New Year’s Resolutions II: Why you shouldn’t go on a diet
As I do every January, I’ve been hearing the usual resolutions about getting in shape, losing that extra weight, to finally sort that lifelong weight problem. That’s great. I like New Year’s resolutions. For me, it’s a good time to to reflect on the previous year and think ahead to the next. A year is a good length of time; sort of long term, but also short term. My job means I need to talk about and effectively communicate the best way to do this (get in and stay in shape). So the resolution for me this year is to get better at communicating the science and practice of staying in shape – so here goes……
So you want to sort the weight out?
I know – you could go on a diet. Set some serious rules and put some will power in place until you sort the problem. When it’s sorted, you can go back to whatever you were doing, but hopefully your will power will be better than it currently is. That’s a big hope. Let’s be honest, for most people, this approach is not going to work.
Our research on reduced calorie (in this case also low fat) diets shows that about 1/3 of people on a diet lose some weight and keep it off for several months. Almost all of these people regain it after a couple of years. About 1/2 lose no weight at all. The remaining 1/6 actually put on weight, even in the short term. At the time we called this “successful”. I think I need to revisit my definition of success – don’t you?
The main reason(s) for most people failing? Most people overestimate their will power AND the most common weight loss methods undermine long term weight loss.
Dieting is about deprivation and feeling hungry. Dieting induces cravings. Dieting is hard. Dieting is about reaching a short term goal. My point is that mot of us simply don’t have the will power to stick to a deprivation diet, and even if we do so, we will eventually fall off the wagon and then the weight comes back plus some.
The trouble is, human physiology is about energy conservation under deprivation conditions – so your physiology will undermine a serious calorie restricted diet. The set point theory of low calorie weight loss suggests that your body will be driven to cut its metabolic rate when you lose weight, resulting in a “drive” to regain the lost weight plus some. The body is an amazing machine and tries to protect itself.
In my opinion, the science shows us that the best way of getting in shape over the long term is to eat whole plants and animals. That’s the big picture – actual food. To use Michael Pollan‘s words – Food that would rot. Food that your grandma would recognise. Avoid the “edible food like substances” down the supermarket aisles.
Is it that simple? That means there is no need to talk about carbs, fat and protein? No need to worry about nutrient density – the vitamins and minerals?
Well, sort of.
The deeper point is that if you eat a range of whole plants and animals, like the food humans were evolved to eat, it will be naturally low in carbs, higher in fat, and moderate in protein. It will be nutrient dense. That means the food will be crammed with the range of vitamins and minerals which are essential to human functioning.
So a better New Year’s resolution would be for us all to aspire to eating “real” food. This method isn’t deprivation – in fact it can quite indulgent – so will power and adherence isn’t such an issue. I say we should embrace our humanity and acknowledge that we won’t be perfect past our aspirations. I’ve called this the 18/21 rule. Others have called it the 80/20 or 90/10 rule. The idea is that there are 21 meals (or near enough) you eat a week. Get 18 of them right.
The modern food supply perpetuates fat phobia. When we avoid fat, even with a real food diet, we will just eat more carbs, or we’ll eat more protein and the extra protein will be converted to carbs by the liver.
The big problem here is that the people who have had trouble with their weight their whole life are mostly insulin resistant. Carbs, even good quality carbs, can raise their insulin for prolonged periods (called hyperinsulinemia). High insulin turns off fat burning, down regulates physical activity, blocks leptin (the hormone which tells our brain we’re full), and promotes the storage of carbs and fats as fat in fat cells. I call this state “metabolic dysregulation”. Insulin resistant people on a high carb diet show high insulin for almost of their waking day and most of the night.
When you are properly metabolically regulated, insulin plays its part in moving glucose into cells. It is essential for life – just ask a Type 1 diabetic who doesn’t produce insulin and must inject it. For the metabolically regulated person, insulin will be cleared from the system and we can now burn fat, up-regulate our physical activity, and feel full. We want and need insulin – just not all the time. Humans under conditions of insulin being cleared shows we naturally gravitate to a healthy weight. The hormone leptin can act normally, inflammation is under control, and therefore hunger control works as it should. We rely on our biology to manage our hunger, not relying on sheer force of will with a dysregulated system which says “I’m still hungry, feed me”.
That’s why the evidence points to starting with a whole food approach and then embracing fat, concurrently reducing carbs.
- We way over-estimate what we can achieve in the short term (diet approach). We way under-estimate what we can achieve in the long term (whole food approach).
- If you are insulin resistant, then extra fat and less carbs will need to be part of your long term plan, to get the energy regulation systems in your body properly regulated, to maintain a good weight and optimal health.
I’ll talk more about how to understand if you are insulin resistant next time.