Why Your Diet Might Be Making You Fatter

Take a good look around your gym and you will begin to notice the growing number of people on a journey toward a better body and healthier lifestyle. Today, our society places a high value on having an attractive body. This has created a multi-billion dollar industry that is dedicated to helping people lose weight. However, despite our efforts to diet and exercise, the average American is still considered overweight [1]. In fact, the average weight of Americans has actually increased rather than decrease. Something just doesn’t add up here.

Perhaps we don’t have a problem losing weight at all. Instead, the issue may be that we can’t seem to prevent ourselves from regaining the weight after the diet is over. Many studies have shown that weight loss is easily achieved by taking in fewer calories than you burn [2]. But these studies also show that people often return to their original starting weight rather than keep the weight off. Why is this the case? It turns out that long term success of a weight loss effort is highly dependent on dieting tactics, hormonal changes, and a slew of protective mechanisms that your body uses to avoid starvation. So, making sure you keep the weight off depends a lot on how you approach your diet.


Impact of Harsh Dieting Tactics

When it comes to dieting, people are always looking for the quick fix. Almost everyone knows that you need to consume fewer calories than you burn each day in order to drop a few pounds. Consequently, it seems logical enough that the larger your caloric deficit, the more weight you will lose. This is the hallmark of many popular fad diets and is even the main feature of popular weight loss televisions shows. While this tactic can be quite effective for producing remarkable weight loss in a short period of time, it comes at a steep price.

First, research has shown that your body tends to waste muscle and preserve fat when losing weight too quickly [3]. You might lose weight quickly but probably not the kind of weight you were hoping for. Additionally, we experience a phenomenon known as “adaptive thermogenesis” when we diet too harshly [10]. Essentially, this is characterized by a decrease in our metabolic rate. You can think of this as the “calories out” portion of our weight loss equation. Resting metabolic rate (RMR) makes up the biggest portion of our metabolic rate and represents the number of calories you would burn by simply resting all day. RMR will naturally decrease throughout a diet simply because you have less body mass to carry around. However, research shows that extreme weight loss causes a decrease in RMR that far exceeds the predicted reduction in RMR [11].

Additionally, research has shown that weight loss results in a decrease in non-exercise associate thermogenesis (NEAT) [12]. NEAT represents the calories you burn from simply moving around all day. NEAT also accounts for a major portion of our metabolic rate.

To make things worse, the damage to our metabolism seems to stick around long after the diet is over [13]. Essentially, this tells us that harsh dieting seems to damage the metabolism and cause you to move less. This means you burn fewer calories throughout the day which makes it harder for you to maintain your weight loss.

Hungry Hormones

Extreme dieting can also have a huge effect on hunger and satiety (our level of fullness or satisfaction after a meal). These signals are largely regulated by hormones in our body such as ghrelin, leptin, and peptide YY. While any diet will eventually cause an increase in hunger signals, drastic reductions in caloric intake cause greater disruptions in hormonal balance. [7]. Moreover, research has shown that changes in these hormones can persist for up to a year after the end of the dieting phase depending on the severity of the diet [8].

This certainly creates a difficult environment for maintaining weight loss. Not only are dieter’s hungry all the time, but they also are forced to eat significantly less food to maintain their weight. These conditions are only amplified when the weight loss effort is fast and drastic in nature. This essentially stacks the deck against an extreme dieter’s ability to maintain their weight loss as they experience more hunger between meals and less satisfaction after a meal. There is only so much willpower a person can exhibit under these conditions. Eventually, caloric intake begins to creep upward and weight regain occurs.


How to Set Your Diet Up For Success

So how should you go about combating these issues when you embark on your dieting journey? First and foremost, slow and steady truly does win the race when it comes to weight loss. The research is clear that slower weight loss has much less of an impact on our metabolic rate and our hormone levels compared to rapid weight loss [4]. Second, the changes you make in your diet and exercise regimen should be made with the intention of maintaining them over your lifetime rather than as a temporary fix to lose weight. Additionally, keeping yourself accountable with a food journal or calorie counter can help you during your diet and also post weight loss by providing objective feedback about your food intake [9]. This can help you to manage your hunger signals after your weight loss and ignore them when necessary.

Diet and exercise undoubtedly play a huge role in our weight loss efforts as well. Consuming a diet rich in protein has been shown to preserve muscle during a diet and also helps to curb hunger throughout the day [5, 6]. This could result in a smaller hit to your metabolic rate and make for an easier time dealing with those hunger pangs after you’ve lost the weight. It is also important to keep exercise as part of your normal routine after you’ve lost the weight. Maintaining an active lifestyle will help to maintain your metabolic rate and perhaps can increase your metabolic rate which helps you stave off any unwanted pounds over time.


Sadly, the post-diet conditions that are set for dieters are often too harsh to overcome. Countless individuals are successful in losing weight but only a small minority of them are able to keep it off. However, the vast majority of dieters are simply uninformed about the tactics they should be using and often fall prey to the fad diets and supplements that flood the market.

The ultimate goal of any diet should be to look and feel better without sacrificing quality of life in the process. Quick fix diets may grant us faster gratification, but the pay-off is always short lived. Implementing a slow, conservative approach to dieting can help attenuate some of the adaptations to hormones and metabolic rate that have been reported in the literature. Additionally, implementing the strategies mentioned above will make your life easier both during your diet as well as after you’ve lost the weight. This will help you in achieving the body you’ve always wanted and keeping it for the long haul.





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