Answering the Why's of Failed Diets and Effective Weight Loss

By Genesis Dietitian Teresa Pangan

The Scale Weighs InChances are good that you have been on a diet before. Most women actually spend 17 years of their lifetime on a diet and will lose their body weight over nine times during their life. Less than one percent are able to stick with a diet for 12 months. These are not encouraging numbers.

Head-to-head comparisons of Atkins, Weight Watchers, and the Zone show people lost a modest amount of weight after a year on all three approaches. Those on the Atkins diet lost an average of 4.6 to 10.3 pounds; Weight Watchers participants lost an average of 6.6 pounds; and Zone dieters lost an average of 3.5 to 7 pounds. After one year over 80% regained back their lost weight and after two years most all regained and some even regained to a higher pre-diet weight.

We keep going back to dieting, yet the data tells us they don’t work. And do we really need the data to tell us that diets don’t work?

Why We Regain Weight

Woman Frustrated With Her WeightWhat happens over and over is success with weight loss on the short term but weight regain and often times even more weight gain in the long run.

Here's what happens when you "diet." Our bodies are programmed to adapt for survival. What this means is even in harsh conditions our bodies have mechanisms in place to adapt even If we eat little food and water.

Your body is not concerned with government healthy weight charts or your summer vacation to the Caribbean. It is programmed to automatically counteract any efforts you make to lose weight.

This is so you don't die. This is kind of important. I know it sounds farfetched. but it is how we have evolved over thousands of years. Your body doesn't realize that you're trying to get to a healthier weight or fit into that knock-em-dead dress that is collecting dust and you last wore three years ago. The human body is designed for you to thrive in a sub-par, even hostile environment.

Another factor that adds fuel to the fire is the loss of muscle mass during the weight loss cycle. When you lose weight some of the weight loss is muscle no matter how you lose the weight. But if you dip your calories below the 1200 mark for women and 1500 for men, the percent of muscle lost in weight is over double. This means the number on the scale is going down, but you are losing more muscle.

Which do you think burns more calories at rest? Muscle or fat? Yes, muscle does. Pound for pound muscle burns about THREE TIMES as many calories at rest as fat.

To take this one step further, if you over the next year slowly regain back the weight you lost but don’t focus on regaining muscle back with a weight training program, you will find yourself at the same pre-diet weight or even a higher weight. But the worst part is your percent muscle and fat is different now with your body composition being MORE FAT thanks to the d-i-e-t.

Dieting = weight loss that includes muscle loss => lower metabolic rate

Regain weight loss = Pre-diet weight but MORE fat and LESS muscle => lower metabolic rate.

Why Diets Really Fail

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But there is still hope for those looking to permanently shed pounds; it just takes more than a diet. Diets often fail because they address only one part of the equation for permanent weight loss and mostly fat not muscle loss. This may surprise you, but the other key factors for permanent weight loss are:

  • Thinking healthy weight thoughts
  • Living daily in a healthy weight friendly environment
  • Eating for physical hunger and fullness
  • Support from key people in your life
  • Habits built around a healthy weight friendly environment

Why Healthy Weight Thoughts Matter

You Can Do It!This is also called “thinking thin”. This refers to your resilience for setbacks and an empowering mindset that makes you accountable for what you eat and your activity without any guilt or irrational thoughts like “I had a hard day today and ‘deserve’ a little treat.” Sound familiar?

I find that many people struggling with their weight are filled with guilty and judgmental thoughts that only compound to make things worse. What would you tell a friend to comfort them and help them get back moving towards their goal? Give yourself the same compassion and cheering support to pick up and keep moving.

The hard reality is we need to face food every day. We can’t ignore food even if we would like to. We have to think about food some of the time and if health is a priority, you want to be thinking about food to make healthy choices easy. You cross the line into unhealthy territory if your thoughts around food include guilt-laden messages or foods that are labeled ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ Your thoughts should be more of “When will I be eating next? So that means I want to eat how much protein with a whole-grain and veggie or two?” Or “That looks really good and lemon cream pie is my favorite. I can enjoy a small piece and switch my mocha today for a hot tea.”

And then there is the whole topic of loving yourself just as you are today, even if your weight is higher than you want it to be. You will not see long-term changes until you change your mental thought processes, deliberately choosing how you feel about your body and the food you eat and doing away with the unhealthy thoughts.

Why a Healthy Environment Is Crucial

woman cookingAre you willing to clear off your counters from any visible food? Have you done a recent pantry and refrigerator makeover to get rid of food that is holding you back and add foods that make it easy to attain your healthy environment? If you eat out a lot, do you know what dishes and portions to be ordering? Do you need to switch the places you frequent so you have more healthy choices?

Environment is what you see, smell and touch throughout your day. If you are having food catered at a meeting or event, if it is not supporting your goals, are you bringing in your own to eat after the meeting? Do you have a pair of walking shoes you like ready by the door to take a 15 minute walk? Do you need to find a partner to push yourself get to the gym regularly?

There is not one master list I can give you that you need to follow. It will be different for every person.

Let me share from my own life. I cannot under any circumstances keep peanut M&Ms in the house. I have no self control with them. So I just never am silly enough to buy them. I also don’t run. Everyone else in my family runs, all my sister’s and mom have even have done multiple marathons and my brother just finished one of those ultra 50-mile marathons. Me, I walked a half marathon and that is as good as it gets. I love walking, so I walk. And I walk a lot to keep my activity up. I do mix in a sprint or two during my route to get my heart rate up, but no half mile jog.

Why You Need to Eat for the Physical, Not the Psychological

Lady Working OutIn a perfect world we would eat when hungry and stop when full and adjust how full we get according to when the next meal or snack was going to be. In reality, most people are eating because the food is there, it is ‘lunchtime’ or they have always eaten at this time, or they are going out for dinner with friends or the chicken wing tastes great so why stop at three and just eat six of them.

All these are possible to do while eating healthy; the key is to start eating if you have a physical sensation of hunger and pass if not. Then, when you eat, eat until your hunger is gone and you will not be hungry for 3 to 4 hours. If you will eat sooner than 3 hours then eat to a lower fullness level. I actually have a hunger worksheet to help patients get in the habit of eating for physical hunger.

There is one more important part of eating for reasons other than hunger: emotional eating.

Imagine you just finished a hard day at work; you got a call from one of your kids’ teacher (not the call a parent wants to get); you just remembered you volunteered to bring in 200 cut pieces of yarn for your middle child’s class project the next day and your five year old mentioned she was out of clean tops to wear.

You have wandered into the kitchen. What is the next thing you do? Does it involve chocolate and vanilla something on a spoon or sitting down with a crossword to get your mind away from things? The key is to find an activity or a healthy way to process what you are feeling instead of eating when stressed or bored.

Why You Can't Do It Alone

You Can't Do It AloneI have witnessed this in patients I have seen and in the research I've read. For long term weight loss to happen you need support from the people you spend time with that are key in your life. It sounds odd that those that love you and like you would not support you, but in reality they often have their own issues that are not being dealt with. Also, your new commitment to a healthy lifestyle may mean change for them. Change for most people is scary.

I ask clients if they are ready to turn down a second helping offer from their mother or mother-in-law at a family gathering she prepared the food for. Can you speak up and respond with your needs without giving in to another helping of food?

Or will a friend be supportive if you ask to take a walk together instead of your long standing lunch date? Some friends may welcome it; others may not be so receptive.

Why Habits Are Key

Donut or BroccoliAnyone that has kept off weight for a long has built in healthy habits. Habits are a must for a healthy lifestyle. Habits reduce the brain power needed to achieve a healthy lifestyle. When you ingrain habits you don’t have to think about it; you just do it. Take driving: you can multi-task while driving because it is habit. When you first started learning to drive, just turning a corner took all your concentration and focus.

Same with health habits. At the start they require a lot of mental energy and focus. They may even feel like they are draining you. Once you have built a habit, then the behavior is in auto-pilot. For me, making menus, my grocery trip Saturday late morning (after my walk) is habit and helps me set myself up for success that next week in eating healthy. I know of a coworker that has committed to a healthy lifestyle and sets aside a couple hours on Sunday to prep food for healthy lunches at work and plan out her dinners for the family.

Is getting a breakfast in every morning something hard for you? If so, it is not yet habit. Are you ordering meals out forgetting to add in extra veggies? If so, it is not yet habit to order or substitute with extra veggies. It takes effort to establish the behavior as habit. But once it is in place, living and eating healthy becomes achievable – even for the long haul.

Why It Isn't About the Food

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I hope it is sinking in that there doesn’t exist any diet where changing only the food you eat will result in the weight coming off and staying off for good. I tell people, if there was a magic diet it would be all over the news and talk show circuit and someone would be a billionaire! In truth, it doesn’t exist.

The key is to know yourself, work on your areas for improvement, and better yet - set yourself up for success, talk to yourself compassionately and about food without guilt, and communicate to those around you what you are doing and how they can help. This translates to taking ownership for yourself and your life to build a life that supports a healthy body.

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