Why Diets Don’t Work

If you lose a lot of weight, your brain reacts as if you were starving.

I’m losing more than a pound per week without dieting. One problem with fad diets is the imbalance of nutrition. Watch out for anything with extremes like no carbs, no sugar, no fat, one vegetable or all protein.

I quickly lost 16 pounds in one week on the Master Cleanse. Within a couple of weeks, half the weight was back. Two months later, it was pounds as usual. While not knocking benefits of cleansing our systems, this is not as people erroneously claim, an effective “lemonade diet.” Another common problem with diets is the rebound after reaching the goal to “lose 10 pounds in one month” or whatever the claim is.

Put Your Diet on a Diet

Many registered dietitians reject diets for weight loss. According to neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, “If you lose a lot of weight, your brain reacts as if you were starving.” She continues, ‘The hypothalamus is the portion of the brain that regulates body weight, working like a thermostat, to maintain a set range.’

Watch Sandra Aamodt deliver her TED Talk, “Why dieting usually doesn’t work.”

Successful dieting fails to lower our set point. After keeping the weight off for as long as seven years, our brains keep trying to gain it back. If we remain overweight for too long, probably a matter of years for most of us, our brain may decide that this is the new normal and aggres­sively try to maintain it, says Aamodt.

Can You Process This?

Walking into a kitchen to some people is like stepping onto another planet with foreign utensils. Some of the processed foods consumed there might appear to be for celestial consumption. It is often shuttled between refrigerator and micro­wave.

Perhaps most of your meals are from fast-food restaurants where a “meal” is french fries or chips and soda with your burger or sandwich. Even a vegetarian can succumb to processed so-called “healthy snacks.” The quality of food needs to improve.

A challenge on your weight-loss journey is periodic abdominal discomfort. This may be when your body is breaking down stored fat—but it is confused with starvation. It is temping to interrupt discomfort by ad libitum consumption (un­sche­duled eating to satisfy cravings). Don’t give in to the cravings by binging on unhealthy snacks. If you are eating three well-balanced meals per day and two healthy snacks of nuts, fruits or vegetables, you are not staving.

In a small 2019 study, Kevin D. Hall et al. investigated 20 inpatient adults who were exposed to ultra-processed versus unpro­cessed diets for 14 days each, in random order. The ultra-processed diet caused in­creased ad libitum energy intake and weight gain despite being matched to the unproce­ssed diet for presented calories, sugar, fat, sodium, fiber, and macro­nutrients.

Ultra-processed foods have been described as ‘‘formulations mostly of cheap industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients plus additives, using a series of processes’’ and containing minimal whole foods. These foods are mostly consumed as ready-to-eat meals, as well as snacks and desserts. We must consume less-processed foods to remain healthy.

Obtain a Healthy Balance

Why Diets Don’t Work

A better approach is to introduce healthy behaviors. Can you eat less of that bad food or more of this good food? How about switching from soda or fruit juice to whole fruit for more fiber? Before getting a second helping of a meal, drink a cup of water. How about replacing one daily unhealthy meal with a salad or protein shake (sans ice cream)? Can you bring some chopped carrot and celery sticks to have with your take-out sandwich and decline the potato chips?

If you can’t run a mile, can you walk around a block or two for five days per week? If your knees hurt, get some comfortable shock-absorbing athletic shoes. Perhaps see a podiatrist to correct bunions, swim or ride a bike.

On a chart, list your 1-month, 3-month, 6-month and 12-month goal. Working towards each, make one slight adjustment per week. Walk five-minutes longer. If 10 minutes is your walk limit, can you walk once in the morning and again during the early evening a few days per week? Wean yourself off alcohol. Drink an additional cup of water.

If you have a sedentary job, get up and walk around the office every 60–90 minutes. Improve your posture—often caused by hunching over a computer because of an improper eyeglass prescription or a desk that is too low. Minimize your stress. Go to bed at night a half hour earlier.

Such behavioral lifestyle adjustments establish the premise of the weekly Healthy Balance program in which I enrolled a few weeks ago. Three principles are stressed: daily habits, healthy eating, and getting active. The 16-week course, sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, is led by a team of registered dietitians, therapists and fitness experts. The program is free to Kaiser Permanente members or $10 per week to non-members. Other classes like smoking cessation and Tai chi are free to non-members.

If you lose a lot of weight, your brain reacts as if you were starving.

By making progressive behavior modifications, I lost 2 pounds the first week, 4 pounds the second, and mid-third week I lost another pound. Even if it plateaus at an average of a pound per week, a 16-pound sustainable loss is welcome. When all the class instruction is complete, monthly followups continue for a year. Setting a low-bar, I would be satisfied with a 25 pound weight loss within a year.

My Early Fitness Routine

What adjustments have I personally made? Late-night simple carbohydrates have been signi­ficantly reduced. Instead of eating a large bowl of popcorn every night, I may have one or two per week before 6 PM. To me, as a vegetarian, cheese is protein. So I used to routinely pile two to four slices on a sandwich without meat. Now I settle for one, or in some cases, a quarter of a slice. Here’s a novel idea: no slice at all. Also, the bread for many of my sandwiches has become thinner.

Why Diets Don’t Work
Quorn 130-calorie meatless patty on 90-calorie Multigrain Slims with Veganaise, kale, butter leaf lettuce, cucumber slices and tomato sandwich, accompanied by a cup of almond milk and a bottle of water for lunch. It is basically a salad on a bun.

Two daily alarms remind me to walk briskly. The first that occurs 15 minutes early tells me: “Prepare to walk.” This alerts me to make sure I have my walking shoes on and get to a stop point in my current activity. The second alert asks: “Are you walking?” The dual-reminder system works well for me. The alarms went of and I took a 20-minute walk while writing this article. My walks now include the use of dumbbells to work my upper body.

One of the Healthy Balance tips explores the MyPlate concept. Half your plate should be fruits and vegetables. The other have is equally divided between protein and grains. Here is where we mess up: on second helpings. We generally go back for more starch or protein. This skews the original balance. If after drinking a glass of water we are still hungry, get a second helping (smaller portions), in the same ratio or, better yet, fill up on vegetables.

Why Diets Don’t Work
Scrambled eggs, rice, grilled zucchini, fresh tomato slices and Quorn strips with Sriracha sauce for breakfast.

If you are not a fan of cooking or just ‘vegetably’ challenged, consider taking some cooking classes. The money for four weeks at a local culinary school is well spent since it lasts a lifetime. You can also visit our Mouth Watering Veggies collection of recipes on Pinterest. I look forward to reaching other short-range goals. What about you? What are your goals to become A Bit More Healthy?

Veggie breakfast bowl
Scrambled eggs and half slice of cheddar cheese, brown rice with succotash, grilled zucchini, fresh tomato slices with avocado slices for breakfast.

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