Why Your Diet Isn’t Working
So many people are looking for a diet to follow. Whether your goal is to lose weight, gain muscle, prevent a certain disease, or just to eat clean in general; there is a diet out there claiming to be the holy grail to fix all of your problems. Keep reading if you want to know why your diet isn’t working like you thought it would.
I want to make a disclaimer here. In this post, when I refer to “diets” I am referring to weight loss diets & other fad diets that are not recommended to you by a doctor or registered dietitian. I am not referring to a doctor prescribed diet for a condition that you have or are trying to prevent. While some of these points may also apply to doctor prescribed diets, one should ALWAYS do their best to follow your prescribed diet as closely as possible. An example would be a carbohydrate controlled diet for diabetes or the DASH diet for high blood pressure.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about types of diets.
These diets are focused on reducing your calorie intake to make you lose weight. Examples include HCG diet & Dr. Bernstein diets. Medical supervision is recommended for this type of diet to ensure that you aren’t over-restricting or malnourishing yourself. The central focus of diets that restrict calories is the principle that calories taken in should be lesser than calories burned in a day. Knowing that 1# of fat is about 3500 calories, it is typically recommended to reduce calorie intake by 500 calories a day to lose 1# each week. But, most low calorie diet plans provided by an online program only provide 800-1500 Calories per day. The issue with this strategy is that you will feel hungry often, you may feel weak and have decreased performance, and there is a high re-occurrence of re-gaining the weight.
This type of diet plan requires you to purchase meal kits, meal replacements, or supplements. For example, Nutrisystem, Jenny Craig, Shakeology, & Slim fast. The pros of this type of program is that it takes the guess work out of the diet. They are convenient and easy to follow. But, typically these programs are expensive. They don’t take your food preferences and specific nutrition needs into account, which makes them difficult to do for long periods of time. They also make you reliant on their products. So, if you were to ever stop following their program, it would be difficult for you to replicate what the program was providing for you because there is no education about how to eat in the same way without their products.
This is my personal LEAST favorite diet approach. Examples include Keto(this one will be getting a dedicated blog post in the future), Atkins, South Beach, and Engine 2. The premise is that one certain macro-nutrient villainized and should be eliminated or avoided. Ultimately, this will help you to lose weight by reducing overall calorie intake. Weight loss can be rapid. But, there are significant issues with these programs. They can be dangerous to your health if not planned and managed properly. Vital nutrients can be missed with elimination diets like this. They are extremely difficult to maintain and when the diet is done, it is very likely that you will gain all of the weight back that was lost. You may also experience digestive issues and dehydration.
There are several different approaches to fasting. Some regimens limit the hours you can eat in a day, while others limit the number of days in a week you can eat. In either case, the idea is that by restricting the time you are able to eat, you can restrict your calories. This in turn, results in weight loss due to the caloric deficit. Examples include, intermittent fasting, alternate day, and even religious fasts such as the Daniel fast. There is some promising research on this approach. A number of studies have come out over the past few years that confirm fasting diets ability to reduce weight, improve blood pressure, cholesterol, and insulin sensitivity. There are some issues with this though. Number one being adherence. Depending on the type of fast you choose, it can be very difficult to maintain.
- If you plan to give this a try, I recommend choosing a fasting regimen that you can realistically see yourself maintaining for years to come. So, if you don’t think you can fast every other day for more than 2 weeks, perhaps pick a different schedule. Another issue is that this eating style doesn’t encourage you to make more healthful food choices to nourish yourself. What good does losing weight do if you don’t also improve your health? In fact, if done incorrectly, fasting has the ability to worsen your health. You may experience extreme hunger, dehydration, and/or vitamin/mineral deficiencies. It can even propel you into the mindset to develop disordered eating. So, while fasting diets may be beneficial, there are still reasons to seek the advice of your doctor or dietitian to see if this approach would be right for you. Especially if you have pre-existing health conditions.
Another of my least favorite approaches.. Allegedly, detoxes are supposed to “flush your body of toxins” and “boost immunity”. But, I would like to set the record straight by letting you know that ALL detoxes/cleanses are a SCAM. Especially if you are required to purchase some kind of supplement or product to follow it. God has generously created our bodies to have organs such as the liver,kidneys, and digestive tract who’s job is to eliminate waste from our bodies. Our body “detoxes” itself. The teas, and drink mixes, and veggie juices that people try to market as a way to detoxify yourself is nothing but a cash-grab. In fact, most of these products just contain laxatives that make you excrete waste from your digestive tract more quickly. Therefore, detoxes and cleanses have the potential to cause GI discomfort, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, low blood sugar, and low blood pressure.
- Any weight lost on these type of diets is mostly water loss, cleaned out intestines, and possibly glycogen storage lost if you aren’t eating any carbohydrates. All of which, will be gained back once your detox is over. One benefit though, is that juicing type detoxes may enable you to consume more vitamins/minerals than you might typically. So, if anything, you can drink a veggie juice if you just absolutely hate vegetables and fruits otherwise. Overall, detoxes/cleanses/ juicing is not necessary.
So, the idea of diets in this category is to focus on consuming large amounts of foods that have a high water and fiber content and are very low calorie so that the volume of your stomach is filled for less calories than typical. Often these diets label foods with a point system or with green, yellow, or red symbols to indicate what you should be choosing. For example, Volumetrics diet and Weight Watchers. There is nothing inherently wrong with these programs.
- They encourage intake of non-starchy vegetables and low fat protein sources. The very large portions allowed on these diets can help you feel more full while decreasing your caloric intake. Although, these diets are typically very low fat. Fat is a satiating food. So while you may get full quickly, you might get hungry much more often than you want. This type of diet can also get to be expensive. If you are eating 3 bags of salad each day and increasing your intake of protein, the price can add up quickly.
These are the diets that fall into the category of prescriptive diets. For example, the American Diabetes Association diet for carbohydrate control, or the American Heart Associations Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet. These diets focus on preventing or managing a certain disease state. As stated above, if you have been prescribed a diet by your doctor or dietitian, you should do your best to follow your diet.
So why are there so many kids of diets out there, and most importantly…
Why isn’t MY diet working?
I know exactly why you are asking that. I know because I have been there so so many times. Why is it that every time I get on social media I see someone else who lost 50 pounds, but when I do the same thing they did, it doesn’t work. Or maybe I wan’t even able to complete whatever program they did. I was constantly stuck in the diet cycle.
Plan and Restrict
Because I would hate the way I look so much, I would be determined to get my eating and exercise on track the next Monday (because, obviously, diets only start on mondays). I would go out and buy groceries that I didn’t even like and meal prep recipes that don’t even sound good. Then, Monday would arrive. I would be SO good on Monday; I would wake up early and exercise and then eat my perfectly portioned, pre-prepared meals. At the end of the day, I would go to bed so proud of myself. Then, I wake up the next day with my stomach growling, but I am still determined to stick to my new “healthy lifestyle”. Each day I wake up, I am more and more exhausted, hungry, and cranky. Until finally, (usually by Thursday or Friday if I am being honest) I accidentally sleep through my alarm and miss my workout. I rush and eat my nasty healthy breakfast while daydreaming of donuts or even just buttered toast.
Fail and Binge
Then dinner time comes and I have to go to a small group at Church. I can’t resist food that actually looks appetizing any more. So I snack on that until I’m bursting at the seams.Then, it’s the weekend. I am so tired of waking up early that I miss another exercise, on purpose this time. Saturday was more busy than I expected, and I didn’t have time to plan my meals for the next week. Monday I wake up just in time to get out the door and grab something to eat on the way to work. “It’s hopeless” I think. I just don’t have enough discipline to lose weight. Jeez, I might as well be fat and happy. And the cycle goes, plan-restrict-fail-binge-plan-restrict-fail-binge.
Does any of this sound familiar to you?
I’ll tell you why your diet isn’t working. It’s not your fault.
The Diet is the Problem, Not You.
Yes, you heard that right. Diet culture is what is wrong, it’s not you.
It’s no secret that our society has an obsession with skinny people. Most people assume that a fat person leads an unhealthy life-style, and if you are skinny than you must be healthy. But, much of the time, that is simply just not the case.
Let’s take a look at what healthy really means. In regards to medicine and health sciences, health is all about risk. Behaviors deemed as “healthy” reduce your risk of disease, while “unhealthy behaviors” increase your risk.
But what does the research show?
One study was done to determine cardiovascular fitness differences in men of normal BMI, men who were of an overweight BMI, and men who were obese according to BMI. A number of behaviors were examined to find a predictor of increased risk for disease. The study examined smoking, exercise habits, weight, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, ect. What this study discovered, was that the most important risk factor was lack of fitness. Also, it was found that normal weight men who were not exercising had a higher risk of all-cause mortality than the men who were considered overweight or obese that were exercising. In fact, unfit normal weight men had TWICE the risk of developing disease than the obese fit men.
This study shows that being physically active is a far better indicator of health than someone’s weight. Also, the study found that “overweight” and “obese” men were more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like being sedentary or smoking, compared to “normal-weight”. So what that tells us is that it’s not so much the person’s weight that indicates their health, but their behaviors.
One important thing that we have discovered through scientific research, is that it may be healthier to exclude weight loss when attempting to improve health.
The weight-neutral approach:
This study took 80 women ages 30-45 years old who had BMI>30, making them obese, and separated them into groups. One group engaged in a program centered around weight loss to improve their health. The other group focused on developing healthy behaviors to improve their health with no emphasis on weight. At the end of the study, the weight neutral group had lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and better intuitive eating skills than the weight loss group. This study shows that weight loss is not the means to better health. It’s the behaviors themselves that matter.
So, now that we know our health is better improved by our behaviors than by weight loss. We can discuss if weight loss is even a good goal to have for yourself.
Is Losing Weight Beneficial to Health?
The short answer is that it depends. This issue with weight loss is the means by which you lose weight, and the great potential to gain it back. Weight cycling is the cycle of losing weight and then stopping you diet and gaining it all back(and maybe some more) and then going on another short-term restrictive diet to lose it again and so on.
One study took 1160 men and followed them for 30 years to find out what impact weight had on their mortality. The study found that men whose weight fluctuated intensely, had a much higher risk of all-cause mortality than the men who remained obese or of normal weight throughout the study.
Another small study done on women considered “normal-weight” put them through a 75 day cycle of weight loss. Then they gained the weight back and completed another round of the 75 day weight loss program. This was done to mimic weight cycling. The results of the study showed that the women had significantly higher triglycerides, blood pressure, and decreased lean body mass. This study shows weight cycling’s potential to harm your health.
A systemic review also showed correlation between weight cycling and weight gain. Meaning, weight cycling puts you at a higher risk of gaining more weight. There are also studies that link weight cycling to increased body fat percentages.
So, all that being said, why do we get stuck in diet cycles like that. One issue is that will power is a limited resource. Most diets rely on our ability to restrict ourselves for a period of time. But, that is not possible to maintain. Biologically, the answer is actually quite simple. Homeostasis. Everything in our bodies are balanced. If something goes out of wack, our bodies have a back up plan to get back to homeostasis.
Take blood sugar for example. There is a range of blood glucose levels that our bodies can operate within. If our bodies get too much sugar in the blood, the pancreas releases insulin to take the sugar out of our blood and use or store it in certain parts of the body. If our blood sugars get too low, the hormone glucagon is released by the body to trigger the sugar that is stored in our liver and muscles to release into the blood.
The same has been proposed to apply to our weight. This is called the Set-Point Theory.
Much like there being a range of blood sugars our bodies can work with, our bodies have a certain weight range at which it best operates. Therefore, if your weight fluctuates, the body has a system that will ensure it can return to homeostasis. If your weight gets too low, your body releases the hunger hormone to make sure that you crave food so that you will eat until you are back at the weight it likes. If your weight gets too high, though, excess energy is stored as fat.
In terms of survival, the body doesn’t see weight gain to be a threat to survival like weight loss would be. So, the theory is that our bodies can adjust to operate at higher weights. This makes sense when you consider all the growth our bodies do throughout childhood, our bodies understand how to operate despite growth. There are some responses our bodies give to over-eating though: lethargy, feeling full, and the “food coma” feeling we all have experienced.
So what do I propose?
Instead of punishing and restricting yourself to lose weight, perhaps a better approach would be to care for yourself. Make choices to enhance your health. Don’t just do something with the hope of dropping a few pounds regardless of it’s effect on your health. Why not decide to improve your health and better your lifestyle because you love yourself, rather than doing it as a punishment for eating a donut. This leads me to the final eating style I want to discuss, mindful eating AKA intuitive eating.
- Mindful eating focuses on how you eat. What you eat is less important. This approach focuses on your bodies innate ability to tell you when it’s hungry, when it’s full, and what it needs in the moment. Mindfulness is about giving yourself grace and giving your body what it needs instead of beating yourself down and restricting yourself. It’s about taking the power away from food. Foods have no moral value, they are not “good” and “bad”; it’s just food! Much of the time you’ll find, that taking the restriction out of your mindset and allowing yourself access to whatever you want to eat, winds up taking the allure out of certain foods that, before, might have been your weakness.
- It’s about accepting that you are unique and you require something different than the fitness model on Instagram trying to sell you her diet and exercise program. For so long, we have all accepted the diet mentality. We have accepted that there is something wrong with us and the only way to fix it is to ignore when we are hungry and restrict ourselves until we break. Using this approach, you take the time to listen to yourself and you learn your body and it’s needs. It helps you to identify what you need to nourish yourself.
Next time you feel a craving to eat, ask yourself these questions to practice mindful eating:
- Am I truly hungry or am I just thirsty?
- Am I physically hungry, or is it mental? In other words, Do I need to eat or am I just bored or emotional? If so, what would be a better, more healthful way to quell my boredom or deal with my emotions?
- Write in a journal
- Go for a walk with a friend
- Watch a sad movie and cry it out
- Is my stomach hungry or my mouth? As in, are you craving a certain taste or do you need to eat a meal? If you are just craving a taste of something, have a few bites to satisfy your craving and move on.
- If you are physically hungry, then eat.
- As you eat your meals, check in with yourself. It takes 15 minutes for you to realize your stomach is getting full. So, take your time as you eat. Savor the flavor of your food. Listen to your body. Don’t let yourself become uncomfortably full. Eat when you are hungry, and stop when you are satisfied.
It is important that I clarify that it is not bad to lose weight to to want to lose weight. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to reduce your weight to improve your health or quality of life. But, you should never desire to lose weight so much, that you are willing to jeopardize your health. So, let’s make 2020 the year of saying NO to diet culture and saying YES to our health. Let’s make healthier choices because we love our bodies and want to care for them, not to punish them in the pursuit of vanity and unattainable goals.
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