Have you thought about any New Year resolutions yet? According to the Guardian (31 December 2015), top of the list of New Year resolutions is “losing weight”. For those who are overweight or obese, losing weight is generally a good idea as obesity is associated with many health issues, such as osteoarthritis, sleep apnoea, acid reflux, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. However, most people chose to lose weight by going on a diet, most likely a calorie-restricted, low-fat diet. And that is where the problem lies.
Diets don’t work.
Most of us have been on a diet before, usually more than once. And most of us have ‘fallen off the wagon’ more than once. Calorie-restricted diets work initially, but the body will eventually fight back: through increased hunger, a lower basal metabolic rate, and increased stress hormones. The reason diets fail is not a lack of willpower, but the fact that we are trying to fight our biochemistry – and it will always win in the end.
The calorie equation (“eat less, move more and you’ll lose weight) doesn’t work. First of all, the vast majority of the energy we expend is used for bodily functions that we have no immediate control over. The amount of calories we burn through activity is depressingly small in the scheme of things. Moreover, it does matter which foods provide those calories. It makes a difference whether they come from natural foods or processed foods. It matters how quickly the energy our food provides become available to our cells and what nutrients we can draw from what we eat. There is a profound difference in how 250 calories from, say, a cupcake or 250 kcal from broccoli affects our metabolism. Same amount of calories, different result.
If we drastically cut back the amount of calories we eat, the body has ways to combat the ‘famine’. When food is in short supply, it will slow down the metabolic rate (the amount of energy burnt at rest) by metabolising muscle, because muscle uses energy, even while we are not moving. The scales will show that we have lost weight, but most likely muscle rather than fat. Less muscle, less energy expenditure. That’s useful during a famine. Once it is over – i. e. when we give up and eat as we did before the diet – what we put back on is fat, not muscle, because with a lower metabolic rate we do not need as much energy anymore. This fat is useful energy storage in case there is another famine.
Food shortage – famine – also means stress and is thus adding to the many stressors we are already dealing with: the daily commute, a high workload, debt, looking after elderly parents, divorce or bereavement are ‘just’ the psychological stressors. Add to that physical stressors such as illness, pain, inflammation, overexercising, and environmental toxins, stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and alcohol, and we are churning out stress hormones all day long, which is not something we evolved to do. In the long term, those powerful hormones, particularly cortisol, have serious effects on the body. They …
- make us hungry, craving sugar
- suppress insulin function, decreasing insulin sensitivity
- increase blood glucose levels
- promote the accumulation of abdominal (belly) fat and visceral fat (fat around the organs, fatty liver)
- increase the rate at which we store fat
- decrease the rate at which we burn fat
- causes hormonal imbalance (affecting sex hormones, thyroid hormones and more)
So, just as you are trying to eat less, your body chemistry is encouraging you to eat more. It will protect its fat stores and do its best to lay down more fat. Is it any wonder that diets don’t work?
What does work?
Start by eating real food. Don’t worry about calories and, for now, don’t worry about gluten, wheat or dairy or fat or carbs or organic vs non-organic. I am not saying that there aren’t any natural foods that are not problematic, but depending on where you are starting from the exact composition of your diet is something to consider further down the line.
The first and most important step is to find your way back to actual foods: Vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans and pulses, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. These are foods. Cornflakes, rice krispies, white bread, rice and pasta, pop tarts, pot noodles, crisps, biscuits, fizzy drinks, chocolate bars, ready meals, chicken nuggets, turkey twizzlers, oven chips and margarine are not.
So, don’t resolve to go on a diet. Decide to eat real food. Give your body something it recognises and knows what to do with.
“Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself.”