psychologically speaking. It’s like the brain goes ‘enough! I am having the damn cake!’ Imagine putting a child into a room with lots of age appropriate toys, and one mobile phone. Tell the child ‘you cant play with that phone’. What do they want? Well, thats your brain.
Adherence to external rules requires willpower to be successful.
Willpower requires cognitive processing, which requires energy. The brain needs at least 120g of carbohydrate a day to function optimally. Conversely, when you’re on a diet, to reduce body mass you just reduce energy in. If you’re trying sustain dieting on willpower, in a state pf physiological starvation, it’s not going to work long term. It’s why people in power have their clothes laid out for them – they don’t use cognitive energy on deciding simple shit when they’ve got international conflict to crack on with.
The body physiologically defends any drop in body fat levels
Some people find that within a few days of dieting they feel tired, sluggish, grouchy and cold. This is the symptom of various metabolic adjustments adjusting to preserve energy and defend the loss of fat. The nervous system down regulates to conserve energy and defend your ‘set point’. Put simply, when you diet, at some point the body fights back. Anyone that says the mind is more powerful than the body, clearly hasn’t studied the science of metabolism! Dieting causes less fidgeting, less body heat, less immune function, less cognitive function, hormonal disfunction and sometimes, hair loss, and no amount of mind power is overruling that.
Your set point is like an internal thermostat dictated a range of body fat that your body likes to within. The set point is dictated by your hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is kind of a control centre for metabolism (along with other processes) that defends how much body fat we maintain, and being at low or high ends of this range has hormonal consequences. Lower body fat threatens hormonal and immune function so the hypothalamus preserves our hormonal health. Physiologically and evolutionarily speaking, losing body fat indicates food scarcity and/or famine. The body reacts to this is the most fantastically intelligent way, by reducing fat oxidisation, increasing fat storage, up regulating a neurotransmitter called Neuropeptide Y (NPY) that stimulates carbohydrate cravings, and makes us stop moving to conserve energy. This puts us in a situation where we need to eat even less to lose weight. Then, hey presto! Binge eating.
Set Point is a dynamic mechanism
Your set point seems to change with every dieting cycle. Every time you diet you threaten the body with starvation. The hypothalamus is a clever bugger, and detects that food seems frequently scarce, so your set point climbs higher, allowing you to be protected from an increasingly physiological hostile situation. It’s common sense really, if you were being attacked frequently, you’d keep upgrading your defences until you were literally shrouded by defence. Fat is natures defence and physiology cannot be outwitted, no matter how strong you think your mind is.
Diets don’t teach principles only rules
Diets tend to have rules. Some of my least favourite rules are: don’t eat carbs, don’t eat late, foods and points systems, clean eating, keto, cheat meals/days and sugar free, to name a few. What these rules do is set you up for restrictive practices, denying yourself things you believe contribute to an unwanted body fat status. Outside of allergy, Crohn’s and Coeliac disease, there are no food items that contribute to higher body fat status. THERE IS NOT ONCE SPECIFIC FOOD ITEM OF GROUP THAT MAKES YOU FAT. Diet rules that capitalise on the vulnerabilities of people experiencing body dissatisfaction are like abusing partners, waiting to emotionally mess with your head. Diet rules also, do not teach you anything about the qualities of food, from a nutritional science or a societal/holistic perspective. That means that you are forced to adhere to these rules, sometimes with no real meaningful understanding of why, and then when you crash and burn, you go right back to your… yes, you guessed it: set point. Many of the principles that diet rules are based on bad science too. Any diet that reduces body weight, does so because the primary mechanism is a reduction of energy in, and nothing else.
I hope this is a good beginners guide to understanding why diets ‘fail’, or why you feel like you can sustain them for a short period before resuming normal or even over eating practices. The article is to offer some explanation and also a way of reframing how you feel about perceived dieting ‘failures’. It’s not you, it’s the way diets are designed!
Sometimes, because diet culture is so insidious and dieting practices are so common place, I think many of you might be wondering, ‘well how do I eat then?’ Clicking onto the “Intuitive Eating’ tab of the site is a good place to begin.
I’ll follow this article up with exploring some more questions about why we diet and if reducing body weight is even a modifiable concept. Until then, be kind to yourself and be fulfilled.
Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (1985). Dieting and binging: A causal analysis. American Psychologist, 40(2), 193-201.
Lowe, M. Annunziatoa, R. Tuttman Markowitz, J. Didie, E. Bellace, D. Riddella, L. Maille, C. McKinney, S. Stice, E. (2006) Multiple types of dieting prospectively predict weight gain during the freshman year of college. ScienceDirect Appetite, Volume 47, Issue 1.