If you’ve ever regained weight after a diet, you are in very good company. Most dieters regain the weight. You are not lazy, stupid, or greedy. You did not fail — on the contrary, your body worked hard to keep that weight on because it’s a survival technique. Losing weight is contrary to our biology, which is why so many diets don’t work.
I want to tell you a story about Mary.
Mary couldn’t lose weight no matter how hard she tried. When she came to see me and it was clear that she was frustrated. At 51 years of age, her weight had crept up and on over the last 10 years no matter what she did. Mary was looking for me to give her some kind of magic pill or drink that would fire up her metabolism and miraculously, and effortlessly shed those extra pounds.
As we talked, it became clear that Mary knew all there was to know about weight loss. She knew exactly how many calories to eat daily, how many grams of fat to consume and what carbs had the least calories. She was following all the ground rules of every popular diet out there today. She was eating low-carb, had stopped eating gluten and dairy, ate 5-6 small meals a day to keep her metabolism going and was eating a full breakfast with a protein shake and carrying bags of celery and carrots to eat in case she needed to snack.
However, it was not working! Mary’s frustration came from the fact that she had originally lost weight and everything seemed so successful. But, then it started to come back on.
This brings up a central question: if diets fail for some people, which they invariably do, why is that? What is the reason?
Mary relayed her history with weight loss and the subsequent weight gain and she attributed her failure with not having enough willpower, she saw it as a personal and moral failure, perhaps she was just a glutton or lazy, maybe she needed more knowledge, maybe she just had to try harder! The assumptions that Mary made are really a reflection of our culture: that anyone, if they try hard enough, can be anything they want — and therefore that weight is entirely a choice, a product of effort and willpower. This puts the blame squarely on the dieter – but these explanations are flat out WRONG! Plus there is no scientific evidence to support this.
The Reasons Diets Don’t Work:
Restrictive diets affect your brain: “what we eat really affects our brain, our behavior, our neural circuits, and our health in many ways,” said Ralph DiLeone, associate professor of psychiatry and neurobiology at Yale University. The Journal Nutrition published an article on one of the most famous calorie-restriction studies done on conscientious objectors during World War II.
Thirty-six healthy young men who had been excused from armed service for ethical objections agreed to a year long diet of sorts. It would include 3 months of preparation, 6 months of semi-starvation (designed to make the men lose 25% of their body weight), and then 3 months of re-feeding. The men were highly motivated for the study, as their purpose was to help their country and the men fighting overseas who might face starving conditions themselves. The young men lived in a dorm at the University of Minnesota, and in addition to their restricted diet, they were required to walk 22 miles a week, the food was prepared for them and each man’s calories were adjusted every Friday to meet a weight loss goal of 2.5 lbs per week. Their average daily calories during the diet period was about 1600 calories a day (they ate approximately 3200 calories daily before the study.
So, how did it go? The Journal Psychiatry also talked about this study and stated:
These young men described lethargy, irritability, anxiety that approached each time they were to learn how much they were allowed to eat the following week. They suffered dizziness, cold intolerance (requesting heavy blankets even in the middle of summer), muscle soreness, hair loss, reduced coordination, edema, and ringing in the ears. Some had to withdraw from their university classes because they did not have the capability to concentrate. Their sex drive disappeared. They became obsessed with food, eating with elaborate rituals (which eating disorder patients also do) and adding water to their plates to make the food last longer. Two of the men suffered severe psychological stress – one became suicidal and another cut off three of his fingers in an act of self-mutilation.
What worries me most about this diet is that the men were on what is considered the standard recommendation for weight loss of 2-3 pounds a week and the men were of normal weight when they began the study. This deprivation diet – not so unlike our restrictive diets today sent 6% of the participants to the psychiatric hospital – and these were highly motivated, healthy young men.
Fad diets can be harmful: According to the CDC’s Healthy Weight — It’s Not a Diet, It’s a Lifestyle! a fad diet is any diet that promises fast results and represents only short-term dietary changes. So here’s the problem with fad diets. With the diet industry being a billion dollar business, many of their profits are made by promoting diets that promise instant results and fast weight loss. According to data by Marketdata Enterprises, a market research firm that specializes in tracking niche industries, Americans spend more than $60 billion annually to try to lose pounds each year. While it may be tempting to follow popular diet scams, many of these trendy diets are not only ineffective but dangerous to your physical health.
Juice cleanses, diet pills, metabolism boosting ingredients, – all of these things are the propelling force behind a vicious dieting cycle that can cause dangerous health risks. The many gimmicks and faulty promises involved in diet trends cannot offer the tools for sustaining physical health over longer time periods. Jumping on the bandwagon of popular diet fads can also be a gateway to eating disorder habits and behaviors. What may begin as a seemingly harmless attempt for losing a few pounds or getting “healthier” can quickly escalate to an all-consuming eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. The National Eating Disorders Association states that people who diet are 8 – 12 times more likely to develop an eating disorder as people who don’t. Fad diets also teach you nothing about healthy eating. When you’ve “completed” your fad diet, you simply boomerang back to the unhealthy eating patterns that caused your weight gain in the first place! This is the beginning of “yo-yo dieting,” which can bring its own health problems.
As you can see, a moral explanations for weight gain leaves a lot to be desired. A person’s drive to eat, combined with the
ir tendency to regain lost weight, is clearly more dependent on physiology than on lack of willpower or even simple ignorance.
Biology drives behavior. What is often interpreted as weakness or greediness or laziness by our culture is actually the result of a complex mix of genetic, metabolic, hormonal, and neurological processes influencing us to eat, restore lost weight, and ultimately survive.
“…metabolic conditions after weight loss may not be the same as they were prior to gaining the weight in the first place. Instead of working in our favor to prevent weight gain, biology becomes one of the driving pressures that underlie weight regain.”
–Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain, MacLean et al., 2011
So What Does Work?
In short – working with your biology to lose weight! Most diets will help you lose weight initially but the research shows that 95% of people who lose weight by dieting will regain it in 1-5 years says Dr. Freedhoff in US Health News, (2017). Moreover, diets are restrictive and we are hot-wired to avoid anything that is restrictive, and since your body doesn’t want you to starve, it responds to overly-restrictive diets by slowing your metabolism which of course makes it harder to lose weight. I would argue that its not 95% of dieters who fail, but 95% of diets that fail their dieters. The point of arguing against restrictive diets is not so that you throw in the towel and give up losing weight, the point is to institute a weight loss approach that is right for your metabolic type. Even Oprah is following a similar approach after years of dieting.
Ayurveda starts with digestion as it attributes 80% of all disease to imbalances of the digestive system, so there is a lot of attention on digestion and nutrition and if I had to sum up how to lose weight I would focus on just two words:
Now I know that may sound a little woo-woo to you, but it is one of the oldest ideas on the planet and one that modern science can prove with astonishing implications for anyone who wants to live a long and lean life. If we were to use western terms, your digestive fire is simply the body’s enzymes, acids, biochemicals, hormones and other substances it needs to properly metabolize foods. In other words, your metabolism.
The robustness of your digestive fire is what keeps you an efficient fat burner. If your digestive fire is weak, you will not be able to digest your food well, creating digestive toxins. These digestive toxins create inflammation – the precursor to disease, if left untreated these digestive toxins may manifest as heart disease, cancer, or an auto-immune disorder. If your digestive fire is strong, you will have a healthy appetite for all meals, and be able to digest food well without any signs of poor digestion such as gas, bloating, constipation, heartburn or hyper-acidity.
The problem with virtually all diets is that they focus on calorie restriction through foods that weaken your digestive fire and in turn create the very weight gain you are trying to lose. It is not uncommon to see someone who has been on a myriad of diet plans show up in my office with IBS, gluten sensitivity, dairy intolerance and even food allergies. The problem is not the food; like milk, cheese or bread – the problem is our digestive fire (metabolism) has become too sluggish to be able to digest these more difficult to digest foods. We can see this with the explosion of gluten free and dairy free diets in the last few years.
All weight gain stems from digestive toxins created by improperly functioning digestive fire. Your digestive fire can become weak or aggravated if you eat the wrong foods for your metabolic type or just eat the same foods over and over again. Eating tasteless or highly processed foods will lower your digestive fire as will drinking lots of ice cold water all day, staying up too late, eating at irregular times, or not moving your body enough. Isn’t it interesting that many of these factors have nothing to do with reducing calories? Can you start seeing why diets do not work?
By eating right for your metabolic type, you can repair, rebuild and maintain a good digestive fire. This concept of a digestive fire is key – not only to a balanced weight but to health and longevity. Let me emphasize that extra weight is always a sign of nutritional and metabolic imbalance. And despite the current assumption that says weight loss is easy – its calories in and calories out. The truth is that your weight is influenced by what types of food you eat and in which combinations, when they are eaten, and how they are digested and absorbed. If any of these factors are not working optimally, then your body will not function well and your weight will accumulate as digestive toxins accumulate. You could be eating organic healthy foods, but if you are eating them in the wrong combination for your metabolic type, or eating at the wrong time of day – then your body knows it and will pack on the pounds.
If you would like to start on a new pattern of behavior that leads to sustained weight control and stop the yo-yo dieting once and for all, download my 7 Steps to Great Digestion below for strategies that can help build that digestive fire and turn you into an efficient fat-burner.
In Good Health,