You may be wondering why a science-based nutrition brand like GenoPalate would want to write a blog on how to stop dieting. After all, doesn’t maintaining a healthy diet require some amount of dieting?
Here’s the truth: the diet culture you’ve seen promoted in countless advertisements, magazines, and books is far more toxic than it is helpful. Each body is drastically different in the ways it carries weight and processes nutrients, which means that no diet is a one-size-fits-all solution.
In fact, many studies have shown that very restrictive diets can be detrimental to your health. Let’s take a closer look at what happens to your body when you diet and discover when and how to stop dieting.
What Happens to Your Body When You Diet?
The more you learn about the way your body reacts to dieting, the less you will want to restrict calories or follow other “fast-fix” or “fad” diet trends. Learn how to stop dieting and instead introduce healthy, lifelong eating habits into your daily life.
Dieting, Cortisol, and Glucose Levels
Did you know that dieting can increase your stress levels?
In a study published by Psychosomatic Medicine, restricting calorie intake resulted in increased cortisol.¹ Even the act of monitoring food intake increased participants’ perceived stress levels.
Cortisol (the stress hormone) acts with epinephrine (adrenaline) in the fight-or-flight response. When you spend months—or even years—trying to lose weight, you never really leave that fight-or-flight response, which creates long-term increases in your cortisol levels. Chronic stress can cause significant health problems, such as a decline in mental health, increased digestive issues, insomnia, heart disease, and more. In other words, if you stop dieting, it can greatly reduce your stress levels.
Excess cortisol can also lead to increased blood sugar (glucose), and a decrease in insulin. When we’re in fight-or-flight mode, our body prepares to expend a significant burst of energy. When that burst of energy isn’t needed, our body can’t burn it off, and the increased cortisol makes our bodies less receptive to insulin. If your body stops being able to effectively regulate your blood sugar, you may be at risk for diabetes or other health complications.
Even when your stress levels are under control, the act of restricting calories (especially carbohydrates) when dieting may lead to blood sugar levels that are lower than normal, which can cause dizziness, shakiness, mood swings, and hunger. Quickly rising and dropping glucose levels are especially common with juice diets and cleanses.
Hormonal and glucose level imbalances in our bodies interrupt our normal digestive processes—and can actually lead to weight gain. The body may also compensate for calorie restriction by slowing down the metabolic rate so it can conserve energy. So, the very act we’re often told is the key to weight loss—monitoring and restricting our caloric intake—often creates more problems in the long run.
Severe Calorie Restriction
Severe calorie restriction can be tempting for a quick weight loss fix, especially when you want to lose a few pounds before a big event or vacation. But severe calorie restriction means your body isn’t getting enough nutrients to support its basic functions—such as breathing, digesting, and maintaining body temperature. When this happens, the body will start to break down its own stores to use for energy.
One source of stored energy is called glycogen. Glycogen is a form of carbohydrates found in our muscles and liver. Glycogen and water molecules are stored together, so any initial loss of glycogen will also result in lost water. This is why the majority of initial weight loss in severe calorie restriction is just water weight.²
Our bodies need a wide variety of nutrients to keep everything running optimally, and extreme calorie restriction puts those nutrients at severe risk. For example, we need healthy fats to form hormones and contribute to cell structures; proteins to keep our enzymes, skin, and muscles strong; carbohydrates for red blood cell production; and vitamins and minerals to support our metabolism, heartbeat, and immune system function.
Without a balanced diet filled with adequate nutrients, you can experience some serious side effects. For example, a diet low in iron, folate, and vitamin B12 may cause anemia—a dangerous condition that reduces blood flow to your organs and results in fatigue, dizziness, and more.
Lean Body Mass
Lean body mass—your total weight minus fat mass—is one of the biggest factors that influences your resting metabolic rate. Building or maintaining muscle mass is an important part of keeping our metabolism strong. Studies have shown that 25 to 40 percent of weight loss is not fat, but actually lean body mass.³
Under calorie restriction, the body may pull amino acids (the building blocks of protein) from its own muscle stores to complete its necessary functions. This decreases lean body mass, which further slows metabolism. A moderate amount of regular activity combined with slow and steady weight loss can help prevent the rapid depletion of lean body mass.
What Happens to Your Brain When You Diet?
Your body isn’t the only thing affected by drastic diet changes. There are many psychological effects of dieting—and you can be sure that “lose weight fast” ads won’t disclose what they are. Discover how to stop dieting so you can support your brain function and maintain optimal mental health.
How the Brain Responds to Calorie Restriction and Weight Loss
There are many benefits associated with losing weight—including improved insulin sensitivity, reduced hypertension, improved lipids, and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.⁴ However, the scientific community is just beginning to understand the effects of long-term weight loss efforts, especially sustained weight loss, on the brain.
When a person first begins to reduce their caloric intake in order to lose weight, they may find themselves preoccupied with food cravings throughout the day. Luckily, research has shown that moderately lowering calorie intake can condition the body to lower its energy needs and result in reduced appetite and cravings.⁵
You might be wondering, “If losing weight has an overall positive effect on our health, why do so many diets fail?” Even though studies support the brain’s ability to retrain itself to have fewer cravings on short-term diets, our brain and bodies push back when we lose too much weight. Long-term caloric restriction can actually cause the brain and body to push back.
Extreme weight loss efforts often result in decreased metabolic factors—including resting metabolic rate (RMR), thermic effect of food (TEF), and activity energy expenditure (AEE). This metabolic slowdown is highly variable among different individuals; however, clinical trials have shown that the energy expenditure during physical activity is the most affected across participants.⁶
Most importantly, when the body experiences prolonged severe calorie restriction, it can decrease your ability to consciously regulate calorie intake. This increases the risk of overeating. Our ability to control our food choices and the amount we eat is influenced by genes and hormones—such as insulin, leptin, ghrelin, thyroid hormones, and the sympathetic nervous system.
Leptin and ghrelin are key factors in appetite regulation, which influences weight and body composition. Both hormones respond to how much energy the body has. Leptin is produced mainly by adipose (fat) tissue and functions to decrease hunger by signaling to the brain that the body has enough energy. Ghrelin is produced in the stomach to signal to the brain that the body’s energy stores are running low and makes us feel hungry.
Leptin resistance, a condition in which the body has a decreased ability to synthesize or respond to leptin, may result in overeating. Obesity has been shown to be an underlying cause of leptin resistance.⁷ Research also suggests that diet-induced obesity lowers the production of ghrelin, further supporting the idea that we each have an ideal “set-point” that determines whether our bodies store fat or allow it to be used for energy production.⁸ Interestingly, studies have demonstrated that ghrelin is overproduced in individuals with specific variants within the obesity-related FTO gene.⁹ Overproduction of ghrelin also contributes to weight dysregulation.
Prolonged calorie restriction has been shown to contribute to leptin and ghrelin imbalances. Clinical trials have shown that dieting is linked to a significant decrease in leptin production within the body, which not only results in impaired hunger signaling but can also negatively influence energy expenditure.¹⁰ Dieting also results in z circulating in the body.¹¹ Researchers have proposed that altered production of hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin is a key contributor to the high rate of diet failure.
3 Steps to Stop Dieting
You can stop dieting (and still lose weight!) in three steps. If you truly want to know how to stop dieting, you have to start by deconstructing the way you think about your body.
Diet culture thrives by making you feel like you’re not good enough because of the number you see when you step on a scale. First, you need to work on your relationship with your body.
Step 1: Ditch the Diet Mentality
To stop dieting, you need to redefine what the word “diet” means to you. “Diet” is often associated with restriction, weight loss, and failure. Approximately 45 million Americans go on a diet during the year, and yet, over 70 percent of the population is overweight or obese. Your “diet” is not actually how you eat to lose weight, but the way you eat every day—regardless of what your intended goals are.
Research shows that dieting alone does not usually lead to successful, sustainable weight loss.¹² In fact, other habits—including eating a diet rich in whole foods, stepping on the scale every day, exercising at least 60 minutes a day, and tracking your food intake—are much more likely to result in successful long-term weight loss. If we stop dieting and let go of the belief that “skinny” equals health or beauty, we can finally get more in tune with our hunger signals, develop healthy eating habits, and make peace with our bodies.
Step 2: Eat for Sustained Weight Loss
Long-term sustenance of lost weight is a common issue among individuals who lose a significant amount of weight. One meta-analysis of long-term weight loss studies conducted in the U.S. revealed that the average person regains half their lost weight in two years and over 80 percent in five years.¹³
So, how can you keep your weight off long term? Implement healthy lifestyle changes that are simple and sustainable.
Eat in Moderation
We’ve heard countless times that the key to a healthy diet is moderation. But what does that really mean?
Simply put, it means that we quit labeling foods as “bad” or “good,” and instead focus on eating mostly nutrient-dense foods that provide essential nutrients. Moderation also means allowing ourselves to eat foods that might not be as nutritious every so often. Shifting our minds away from what we can’t have or the thought that a food is “forbidden” can actually help us decrease our cravings for these types of foods, as well as reduce the risk of binging or overeating.
We can and should eat less-than-healthy foods on occasion without feeling guilty. If you do occasionally eat too much of a food that is not considered healthy, remember that the next healthy choice you can make is just a meal or snack away.
Learn How to Recognize Your Body’s Hunger Signals
Dieting and calorie restriction can interrupt the body’s ability to regulate hunger hormones and accurately monitor hunger or feelings of fullness. When you stop dieting and develop a lifelong healthy eating plan, you can greatly improve your weight control and ability to enjoy foods by becoming reacquainted with these innate cues.
A key step in this process is to slow down at each mealtime and pay attention to your food and surroundings. Take the time to sit down, put down your phone, shut off your TV, and relax. Before you begin your meal, rate your hunger on a scale of one to ten. A rating of one or two indicates extreme hunger—this is the type of hunger that compels you to eat whatever is placed in front of you. You are much less likely to care about taste and more concerned about getting calories and nutrients into your body. A rating of nine or ten means you are not really hungry. It might be a good idea to reevaluate your reasons for eating or snacking. Could it be boredom, an unconscious trigger, or out of habit?
Ideally, you should be between a three and four right before a meal. About halfway through the meal, repeat this same evaluation. How close are you to a seven? This is the point where you should feel full and satisfied but not uncomfortable. Aim to stop eating once you reach this milestone.
There are a couple of other practices that can help you develop healthier eating habits. Learn proper portion sizes to give yourself an educated framework for mealtime. Staying hydrated can also help you identify hunger cues more easily. Drink plenty of water—including one full glass of water about 30 minutes before each meal or snack.
Identify the Habits That Influence What (and How) You Eat
Our eating habits are shaped from a very early age and influenced by numerous factors, most of which are external cues. Two major influences are social and economic determinants.
Social determinants include:
Cultural influences – These can include religion, holidays, recipes, and food traditions that are passed down from one generation to the next. For example, many religions—including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism—prohibit eating certain types of meat.
Social context – Your family, friends, and peers have a huge influence on your dietary habits. We are taught how to feel about food, eating, and our bodies from those around us. For example, if food was used as a reward when you were growing up, you may be more prone to overindulgence later on in life.
Economic determinants include:
Cost– An individual’s income greatly influences food choice. Low-income groups are less likely to consume balanced diets and have particularly low intakes of fruits and vegetables.¹⁴
Accessibility – A food desert is a community that has limited access to stores that offer affordable, nutritious foods. Those living in food deserts face nutritional challenges that can lead to chronic illnesses.
Taking the time to understand how these factors affect the way you make decisions about foods can help you become more aware of what you are actually consuming on a daily basis. Whether you use a food log or an app to track your food or simply implement mindful eating practices, understanding the internal and external motivators that may influence your mealtime can help you introduce healthy eating habits into your daily life.
Step 3: Seek Help or Support If You Need It
Weight Loss and Genetics
1. Tomiyama AJ, Mann T, Vinas D, Hunger JM, Dejager J, Taylor SE. Low Calorie Dieting Increases Cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2010;72(4):357-364. doi:10.1097/psy.0b013e3181d9523c.
2. Kreitzman SN, Coxon AY, Szaz KF. Glycogen storage: illusions of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1992;56(1). doi:10.1093/ajcn/56.1.292s.
3. Martin-Rincon M, Pérez-López A, Morales-Alamo D, et al. Exercise Mitigates the Loss of Muscle Mass by Attenuating the Activation of Autophagy during Severe Energy Deficit. Nutrients. 2019;11(11):2824. doi:10.3390/nu11112824.
4. Pasanisi F, Contaldo F, de Simone G, Mancini M. Benefits of sustained moderate weight loss in obesity. Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases. 2001;11(6):401-406. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12055705/.
5. Kahathuduwa CN, Binks M, Martin CK, Dawson JA. Extended calorie restriction suppresses overall and specific food cravings: a systematic review and a meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews. 2017;18(10):1122-1135. doi:10.1111/obr.12566.
6. Müller MJ, Enderle J, Bosy-Westphal A. Changes in Energy Expenditure with Weight Gain and Weight Loss in Humans. Current Obesity Reports. 2016;5(4):413-423. doi:10.1007/s13679-016-0237-4.
7. Myers MG, Heymsfield SB, Haft C, et al. Challenges and Opportunities of Defining Clinical Leptin Resistance. Cell Metabolism. 2012;15(2):150-156. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2012.01.002.
8. Zigman JM, Bouret SG, Andrews ZB. Obesity Impairs the Action of the Neuroendocrine Ghrelin System. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2016;27(1):54-63. doi:10.1016/j.tem.2015.09.010.
9. Karra E, O’Daly OG, Choudhury AI, et al. A link between FTO, ghrelin, and impaired brain food-cue responsivity. Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2013;123(8):3539-3551. doi:10.1172/jci44403.
10. Camps SG, Verhoef SP, Westerterp KR. Leptin and energy restriction induced adaptation in energy expenditure. Metabolism. 2015;64(10):1284-1290. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2015.06.016.
11. Marinos Makris C, Alexandrou A, Efstathios Papatsoutsos G, et al. Ghrelin and Obesity: Identifying Gaps and Dispelling Myths. A Reappraisal. In Vivo. 2017;31(6). doi:10.21873/invivo.11168.
12. Mann T, Tomiyama AJ, Westling E, Lew A-M, Samuels B, Chatman J. Medicare's search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist. 2007;62(3):220-233. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.62.3.220.
13. Anderson JW, Konz EC, Frederich RC, Wood CL. Long-term weight-loss maintenance: a meta-analysis of US studies. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2001;74(5):579-584. doi:10.1093/ajcn/74.5.579.
14. Irala-Estévez JD, Groth M, Johansson L, Oltersdorf U, Prättälä R, Martínez-González M. A systematic review of socio-economic differences in food habits in Europe: consumption of fruit and vegetables. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2000;54(9):706-714. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1601080.
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