Diets Make You Lose Weight. And then…

Preventing diets for thousands of years since the dawn of time.

One of the reasons diet culture is so persistent and refuses to die is that diets do cause weight loss – for at least some people, for a little while.

Low fat or low carb or high fat or high protein or no sugar or all butter (whoops, did I make that one up? Patent pending!) have all worked pretty much equally well at some point for some people. Studies from a few years back even compared all the current diet methods and said no one diet method was better than any other for shedding pounds (and these studies mentioned nothing about keeping the pounds off long term). I remember back in the early 2000s when Atkins was making a comeback and people, having dropped all manner of carbohydrate out of their diets, did lose weight like crazy (or at least I heard some people did; one guy I worked with didn’t but smelled like deli meat all the time and friend of mine ended up with the worst constipation ever for a month but lost no weight) and the scientists were all, “It’s just because they’re eating fewer calories!” and the Atkins people were like, “No, we’re eating a shit ton of fat, we’re getting lots of calories.” In truth, no one knows why these diets work at first, whether it’s calorie restriction or macronutrient deprivation or what.

So I have a theory on this – and it’s JUST a theory, so take it for what it’s worth. Our bodies seem wonderfully adapted to eat all manner of food and that’s been great from a survival aspect. Some groups of people probably did well just on, like, animal blood and milk, and others did great on mostly some sort of starch and whatever else they picked up off the nearby ground. No diet was necessarily better than another because that’s what was available and we’re great at adapting to what’s available.

Flash forward to the future (now)…and we are like diet nomads, wandering from one restriction to another but on purpose. Like, we have that food but we decide not to eat it for reasons of conforming better to society’s standards of beauty and thinness (something I’m sure our cave people ancestors could have totally gotten behind had they not been busy running from woolly mammoths all the time in between picking up mongongo nuts from the ground half the day). So our body goes without that food and because a WHOLE part of the diet has been eliminated, the body loses weight at first which triggers a biological feedback system that, when it hits a certain point, signals the metabolism that it’s maybe never getting that food again, and it makes some live-saving adaptations, like slowing down your metabolism, making you crave high-energy foods to replace the missing food, getting more efficient at using the available energy (meaning it can use fewer calories for the same functions it used to use more calories for before your diet), and also getting hella good at storing fat, because who knows how long this famine is gonna last. The problem with any diet is that it does make you lose weight and we see that as a good thing while it’s probably just some part of an elaborate feedback system to keep you alive and thriving. The weight loss is quite possibly a symptom of something going wrong in your environment.

Of course, it’s just a theory. And it doesn’t even matter really, because whatever the reason, weight loss is pretty much almost always temporary, unless you manage to develop some seriously disordered eating habits and make maintaining this weight loss your full-time job (which I don’t recommend. You’ve got better things to do).

I like my theory, though, because it also explains why each dieting attempt seems to get harder and harder each time, and no one diet works as well the second time you go on it, am I right? So you’ve got to hop around from diet to diet, and each time you drop some food group out of your diet, your body goes, “OH SHIT this again?” and it goes through the whole feedback system and in the end makes you gain even more weight because that is safety.

But even if I’m wrong about the mechanism, I’m not wrong about what happens. You lose weight on pretty much any diet, your body overwhelms you with a desire to eat, your body makes adaptations (this much we know), and next thing you know, you’ve regained all the weight you lost in those first few halcyon moments of a diet.

And those halcyon weight loss days are soooo fucking seductive. They keep us coming back for more, again and again, just like a cheatin’ lover you just can’t shake.

Meanwhile, we look at the French paradox (that thing where they seem to eat all the foods and they aren’t as fat as us, so we’re told) and go “Zuh, it must be the wine” when in reality it’s probably that they didn’t starve themselves systematically and consistently as we have here in North America for all of the 20th and 21st centuries. They’re bodies probably didn’t get all adapty – until Mireille Guiliano came along and told everyone how French women didn’t get fat and I bet all those French fat women that do exist are on diets now trying to prove her right. (also, it was totally disingenuous of her to tell everyone to just enjoy their food and they’ll get slim, because there is absolutely no evidence that enjoying your food makes you go from fat to thinner. She couldn’t just tell us to enjoy our food and leave the body shame at home?).

All this to say: don’t be fooled. Weight loss from diets IS temporary. We don’t really understand WHY it happens but we do know it IS temporary unless you manage to develop the most disordered of eating habits and devote your life to maintaining your body shape. Trust me when I say, there are so many more worthy causes out there to spend your time on.

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Calories In=Calories Out=Bullshit

If I had a nickel for every time someone talking about weight loss said to me “It’s just calories in/calories out, right? Just eat less and move more!” I’d be able to retire on a beach in Hawaii with a big fat Mai Tai always at my fingertips. Alas, no one has paid me anything to listen this sort of horse manure so now it’s my turn to disabuse everyone of this ridiculous notion.

In case you have been spared this silly platitude, I’ll give a little background. It all starts with the idea that 1 pound of fat = 3500 kilocalories (or what we know as just “calories”). This estimate was derived by researcher Max Wishnofsky, MD, in 1958, for who knows what reason. The derivation of the math is pretty straightforward (skip this if math puts you in a coma):

  1. 1 pound = 454 grams (fact!)
  2. 1 gram of fat is estimated to equal 9 calories
  3. Human adipose tissue is estimated to contain around 87% lipids.

So then… 454 g adipose tissue x 87% x 9 calories = 3,555 calories/pound of fat (rounded up from 3,554.82)

Then it was rounded down to 3,500 calories because, hey, it’s just easier to remember so why the hell not? The idea is that if you reduce your caloric intake by 3,500 calories a week, then you will lose a pound of fat a week. There’s a ton of rounding and estimating going on here, and yet people cling to this calculation like it came down written in stone from Mount Sinai as the 11th Commandment.

But let’s pretend for one moment that this calculation works. So you reduce your caloric intake weekly by 3,500 calories a week (500 calories a day) and that takes care of the Calories In part. Now you just need to rev up your Calories Out half of the equation in the form of ramping up your exercise. If you’re managing the 500-calories-a- day-less deal and exercising too, then you can definitely lose even more than 1 pound a week, right?

Oh…except we forgot something. There’s another part of the equation… it actually looks like this:

Calories IN:


Calories OUT:

Exercise AND Metabolism.

Oopsy, we forgot that tiny little factor – our metabolism (specifically something we call Resting Metabolic Rate, or RMR, the calories you burn while at rest, which accounts for 60-70% of our total energy expenditure). And it turns out that our metabolism is not something of which we are completely in control. This is borne out in science time and again; in fact, I recently had the pleasure of supervising the research project of a dietetic intern whose research consistently showed that RMR decreased with intentional weight loss. You can check out this particular research here and here and here and here and here and here. Sometimes the RMR remained low throughout the entire study, occasionally it eventually returned to normal, but in most of these studies the weight lost also began to return within the study period.

What happens when you start to eat less? Your body doesn’t know you’re just trying to lose weight for the sake of vanity or a misguided belief that it will make you healthier. No – after a few pounds are lost, your body eventually senses that you are in a place of food insecurity, and so to save your life it slooooows down its engine, the metabolism. Now you are eating less but also burning less in the way of your RMR – this is essentially your body’s way of maintaining homeostasis – stable internal conditions. Because that’s what the body wants more than anything – to remain at homeostasis. You might think you can compensate for this decrease in metabolism by exercising more – except that your metabolism will continue to compensate in the downward direction still as it continues to perceive this energy imbalance. This alone does not explain why most weight loss attempts end in lost weight being regained, but it’s a good start (I can think of some other reasons: unpalatable, unsustainable diets and hunger. Lots of hunger.).

Many health professionals have given up on this equation because they know it just doesn’t work all that well. Some researchers are working on new mathematical equations that will better predict how much a person should eat to lose weight and maintain the loss. Because – and this is dripping in sarcasm – we should definitely be eating according to a mathematical equation.

For me it all goes back to the idea of homeostasis. Our bodies want to remain in happy equilibrium, and they have amazing mechanisms to help us do so. Two of these mechanisms are a sense of hunger and a sense of fullness, which is why it is so important for us to use those internal mechanisms to guide our eating. Yep, back to the ol’ Intuitive Eating we go!

I think we’ve done a lot of damage with dieting over the years by ignoring those internal cues and trying to eat-by-the-numbers. Let’s forget this bad science and start paying attention to what our bodies tell us.

Want to feel freedom with food?

Tired of feeling ruled by food? I can help you get free. Learn more here.

Subscribe and get my free guide, Why you overeat …and what to do about it.

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