In this article you’ll learn:
Why do low calorie diets dont work?
Why do we yo-yo?
Why do we find it harder to lose weight the more we try?
‘It feels like no matter how much effort I put in, how good I am with my diet and exercise, I always end up back where I started’ – has this thought ever crossed your mind? It crossed mine. And there is a way to lose weight and keep it off, it just takes time and patience. But once you understand the mechanism behind it, it’ll make the wait easier and so definitely worth it! 🙂
The problem described above is what we all know as yo-yo dieting. You want to lose weight, you diet, you’re starving, you eat, you eat some more, you eat again aaaaand you’re back to square one. In fact a lot of the time you’re even worse off than that, because you now weigh more than you had when you started the diet. I’ll explain why that happens later in this article.
To understand what to do about yo-yo dieting, you need to know why it happens. And the main reason we re-gain all the weight is our body’s physiological and psychological responses to calorie deficit, more specifically severe calorie deficit.
What’s a severe calorie deficit? – Any diet that promises more than 2 lb of fat loss a week. Any diet that’s based on liquids. Any diet that has under 10 items on the ‘approved’ foods list. You get the idea.
You can think of any form of calorie deficit as a controlled starvation. When you subject your body to a prolonged starvation, it starts rebelling so to speak, in reality it switches on a plethora of protective mechanisms to stop you from starving to death. Your body doesn’t know that you are only dieting for a short while, all it knows is it has not enough nutrients coming in from the outside and it must protect itself.
So what kind of protective mechanisms am I talking about?
Number 1: Reduce the ‘energy gap‘
When you diet, your fat cells shrink, this signals to your brain that you are in an energy gap, whereby your body gets less energy than it needs, this signal triggers the following mechanisms that will essentially set the perfect scene for acquiring more energy than it’s needed, i.e. making us perfect fat storing machines:
– Lower TDEE (total daily expenditure)
This is when metabolic adaptation occurs, aka your metabolism slows down. Your body will become really efficient at utilising the energy it’s getting. What does it mean?! It means that you’ll spend less calories getting through your day, so your BMR and NEATwill go down, BUT that’s not all, you’ll also spend less calories during physical activity, even if you keep the same intensity up! Your body’s just adapting at using less calories for previously ‘calorie – expensive’ tasks. All this is done in an attempt to reduce that energy gap and therefore decrease the rate of weight loss.
– Increase energy intake – your brain will start sending hunger signals much sooner after a meal than it used to, your focus and alertness will diminish and the only thing you’ll have on your mind is when and what’s the next thing you’re going to eat!
– Make weight loss more difficult – with the previous 2 combined, weight loss becomes increasingly difficult. The calorie deficit you started with at the beginning of your diet has now been ‘jeopardised’ by your body’s energy gap reducing mechanisms. So now your energy expenditure is lowered and your energy intake has stayed the same or increased (depends how well you can fight the constant hunger feeling), which naturally stalls your weight loss. And that’s how the dreaded weight loss plateau occurs.
Number 2. Prepare the body for fat storage
Interestingly, while you’re dieting and losing fat, your body is preparing itself for the fat re-storage. And it does so by blunting the signals of your fullness hormone called leptin. When you’re hungry the levels of leptin are low and the levels of ghrelin (hunger hormone) are high, signalling to your brain that you need to eat. While eating, leptin accumulates, signalling that you should stop eating because you’re getting full. If you aren’t dieting you’ll have no problem stopping, if however you’re on a diet, this signal to your brain is blunted and you keep eating past fullness. It’s that strange feeling I’m sure a lot of you have experienced before,where you can’t physically take another bite but your brain is still telling you it’s hungry, you feel almost ‘possessed’ and you can’t stop.
Number 3. Make future weight loss more difficult
During Number 1 and 2, our body has switched on its primary attack mechanisms, whereby it senses an energy gap, it strives to reduce the energy expenditure and to increase the energy intake, in order to ultimately decrease that energy gap and stop the weight loss.
In Number 1, I’ve also mentioned that your fat cells reduce in size when you lose fat. What I haven’t mentioned is the trigger for the mechanisms above is the reduction in size of the fat cells. In other words, the shrinking fat cells send desperate signals to your brain to start protecting the organism against starvation.
This brings me to my last and most important point: why future attempts at weight loss are harder? The short answer is: an increased number of fat cells after a rapid weight re-gain post diet.
In the past we thought we’re born with a set amount of fat cells and it cannot be changed. It has now been found that immediately post diet, when our body has created a perfect hormonal mix, it’s possible to increase the number of fat cells, if you skip the maintenance phase and start overeating uncontrollably.
To find out more about the maintenance phase, read this article.
How does a higher amount of fat cells affect your future attempt at weight loss? Remember when I explained that when you lose fat your fat cells shrink? Well now you’ll have more cells to shrink to get to the weight that you want and not only that; now your body has a higher weight set point, meaning it’s now comfortable at a higher body weight than it was before you’ve increased the amount of fat cells you have, which means that this new weight will be what your body defends in the future.
As you can imagine, if you crash diet again, lose some of the fat, binge, gain it all back, you’re likely to gain extra fat cells and increase your body’s set point once again and so on, until you decide to break the vicious cycle and do it the right way. The way I’ll describe in the next article.
Until then, I hope you found this article useful and I hope I have shed some light on some of the problems you guys might have 🙂