There is a lot of confusing information out there when it comes to diet and weight management. In this post, we've aimed to combine some frequently asked questions on the subject, and provide a science-backed answer that you can trust, and take onboard in your own journey.
Why is it so hard to lose weight?
Weight loss can be a complex process. As simple as 'calories in, calories out' may sound, the reality is that human beings are more complicated than just isolated biochemical processes. The main reason why we find it so difficult to lose weight (or to keep it off) is because we have been told that the way to reach our 'ideal weight' is simply by eating less and exercising more. This framework has little to no regard for more complex biological and psycho-social elements of eating behaviour such as hormonal regulations, mood, stress, pleasure, and cultural connotations of food.
Evidence suggests that people who do manage to lose weight after following one of these 'lifestyle' interventions based on restrictive diets and exercise routines, tend to gain the weight back (and even more than they lost in the first place), within a year after the intervention.
Another important factor is what is called the 'thin ideal internalisation' which basically means that we as a society (and particularly women) have been led to believe that being thin equals being healthy.Therefore we think that we must do everything in our power to look like the models we see in the media, and if we fail, 'surely there's something wrong with us'. The truth is that:
- Weight is not necessarily an indicator of health, and
- Our bodies are not built to look the same!
Trying to reach a goal weight that does not align with your own innate body constitution will only lead to feelings of frustration, guilt and chronic body dissatisfaction.
The cherry on top of the forbidden cake is that, data suggest that food and calorie restriction typically lead to over-eating behaviours triggered by very primal instincts, hence difficult to override, of food deprivation.
If we put all of these elements together we have a pretty unhelpful cycle: food restriction, loss of control around food, weight gain, increased guilt and body dissatisfaction, and more dieting to begin the cycle again.
What do I do if I can't find a diet that works?
Maybe it's time to stop looking for another diet. Let's use our scientific hat for this one:
Adopting an experimental perspective to dieting would mean looking at the data we have so far from our own experience and trying to reach a conclusion. In this case, if we have tried every single diet under the sun, and we always get the same disappointing results, we could safely conclude that diets don't work for us (at least not in the long-term).
The next experiment we would suggest would be to try shifting the focus from restrictive diets, to a more mindful approach that focuses on improving our relationship to food. This way, rather than just treating the symptom (i.e. body weight), we are instead dealing with the root of the issue that is almost always deeper than just knowing what to eat.
From a biological perspective, getting back in touch with, and actually listening to our body signals of hunger and fullness, rather than basing our food decisions on external factors like the time of the day or a diet plan, is a great place to start. I would also challenge people to start thinking about 'progress' as more than a number on the scale. There are other more meaningful indicators of health and wellbeing such as general mood and self-esteem, or how well our body helps us achieve everyday tasks.
Can yo-yo dieting cause weight gain?
Yo-yo dieting is a pretty good example of how our bodies will fight back when faced with unhelpful strategies involving food restriction. Basically the message we are communicating to our bodies when we lose a great amount of weight in a short period of time, is that we are in a state of scarcity and danger. Given that this scenario was pretty common in the times of hunters and gatherers, our bodies have evolved to help us survive these tough times by slowing our metabolic rate down, and by making us seek and consume all the food we can when it does become available. It is hard to win against such a strong survival instinct, so there comes a point after being 'good' and adhering to our diet plans, when everything goes out of the window and we feel this almost uncontrollable urge to eat and we gain all the weight back. It's not lack of willpower, it's biology.
The trouble when we keep losing and gaining weight in a cyclical way is that all the innate mechanisms we have in place that control hunger and fullness go out of whack. Our 'hunger hormones' like ghrelin and neurpeptide Y (NPY) become over-active, leading to greater hunger, and greater fat storage. The bad news is that it can take up to a year after a lifetime of yo-yo dieting to come back to a state of balance within our bodies. The good news is that it is possible, but it will take time, patience, and a lot of self-kindness and understanding.
Can stress have an effect on my weight?
One of the most common problematic eating behaviours is stress eating. When we are stressed, a lot of us use food as a coping mechanism to cheer us up, or just to numb a very uncomfortable feeling. While food can sometimes be comforting during difficult times, stress eating can become a problem that leads to weight gain (and arguably to more stress) when food is the only go-to strategy in our toolbox.
Studies suggest that chronic stress can also affect our body composition through the 'stress hormone' cortisol. High levels of cortisol in the body can lead to greater fat storage, increased hunger and lower metabolic rate.
Expanding our repertoire of coping skills to deal with stress like going for a walk, talking to a friend, or doing some breathing exercises can really be very helpful. There is a lot of emerging evidence suggesting that mindfulness practices are a great way to reduce feelings of stress.
Why do I feel so low after yet another unsuccessful diet?
We tend to attach our value as individuals to a number on the scale or to whether we were 'good' or 'bad' with our food choices. Therefore, it is pretty normal that after a series of unsuccessful attempts to lose weight, we tend to feel defeated, demotivated and just like a failure in general. These resulting feelings of guilt and inadequacy, can take a huge toll on our mental health. Leaving us feeling psychologically and emotionally drained.
In this context (and in life in general), an all-or nothing approach and a desire to be absolutely perfect can lead to high levels of burnout. For example, thinking that you can either cut sugar completely, or eat as many cookies as you physically can in one sitting, with no option in between is quite an unhelpful strategy. Finding a middle ground away from rigid rules, and towards balance and flexibility will help us get closer to our goals without sacrificing our mental and physical wellbeing in the process.
What can I do if I want to improve my relationship with food?
There are some great resources out there that can help you in the journey towards a healthier relationship with food, while also providing psychological support. In Holly Health we believe that mental and physical health go hand in hand, especially when it comes to eating behaviour. In the Holly Health app you can find a wide variety of tools to start unpacking the thoughts and emotions that lead us to eat the way we do, while incorporating small and achievable healthy habits into your daily life.
By Dr. Daniela Mercado Beivide
Holly Health's Content & Research Manager
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