Diets -- we all know 'em. Statistically, the majority of us have been on one at some point in time in our lives, especially in the Western world. It's a funny thing that happens whenever we find yet another "promising" diet. We get hope that maybe this time we've found the perfect diet. Maybe the clouds will part and the sun will finally shine on our weight loss goals -- and maybe this time, it'll stick.
For some people, this does happen. There are those who become fervent disciples of a particular diet, almost to a level of religious awakening. They find a diet that resonates well with them and that they find easy to stick to for a lifetime. But let's face it -- this is a minority. For most of us, that is not the reality. Unless you have a major paradigm shift overnight, it's going to be impossible to change to any diet, cold-turkey, for all eternity, with zero "cheating." It just ain't gonna happen. And you know what? It doesn't need to.
This must be something new -- a blogger on strength training and fitness who doesn't actually advocate dieting?! Yes, exactly. Instead of trying to pitch to you my "latest greatest" diet that will just set you up for long-term failure anyway (getting to that point), I'm just gonna do some truth-speakin' and propose a different kind of solution. There are a couple of reasons why I'm against hardcore dieting -- science, for one and secondly, my own personal experiences and anecdotal observations of others. Let me explain...
The Scientific Case Against Intentional Weight Loss (i.e., Diets)
Even in our desperate struggle to end obesity in the U.S. and increasingly around the world as more countries adopt the Western diet (and our fanatical crash dieting behaviors and unrealistic body image issues... well aren't we the emo kids on the international block?), we are also at the same time engaging in behaviors that are paradoxically keeping us from our weight loss goals. And those behaviors? Contrary to what you'd think, dieting is largely the culprit.
Several studies find that dieting actually is an indicator in increased long-term weight gain, controlling for other factors. One impressive Finnish twin study had some very interesting findings that I feel need far more exposure than what it has received. Maybe it's just not sexy enough to talk about, but you need to hear this. For sake of space, I will post only the basic details of the study. For a more detailed summary, check out the references at the bottom of this article.
Does Dieting Make You Fat? A Twin Study
(Clears throat): Excuse me while I nerd out for a second...
Objective: To investigate whether the paradoxical weight gain associated with dieting is better related to genetic propensity to weight gain than to the weight loss episodes themselves.
Subjects: Subjects included 4129 individual twins from the population-based FinnTwin16 study (90% of twins born in Finland 1975-1979)...
Results: Intentional Weight Loss (IWLs) predicted accelerated weight gain and risk of overweight. The odds of becoming overweight by 25 years were significantly greater in subjects with one or two or more IWLs compared with subjects with no IWL.
Conclusion: Our results suggest that frequent IWLs reflect susceptibility to weight gain, rendering dieters prone to future weight gain...independent of genetic factors.
Other studies have also come to similar conclusions, which this Finnish study acknowledges by stating:
... ample clinical data also confirm that most dieters rapidly re-gain any achieved weight loss or even more. In prospective studies, weight control efforts have predicted future weight gain, even after adjustment for potential confounders such as age, body mass index (BMI) at baseline, smoking, alcohol use and social class (Pietilainen, Saarni, Kaprio, and Rissanen, 2012: 1).
Athletes are not immune to these effects either. This study also points out that "weight cycling has been shown to predict subsequent weight gain and the risk of obesity even in the athletes (page 8)."
Hmmm, maybe this dieting thing isn't all it's cracked up to be. So why is it this way? There's a physiological and, even more importantly, a mental reason.
Your Diet Triggers Your Body's Survival Mechanisms
The most accepted theory I've seen is simply due to how the body is biologically designed. The human body is truly an amazingly adaptable survival machine. We're designed to survive and thrive in harsh environments with little food and water, if required. When you calorically restrict the human body, it responds within a few days by slowing down the metabolic rate. This is so you, well, don't die. Which is kind of important. It doesn't realize that you're trying to get your six-pack on, and it doesn't care. The human body ain't designed for six-packs, it's designed for you to thrive in a sub-par, even hostile, environment. So if you aren't attaining that six-pack or even shedding the first 20 pounds of the 70 you need to lose, stop blaming yourself. That's not a weakness, that's an evolutionary strength.
The Finnish study seems to echo this theory by stating that the:
...suppression of metabolic rate and loss of lean mass by the negative energy balance may facilitate post-dieting weight-rebound. These 'defensive' reactions (psychological or physical) to dieting work so as to restore any weight lost through dieting and could in theory persist beyond the point of weight restoration.
Whew, that was a mouthful! Here's the translation:
So Dieting = a slow metabolism & muscle loss (which then decreases metabolic rate further)? Well, why don't I just jump on that bandwagon! Wouldn't want to miss out!
In my world, it is absolutely unacceptable to have 30-50 percent or more of your weight loss come from muscle. You aren't winning anything, you're just throwing the baby out with the bath water. And most diets don't care about sparing your muscle, they just care that you'll be mesmerized by their pitch long enough to purchase their product. Just so you can try their diet for 7-28 days, fall off the wagon, binge eat your woes (Oreos and milk, here I come!) and gain more weight back than what you were to begin with. Wow, sounds like a real winner.
So if I Shouldn't Diet, What Should I Do to Get Healthy and Fit?
Great question! Now, I know I've been trash-talking dieting as we know it in this article, but it doesn't mean I'm against clean, healthy eating. Absolutely not. I'm not saying that nothing should be changed at all. Obviously, if you want to make changes to your body composition, certain behaviors will have to change as well (although caloric restriction is NOT one of them. Remember those survival mechanisms, people. In my world, you actually get to eat).
But in order to change those behaviors for the long-term, a psychological shift must occur first. I propose a different solution: Instead of a "let's force myself into a narrow dieting paradigm even if it makes me hate life" -- which is an outside-in approach inherent in all dieting -- I propose an inside-out approach: producing a key mental shift by deliberately choosing your mental thought processes and changing your self-image for the better. This is what truly gets results in the long run. You will not see long-term changes until you change your mental thought processes, deliberately choose how you feel about your body and the food you eat, and improve your self-image. As a result, the desired habits and attitudes you need to have in order to achieve your weight loss and fat loss goals will be developed naturally, without the epic struggle.
How about we actually like our bodies AND the food we eat for a change while producing the results we want, instead of being the sacrificial lamb at the altar of the fitness Industry? THIS should be the new face of health. Are you with me?
Find more fitness & strength training tips at Courtney's blog, Ice Runner Strength.
Pietilainen KH, Saarni SE, Kaprio J, and Rissanen A. Does Dieting Make You Fat? A Twin Study. International Journal of Obesity 2012; pages 1-2, 8.