By Melissa Giaquinta, Psychologist, Lakeside Psychology
In a time of social media and the ‘selfie’, there seems to be more focus on our appearance than ever. We’re constantly bombarded with messages from the media suggesting that our body should look a certain way. From Instagram #fitspiration photos to motivational quotes and ads about the newest diet or weight loss pill, it’s hard not to feel like we should be striving to lose weight. It’s easy to become caught up in dieting when you’re hoping to change your body but often people cannot stick to their set of diet rules, and end up berating themselves for having no willpower or motivation. Others can stick to their diet rules and lose weight in the short term but struggle to maintain the diet long-term and feel defeated when they gain the weight back. It’s not actually a matter of lack of self-discipline that keeps us from maintaining a diet and weight loss, but a range of factors that come into play.
Why can’t I lose weight or maintain my goal weight?
According to research, diets rarely lead to long term weight loss. In fact a number of long-term follow up studies have shown us that most people don’t maintain weight loss long-term even if they continue to stick to their diet and exercise regime, and it is common to regain all the weight back, if not more (Bacon & Ahpramor, 2011). This is due to a combination of things such as weight set-point, physiological drive, and psychological factors:
What is weight set-point?
Everybody has a specific weight within a 3 to 4 kilo range where their body is functioning at its best. This set-point is different for everybody, even for two people of the same age, gender, and height. Our body will constantly try to keep us in this range; if our body is given too much energy (from overeating) our body temperature will rise and metabolism will increase to try and burn the excess energy, if we don’t have enough energy (from under-eating or restricting) our metabolism will slow to try and preserve energy. The problem with dieting is that our body will go into a famine mode when we restrict the amount of food we consume or the types of food we consume, and our metabolism will slow as our weight set-point will increase as a survival mechanism. The moment we stray from our diet rules, the body will store more energy than was previously required to maintain the weight set-point in order to prepare us for another potential famine. This means that people will quickly gain the weight they had lost throughout the diet, and often some extra kilos. Our physiological drive also kicks in as a way for our body to maintain its weight set-point.
What is physiological Drive?
Our body is designed to consume and use all food groups. When we restrict a specific food group from our diet such as sugar or carbohydrates, our body is very good at recognising what it’s lacking. This is where our physiological drive kicks in and we’re likely to have strong cravings for the particular food we’re telling ourselves we’re not allowed to eat. Because diets involve restricting certain types of food, our body will cry out for the food it’s lacking. We blame ourselves for having no willpower when in fact our survival mode has kicked in and our body is urging us to consume what it needs to survive.
What psychological factors come into play?
There is a psychological aspect to dieting that can lead to binge-like behaviour and ultimately lead us to gain more weight over time. When we tell ourselves we aren’t allowed to eat a specific type of food (e.g. chocolate) our physiological drive kicks in and we’re likely to cave in and allow ourselves permission to have just a little bit. But suddenly after we’re eaten that one piece of chocolate, we tell ourselves that we won’t be able to eat this kind of food for a while due to the diet so we think “what the hell?” and gorge. Suddenly that one piece of chocolate has turned into half a block and we’re left feeling guilty and as though we need to punish ourselves by being super strict with our diet tomorrow. This is known as the ‘what the hell effect’ and over time we can gain more than our weight-set point because of this restrict/binge cycle. We tend to consume more calories in these binge-like incidences than we would if we allowed ourselves to have a little of the restricted food each day.
How can I be healthy without dieting?
Letting go of the idea of dieting is a difficult concept to grasp given the amount of messages we have received over the years about how we should and shouldn’t be eating. The best way we can develop a healthy relationship with food and aid our bodies to return to its weight set-point is to stop the dieting cycle and eat intuitively. Essentially, intuitive eating involves letting go of the rules we have around food and simply eating when we’re hungry, stopping when we’re full, listening to what our body needs, and learning to avoid emotional eating. Intuitive eating is a non-dieting approach that doesn’t involve the restriction of any food group. Avoiding restricting certain food groups actually gives you the best chance of maintaining a stable and healthy weight over time, and what is considered a healthy weight for any individual depends on their weight set-point. Depending on our past dieting history, it may take up to 2 years of non-dieting for the body to return to its desired weight.
So if taking a non-dieting approach actually leads to better outcomes, why are we constantly exposed to messages suggesting we should diet? And why do we let society dictate what we should or shouldn’t look like? Given that we haven’t actually become healthier over time as a society despite an increased focus on dieting, it appears that the diet industry is reaping all the benefits and not us as consumers.
People who are strongly focused on their body shape and weight loss are vulnerable to having poor body image or low self-esteem. In some cases the focus on weight loss can become so strong that it starts to have a negative impact on other areas of life such as work and socialising. Moreover, dieting is a potential precursor for the development of an eating disorder. You may wish to talk to a supportive loved one or seek professional help if you are having trouble breaking the cycle of dieting and are finding this is having a negative impact on your quality of life.
Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series which explains in more detail how you can adopt an intuitive eating lifestyle, and then Part 3 which addresses positive body image.
Bacon, L., Aphramor, L. (2011). Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift. Nutrition Journal, 10-69.