Why We Fail at Typical Diets
If today I were to lose all the kilos I have lost in the course of my dietary career at once, I would not survive. Most diets work. In the short term. But they don’t do much for you when it comes to permanently getting rid of misguided eating behavior and bad habits. Both are not only issues for people with weight problems. For me, diets are comparable to drugs that primarily fight symptoms but not the underlying disease. You feel better for a certain time, the symptoms respectively kilos are gone, only the real problem is still there.
In addition to our habits and our environment, biology and psychology also have a major influence on our body composition. Biology in this context refers to our genetics and the influence of hormones. Psychology deals with triggers influencing our behavior. There are many factors that are not related to food. To me, this was the most important insight that led me on the path to intuitive eating. If a diet focuses only on what and how much we eat, these influences are unfortunately completely overlooked.
There are numerous studies that prove our genes have a massive influence on the range in which our normal weight should be. This can be thought of as a range within which it is possible for us to easily maintain our weight under normal circumstances and in a healthy state. At this point, I would like to mention only two studies as examples to illustrate the influence of genetics on our weight. If you want to read more, I recommend the book: Secrets From The Eating Lab by Traci Mann.
In a study of 500 adopted children, their weight was compared with that of their biological and adoptive parents. If the environment and education would have a greater influence, it could be assumed that the weight of the children would correspond to that of their adoptive parents. However, the researchers found a much greater correspondence with the weight of the biological parents. (Albert J. Stunkard et al., An Adoption Study of Human Obesity, New England Journal of Medicine 314)
In a twin study, 93 pairs of twins raised separately, and 154 pairs of twins raised together were examined. It was assumed that the twins who grew up separately would look less similar if the environment and upbringing had a greater influence. However, the study made it clear that the similarity was comparable to the twins who grew up together. From this, the scientists concluded that our genes determine 70 percent of how our weight band looks. (Albert J. Stunkard et al, The Body mass Index of Twins Who Have Been Reared Apart, New England Journal of Medicine 322) Of course, you can influence your weight, but these studies show that this is only successful and can be maintained long-term within your natural range, which can extend to over 10 kg. That this range is not within a range of massive overweight or underweight seems logical. Still, it can vary a lot from one person to another. If we look at the worshipped ideals of our society and what is supposedly healthy, the range is however not that large.
Just like your genes determine your height, your hair- and eye color they also determine your body composition. Have you ever tried to grow taller or smaller? Ok, we can wear high-heels, color our hair, and put in colored contact lenses. Want to try wearing a corset every day? The point I am trying to make is that when we look at the majority of people who have already been on one or several diets in their lives, there are significantly more normal- than overweight people. So why do normal-weight people start dieting?
I started my first diet at a time when there was absolutely no reason to lose weight. I weighed just over 60 kilos at a height of 1.73 m, and it would have been pretty normal to grow a bit curvier until 21 because my parents and grandparents were also not skinny. But I started to work against my body. As with many people, the trigger at that time was the comparison with others. Although my best friend was considerably smaller than me, I wanted to fit into the same jeans size. In addition, my mother was in the fashion business and glossy magazines with beautiful models were lying around everywhere at home.
I wish I could travel back in time and stop my 14-year-old self with all my current knowledge and experience from taking that first one step in the wrong direction. I was healthy, did a lot of sports, ate well and what a surprise intuitively. With this first diet, however, a vicious circle began. Not only did it make me gain and lose weight several times in the course of my dietary career, but it also influenced my health. Meanwhile, I have my own mantra to keep myself aware of the negative influence striving for false ideals has: “The constant comparison with others is the enemy of acceptance and not the path to a happy and fulfilled life.”
If you have read my story, you may have a first idea about the influence hormones have on our body, our health, and also our weight. I believe that my dietary career has made a significant contribution to the hormonal disorders I have suffered from. Therefore, it is not possible for me to answer whether my hypothyroidism was a result of the fight against my body, or whether it was always there and triggered weight gain whenever I stopped dieting.
However, it is important to understand the influence hormones have on our body. When we gain or lose weight, our body fat percentage changes, and with it the level of the hormones produced there. Fat cells are not just unpleasant hip pads. Our fat tissue is considered an endocrine organ in itself, which means that it influences hormone production in the same way as other organs (e.g. pancreas, thyroid, and adrenal glands). The adipokines (so-called signal molecules) formed in it control the production of hormones, which have a significant influence on our sense of hunger and satiety. If the fat tissue changes, the level of these hormones in our body also changes.
Two of the main hormones are leptin and ghrelin. While leptin can simply be described as the satiety hormone, ghrelin is considered its antagonist and causes feelings of hunger. Our entire endocrine system is a complex but also very sensitive system. When we are healthy, this system regulates itself, but as soon as external factors or hormonal disorders influence it, it can get out of control. How much it can get out of control can be seen for example when people develop insulin or leptin resistance. Both conditions are linked to difficulties in achieving a balanced weight.
Dieting is an external influence because we work against our body by resisting signs of hunger and satiety. Even on diets, we are sometimes eating though we are not hungry because it’s in the plan. I have gulped down protein shakes despite not being hungry, but it was in a plan which said that otherwise, I would lose muscles. The most crucial factor is that we are no longer trusting our body but follow plans which do not respect our individual circumstances. Why should you eat the same calories every day when you have different levels of activity? Have you ever tried 2 hours of mountain biking on a diet of 1200 kcal a day? No wonder people start binge-eating after workout sessions. They are hungry. Hunger causes stress and elevates in particular cortisol levels. Cortisol is one of the most important stress hormones and is important for the regulation of our sleep and waking phases, the regulation of blood pressure and the handling of stress. A normal cortisol level is highest in the morning and then decreases during the course of the day. Unfortunately, there are many influences in our modern world which ensure that the cortisol level tends to show an up and down pattern throughout the day and some people even have high cortisol levels in the evening. This important hormone does a lot of good in our body. But believe me, you do not want to have too much or too little of it permanently.
High levels of cortisol are known to be a key obstacle when you are trying to lose weight. Our stone age brain sets our body on emergency program because it thinks our life is at risk and starts to hold on to every reserve. Your brain does not know that you just need to open the fridge and pick something to eat. This is the opposite of what you actually want when you start a diet. To me, this is one of the main reasons, why dieting is a vicious cycle. Once you started, you have to keep doing it forever. This has nothing to do with healthy nutrition. When you stress your body by dieting and stress makes it difficult to lose weight and to keep it off, how on earth is a diet supposed to help?
Weight loss is easier for me since I have started to eliminate all the stress factors in my life. I have stopped excessive cardio training and have opted for yoga and weight training, I avoid caffeine, take regular breaks from work, I meditate, use other mindfulness exercises and, above all, I have stopped dieting.
Stress is just one element working against you, when you want to lose weight but it is an important one.
Have you ever wondered why many people are starting to put on weight when they are facing a new environment? May it be a new job, moving out of your parent’s home, losing a job, leaving a relationship, or any other circumstance under which you may feel challenged in one or the other way. Stress has many faces and most of the time we are so consumed in handling our everyday problems that we don’t even realize the impact.
When I started my first permanent job this is exactly what happened. I worked long hours, I wanted to prove myself and I was supposed to write my thesis at the same time. I rarely allowed myself breaks and would barely eat during the day, drank a lot of coffee (which raises cortisol too), and was totally neglecting the signs of my body. Of course, I felt extremely hungry when I came home and of course, I was too tired to cook. My dinners were definitely not focused on health but convenience and comfort, as I was also not having much time for my social life back then. I was stressed out, felt lonely and I was also too tired and lacking time to head to the gym. I soon put on weight and started stressing myself with dieting. Instead of allowing myself time to eat when I was hungry, reducing stress and making time for other activities, I put additional stress on my body. Once again, I was back in the vicious circle. I guess you can see the influence of stress on our lifestyle and health. Typical diets cause stress because you neglect the signs of your body just as you do when you neglect the time you need to relax or move. The combination of a stressful lifestyle and dieting can make things worse. Just by setting a certain number of calories per day on a diet, it should be clear that we are working against our body.
If you observe small children and babies, you will soon realize that their hunger varies from day to day. But nowadays it seems that even more and more small children tend to overeat just like adults and teens. Our environment has a massive influence. In my opinion, there are far too many negative influences from the food industry. With tempting food on every corner, oversized portions, sugar and additives in almost everything, it is only getting worse.
For example, parents like to present their loved ones with products marketed as healthy, which are actually disguised, sweets. Instead of an apple, there are gadgets such as fruit puree put in colorful bags, which appeal to children with their presentation. If given an apple, maybe half the apple would be leftover. Chewing, the fiber still contained in it and the slow absorption of sugar would cause the natural feeling of satiety to set in pretty quickly. These sweets, however, are eaten way too quickly and the fun of it often demands more. So, half an apple quickly turns into the amount of a banana and an apple. Too much sugar and calories are being consumed at once. You probably guessed it, I am not a big fan of smoothies and juices unless you really have no other options. On occasion, I drink them too, but not weekly or every day. If you have teeth, you can chew. There may come a day when you would wish you could still bite into a juicy apple.
As long as parents don’t start forcing children to eat when they are not hungry and give them such disguised sweets, children will eat intuitively and hopefully continue to listen to their body and its signals as adults. Because that’s the way it should be for everyone. Intuitive eaters have a varying daily caloric intake and a pretty balanced nutrition. Diets ignore the natural signals of our body and thus trigger a chain reaction that many people are not aware of.