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The Truth About Dieting


May The Forties Be With YouHands up who’s been on a diet? Hands up who regained most of the weight they lost? It’s not that we have suddenly started to defy the laws of thermodynamics, such that eating fewer calories than your body needs can no longer result in weight loss although to be fair, post 40, it can feel like it! Diets work, whether it’s the cabbage soup diet or simply healthy eating but only while you are on them. What happens when the diet stops is critical. Have we, as a nation, succumbed to a population collapse of willpower? Do we give up and settle for a life of jam doughnuts and wine (I mean, I’m game!)? Or do we need to rethink our relationship with food and the way we eat?

Why is dieting so hard?

Let’s face it. Dieting is hard. Faddy diets, in which you cut out pretty much everything you’d usually eat or rely on one or two foods or a liquid diet are so alien to real life and are virtually impossible to maintain for more than a few weeks (although total meal replacement low calorie diets have had some success in the management of type two diabetes). The more removed from what you’d normally eat the diet is and the greater the calorie deficit versus what you’re used to, the harder it will be to sustain. I can tell you, I wouldn’t last long on a 1000 calorie a day diet that consisted of mainly mung beans!

Moreover, our bodies really don’t want us to lose weight. When we reduce our calorie intake and subsequently lose weight, three things happen:

  1. There is literally less of us to keep alive and so our metabolic rate slows down. Effectively, we need fewer calories to exist because there is less of us in existence. This means that to continue to lose weight, we need to continue to reduce the amount that we eat, to avoid plateauing
  2. Our bodies become more efficient at doing what they do, so we produce the same amount of energy to fuel our daily activity from fewer calories
  3. Our hunger hormones rise and those that signal fullness decrease, hence that constant gnawing feeling that your body just needs food.

Much as this is all pretty irritating if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s actually a pretty handy survival tool to stop us from easily starving to death in times of famine. The problem is, living in the Western World, famine is pretty rare. We are surrounded by cheap, tasty food available 24 hours a day. The dieting body is driving you to eat and you are surrounded by calories, everywhere you go! So no, we haven’t had a national collapse in willpower. Our bodies want us to stay the weight we are and we are surrounded by cheap, tasty food that makes dieting really tough!

You might lose weight on the latest fad diet but if you go back to eating the foods and the amounts you used to, you’re likely to put the weight straight back on again. Moreover, if you’ve not eaten enough protein during your weight loss period, you’re likely to have lost lean tissue (muscle) and, when you regain the weight, unless you’re training and consuming protein to ensure the weight regained is muscle, you could end up with a higher body fat % than when you started!

Maintaining the weight you’ve lost is a challenge, as effectively, your metabolic rate is slower and may remain as such for many years. This means that the behaviour changes you made to initially lose weight will need to be maintained in the long term if you’re going to keep it off.

So is there any point in dieting?

It all sounds a bit depressing and pointless so far, doesn’t it? Well, it doesn’t have to be. Firstly, ask yourself why you want to lose weight. If you’re otherwise healthy and just want to drop a dress size, be really honest with yourself and ask whether that will genuinely make you happier? We are under immense pressure to conform to a narrow beauty ideal created by the media and exacerbated by curated, digitally altered content on social media. Beauty is not about weight, dress size and body fat. Will you really be a better or happier person as a size 12?

Do you want or need to lose weight for health reasons? If you do then that’s fine but try to go about it in a healthy way. Successful weight loss and maintenance of that loss is easier if the behaviour changes you make aren’t a million miles from what you do anyway. So no Gillian McKeith style before and after tables of food that show some awful purge diet that you’ll last a week on.

Also, how about not worrying too much about tracking and measuring your weight, calories, macronutrients or body measurements? How about making healthier changes that fit in with your lifestyle, that you feel you can maintain in the long term, without thinking too much about your weight per se? Those changes might have benefits even if the number on the scale doesn’t change that much.

The best diet is the one that works for you but try not calling it a diet

It’s easy to say eat less and move more for weight loss but it’s not so simple in practice. Some of us are genetically predisposed to be more tempted by food than others or to have less ability to recognise when they’re full. The more you can recognise in yourself those things that make healthier behaviours more of a challenge, the more you can work out how to make those changes easier.

Are you a grazer or snacker? Do you find yourself at the fridge or cupboard or snaffling biscuits from your desk drawer several times a day? Then maybe keep some chopped up fruit ready prepared, at the front of the fridge for easy access for when you want to snack. Take the biscuits out of your desk and replace them with something you still want to eat but a bit healthier like flavoured oatcakes or rice cakes – there’s no point saying you’re going to eat crispbreads and then leaving them to gather dust for a year while you get cake from the canteen. Be realistic about your swaps and if you want a biscuit, have a biscuit and really really enjoy it. Just don’t have 3 and don’t have them every day. This is a lifestyle change for the long term and no foods should be banned.

If you struggle to figure out when you’re full, have a large appetite or tend to eat quickly and then realise you’re uncomfortably full then try slowing down your eating. Chew slowly and appreciate your food mindfully – that goes for everyone in fact. Go for foods that are high in fibre but lower in calories like non-starchy veg (broccoli, greens, green beans, peppers, cauliflower), swap white carbs for wholegrain and eat a source of protein at each meal to help keep you feeling full.

Portioning out foods, particularly snack foods, can also help you to still enjoy your favourite foods but maybe result in less mindless eating. If you’re liable to eat a family sized bag of crisps, chocolates or sweets to yourself in front of the telly without even thinking, maybe think about transferring them to a smaller bowl and focus on really enjoying the snack rather than mindlessly eating while you watch Netflix. You could even sit down at the table with the snack on a plate and really enjoy it mindfully, just maybe don’t have an extra 3 biscuits while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil!

Try to view the changes as positive additions rather than restrictions. You’re adding high fibre and protein foods, more water and fruit and veg into your diet rather than taking away crisps, cakes and chocolate. And bear in mind that, while we might need to eat less of the foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt, we shouldn’t cut them out completely, if they are enjoyed. Just eat them mindfully and really savour them.

What can I do to prevent a drop in metabolic rate when losing weight?

There will always be a dip in your metabolic rate when you lose weight but you can, to some degree, mitigate this by consuming enough protein and doing some resistance training, whether that is weights in the gym or the more energetic forms of yoga and pilates. The ISSN position stand on diets and body composition suggests consuming 2.2-3.1g of protein per kg fat free mass (i.e. lean tissue) to help maintain muscle mass while dieting. However, this is specific to lean, highly trained individuals (mostly male) and is a pain to calculate because, I don’t know about you, but I am NOT getting on one of those body fat things at the gym.

Research on less active individuals tends to focus more on diet alone, rather than inclusion of resistance exercise but recommendations for protein, to help preserve muscle mass and reduce the drop in metabolic rate when in a calorie deficit, suggest an intake of around 1.2-1.6g protein per kg body weight, which will also suffice if you’re doing some resistance training, say around 3 sessions a week. This is also likely to help reduce the risk of age related muscle loss from age 40 plus, as discussed in my previous blog post. If you’re doing most resistance training than this, then consider increasing the amount of protein further.

However, this is just a guide and does not mean you need to start tracking, counting or noting anything. In practical terms, just eat a protein food like eggs, meat, fish, yoghurt and other dairy foods, pulses or soy products at each meal, with plenty of non-starchy veg, some wholegrains and starchy veg (like potatoes, squash or carrots) and smaller amounts of nuts, seeds or other healthy fats.

The Jerry Springer sum up

Dieting is hard, especially when it feels like a diet. Banning foods rarely works and traditionally restrictive diets with lots of rules that change your lifestyle beyond recognition rarely lead to sustained weight loss.

  1. First, decide whether you really want or need to lose weight and whether you’re doing it for the right reasons.
  2. Second, don’t call it a diet. See it as a lifestyle change in which you make positive changes for your health.
  3. Think about what you’re going to add to your diet, not what you’re going to take away. You’ll eat more veg and protein foods, drink more water and just eat a bit less of certain foods but you’ll enjoy everything mindfully.
  4. Find a way of moving your body that you enjoy.
  5. Above all, enjoy food, movement and be kind to yourself.


Banner photo by Miti on Unsplash

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