Welcome to The Plate, where food meets science at your table.
In each episode, founder and CEO Sherry Zhang, Ph.D., asks subject experts questions in nutrition, biology, and health that are relevant to our approach to eating and living healthfully in our time. We visit complex topics such as how the science of metabolism influences our healthy body compositions, why it’s important to understand and practice personalized weight loss/gain, and how food affects us as individuals.
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In this The Plate episode, Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., M.S., R.D.N., and Kelly Van Gorden, M.S., R.D.N., C.D., join Sherry in a dynamic discussion on weight loss and the diet mentality.
Sherry: Today’s theme is one that pretty much everyone I know cares about, weight loss. I spent over a decade studying obesity and metabolic syndrome so it is an issue that I have had experience with both in the personal sense as well as a researcher.
The fundamental principle behind dieting and weight loss is pretty simple. It's a math equation. If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. If you burn more calories than you take in, then you lose weight. Calories in vs. calories out. The general rule of thumb is that you need to burn 3500 calories to lose one single pound.
That simple, right? Not exactly.
Many of us have struggled with losing or maintaining weight. If you are a person who fits into this category, you have probably realized that this basic equation doesn’t always add up. In fact, this general guideline has been shown to underestimate multiple factors and may set up really unrealistic expectations for the person who is on the path to lose weight. In reality, your body will eventually fight back against weight loss.
Your brain knows what you want and why you're cutting calories. But your body doesn't. This includes releasing the stress hormone cortisol and disrupting hunger signals. Dieting itself is not easy, to make it even worse, your body knows how to fight back. That makes it even more frustrating and complicated! While even a modest weight loss, we are talking about five to ten pounds can have a really significant impact on your health, such as blood pressure or insulin sensitivity, people are often focused on other factors such as how they look or what the numbers on the scale are. This shift from the physiology to the psychological aspect is one of the underlying factors that contribute to what some experts call diet culture or sometimes referred to as diet mentality.
This is a prominent concept that I want to dive into with our experts today. Kristin and Kelly, welcome to the show.
Sherry Zhang: My personal story with weight loss really starts after I gave birth to my son. Back then I was able to lose the baby weight quickly with no problem but in the years after that it gets harder and harder for me to maintain my weight or lose weight. I am not necessarily trying to lose weight to look better but I do want to be feeling strong and energetic.
For some reason I felt being on the lighter side gave me that feeling. I realized that my metabolic rate is getting slower and slower and my body can store fat more easily compared to 20 years ago. Even knowing as much as I do about the physiology of the body I still get frustrated.
This has definitely led me to wonder how the weight loss mentality affects my everyday food choices? How does it affect my choices around physical activity? How does wanting to lose weight or actively trying to lose weight impact my social activities and my environment? How does that environment feedback to me and influence how effective my weight loss is? I question what stories I constantly tell myself every day that are influenced by this diet culture or diet mentality?
Kristin, trying to better understand the way we think about losing weight, my understanding is that diet mentality is a clinical trait and revolves around making choices about what you eat each meal and each day without taking into account aspects of hunger, fullness, cravings, everyday fluctuations, changes in the environment or circumstances. or personal preferences. Is this a fair statement?
Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson: That's a fair statement. It's definitely those stories we tell ourselves that focus more on what we think should be doing and ignoring the signals from our body of what it wants us to do, or what's healthiest for us.
Sherry Zhang: Does the diet mentality prioritize weight or thinness over health and fitness?
Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson: Yes, it is that psychological factor of dieting, restricting ourselves or setting extreme diet parameters due to wanting a certain number on the scale or believing that we should look a certain way. The ongoing dialogue is usually negative.
Sherry Zhang: It is pretty strict and allows for very little flexibility. The focus is often on the reduction of food intake or making up for certain food choices with your next workout. So overall it sounds like it is not healthy to have a diet mentality.
Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson: Diet mentality usually negatively affects people.
Sherry Zhang: Diet mentality sounds like a constant measurement in your mind of “what should I be eating?” or “I can’t have this food or I ruin my diet”. That doesn’t seem very healthy. I would think that that type of mentality could cloud your judgement, hurt your ability to connect with your body, or diminish your ability to enjoy food.
Kelly Van Gorden: Yes. Evaluating your previous and your future moves based on internal messaging is very common.
Sherry Zhang: With a diet mentality, you ask yourself questions like, when was the last time I ate? Am I allowed to eat right now? What kind of snacks will give me under certain levels of calories? Or won't to derail my day? You are constantly calculating for the calories and being judgmental of yourself. Kelly, you have spent quite a few years in a clinical setting, when helping people with different diets, since I didn’t speak directly to the word “diet” itself could you give us some background to its definition and meaning?
Kelly Van Gorden: Of course. In the clinical world, the word “diet” simply means the pattern, type, and volume of foods that someone routinely eats. When most people hear the word diet, they think about what foods they might need to eat (or what foods not to eat) to lose weight or look a certain way. In terms of our conversation today, I'm assuming we are going to be using that second definition.
What's changed throughout the years is how we interpret that word “diet” into meaning different things. And as you alluded to Sherry, there are definitely factors throughout our history, culture, and our families that may influence how we think of our diets. And this goes back a long, long time ago.
The history of dieting can be dated back to the ancient Greek civilization, where they would feast and then exercise excessively in order to achieve a certain body size. Many religions have associated fasting with holiness and temptation or gluttony as sin. One of the first documented weight loss strategies was over 1000 years ago - a gentleman wanted to mount his horse more easily so he went on a liquid diet.
Sherry Zhang: Oh, it's interesting.
Kelly Van Gorden: Definitely. And modern dieting began around the 1800’s. With the ideas of feminine beauty being thin and romantic, clothing styles started to be more fitted. Celebrities were starting to endorse diets. More families were purchasing scales, and diet pills were becoming popular in the 1950’s. More self help books were being published on weight loss. Now we know that Americans spend billions of dollars a year on diet products, yet we know that weight is still a struggle for people.
And of course, it's important to note that food and nutrition today are also viewed differently from culture to culture or family to family. Some cultures really value meal times and view cooking as an expression of love. Other families might value thinness and control. Diet mentality is really ingrained in our history and culture, and we're still working on figuring it out.
Sherry Zhang: I love it. Thank you. Kristin, can you share from your nutritional scientist’s point of view, of your thoughts on the dieting mindset?
Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson: Like Kelly said, a diet itself is really just an eating pattern. It doesn't matter what type of eating pattern is simply the type of food that you consume on a daily basis. But dieting is definitely more of an action. Dieting is any conscious attempt in the name of weight loss of an idea of healthy eating or somehow manipulating your body and body shape by restricting calories or increasing physical activity to increase the number of calories you burn. Dieting itself is not necessarily negative, there are many reasons to want to lose weight and there is not anything wrong with wanting to be your healthiest most vibrant self.
However, with the diet mindset you may start to focus more on the restrictive nature of eating instead of overall health and you might be denying yourself nutrients that may impact your body’s ability to function optimally.
Unfortunately, even the people who are successful with dieting, the vast majority are going to regain that weight and potentially more within three years of losing weight. And so this perpetual cycle of wanting to lose weight because we're dissatisfied, dieting and restricting ourselves gaining the weight back can significantly affect our mental well-being.
The belief that we need to be thinner or lighter is pretty widespread across many cultures, not all cultures and can affect us early in life. Studies have shown that girls in the U.S. in first to third grade have reported wanting to be thinner. Also by the ages of nine or 11, over 40% of school girls studies have stated that they have tried or or on a diet. I do want to point out that the diet mentality affects both males and females, although the focus on physical attributes may be different. While this is not always the case, a guy might be more focused on being “strong” and “masculine” while a female may want to be “light” and “thin”.
The diet mindset is really when we are not basing our actions on driving being healthy and instead focused on the more superficial aspects such as what our body looks like or a number. We tend to overlook those more accurate measurements of health such as metabolic health, social health, or emotional health. There are potential dangers to our health when we do not go about weight loss in a healthy way. Severely restricting your nutrients can lead to issues such as osteoporosis, stress fractures, fatigue, digestive issues, and skin problems. There are also side effects such as a fixation on food, brain fog, and potentially depression.
Furthermore, Yo-yo dieting, or the cycle of dieting in which you are consistently losing weight and gaining it back, has been found to have negative impacts on cardiovascular health as well as your metabolism. Additionally, while the diet mentality does not necessarily cause disordered eating, it can be a catalyst for those individuals who are at risk for eating disorders.
Refocusing the “diet mindset” to healthy weight, healthy eating and healthy weight loss can be beneficial to stop the pattern of frustration or low self-esteem if a diet fails, we gain some of the weight back, or if we fall into the “diet mentality that was mentioned previously.
Sherry: Thank you both for your insights on clarifying what diet and diet mentality is and why it is important for weight loss and weight control.
In the second part of this program, we will go further into topics such as personalized weight loss, myths, and how to go about healthier weight loss.