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: Welcome back to part two of The Plate’s discussion on weight loss.
In the first part we really addressed the concepts of diet mentality and how that can hurt both a person’s efforts to lose weight in a healthy way as well as cause poor health outcomes. We are going to shift our focus to another aspect of weight loss, the actual process of losing weight and keeping it off. Kelly and Kristin, you both have years of clinical experience and working one on one with clients and patients. I'm certain that many of them have spoken about their weight history, weight loss and possibly weight gain.
What makes it so difficult to lose and keep weight off? Where do you think people struggle the most?
Kelly Van Gorden: Having a healthy diet mentality while wanting to get to a healthy weight is tough. What may be equally as tough is maintaining weight after you have lost it. I'll talk through a couple of reasons why.
First of all, a reduction in your weight may lead to that slower metabolism as your body adjusts to its new size. This is especially true if weight is lost very quickly, as the body may be moving into what is known as starvation mode. It wants to hold on to every last calorie because it doesn't feel secure with its sources of energy. Additionally, after a long period of prolonged calorie or food restriction, willpower will be tested.
Our body is programmed to want to eat. We need energy, we need fuel. If we deprive it of that for too much for too long, that's where it can get tough mentally. Eating something off of the diet plan or over-consuming can lead to feelings of guilt or failure, which is not healthy for the diet mentality. Another reason it's hard to keep weight off is anytime we are restricting or wanting to lose weight, we might not be addressing the core habits, the core behavior changes. It is possible to lose five pounds in a week if going on a liquid diet.
But have you really addressed the root of the issue? Are you addressing those behaviors, those thoughts?
If not, you are at risk of rebounding right where you were before but perhaps even more damaging to your mental health, wellbeing and metabolism. In order to be successful with long term weight loss, addressing behavior changes and healthy habits is key.
Sherry Zhang: Have you seen successes in your clinic, and why they were successful?
Kelly Van Gorden: Yes, I have seen the most success with a slow and steady approach. This comes from creating lifelong habits - ones that you feel are realistic and enjoyable. For example, learning how to cook a new dish instead of going out to eat, or going hiking with a friend on the weekend instead of brunch.
Sherry Zhang: Do you think professional help makes a difference?
Kelly Van Gorden: Definitely. Research has found benefits for weight management and improving or managing diseases through talking with a dietitian or health coach. It is nice to have someone rooting for you, suggesting ideas, and offering support.
Sherry Zhang: That makes complete sense. That leads me to another topic, Kristin, why is it even harder to lose weight each time you gain it back?
Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson: This is a really good question. I think a lot of people have struggled with this. They have been successful with initially losing weight, they reach their target and then go off their diet and inevitably gain. When they try to do the same diet or they try a new diet nothing seems to work.
One of the underlying reasons for this is because no matter how you are able to drop the weight, whether it's through dieting, it's through exercise or it's through a combination of both, you are going to lose some muscle or lean mass and that will affect your metabolic rate. down your metabolic rate. That lower metabolic rate is going to last for a period of time.
So not only does that mean that you are burning less calories, but you will probably have a lower metabolic rate than someone of the same weight who is not dieting. When you regain the weight, you're not going to be regaining it as muscle unless you are a bodybuilder. For the average person, once they regain that weight, it will be as fat and we know that fat tissue has a lower metabolic rate than muscle mass.
So again, it goes down to lowering your metabolic rate, therefore you burn fewer calories. Strength training during weight loss can be incredibly beneficial since it can help to minimize the amount of weight lost as lean mass, however, it can't prevent all lean muscle loss, like I said, inevitably, you're going to lose some muscle, but you can take steps to keep as much as possible.
Sherry Zhang: I never thought this way. I will have to rethink my math around weight loss and weight gain now. It makes total sense, it sounds like it is another way the body works to prevent starvation and fight weight loss.
Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson: Another thing that I think also makes keeping weight off difficult is the fact that it takes more physical activity to maintain your new weight than it did to lose it. You may have only worked out 45 minutes 4 times a week while losing weight but studies have shown that in order to maintain weight loss most people need an average of 80 minutes per day.
Sherry Zhang: I think just knowing these other factors that go into the equation could be very helpful for many people. Just understanding the mechanism behind regaining weight and what we can do to stack the odds in our favor, such as strength training, can keep us going in the right direction and help prevent that slippery slope of weight gain and frustration. I have another question.
Kelly, I am going to direct this to you. Many people swear by low-carb to ketogenic diets. They say it is the only effective way to lose weight. What are your thoughts on this?
Kelly Van Gorden: You're right Sherry. It's definitely a topic I get asked most frequently. Research has shown that in order to lose weight, you don't need to permanently eliminate or restrict a single food group.
We know that low carb diets may be helpful for some people, but really only in short stints or for specific medication conditions such as epilepsy. Our body is not designed to live for a long time without carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are our body's preferred source of energy, especially for fueling our brain. We also need carbs for red blood cell production and metabolizing other nutrients.
Some people may see some initial weight loss when eliminating carbs, just because they're suddenly not eating some of their favorite calorie-dense foods anymore. We also know that carbs are stored in our muscles with glycogen and water molecules. So when we aren’t eating carbs and we rely on our body’s glycogen stores for fuel, we may lose some water that gets stored with that glycogen.
However, research studies have shown long term that low carb diets don't have better weight loss results than other types of diets. If there is no greater benefit, there really is no need to restrict food groups.
Sherry Zhang: Got it. I also want to talk about the concept of cheat days. Kristin, If I understand correctly, the concept of cheat days is that on one day per week I can eat whatever I want. Is that really healthy? Can it help me lose weight?
Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson: I think the rationale behind it is pretty straightforward and it potentially could be helpful.
We know that when you are depriving yourself of something you tend to fixate on it. If I said don’t think about pink elephants, most likely you now have a picture of a pink elephant in your brain. But if you say to yourself, I can't eat peanut butter and I can't eat steak or whatever you are telling yourself that you can't have, it is all you can think about, and you may become fixated.
So the idea of a cheat day is, whatever you're depriving yourself, you know that there's one day that you're going to allow yourself to have that. Just knowing that you will be able to have it at some point in the very near future makes it easier to stick with the dietary restrictions that you've created in order to support your weight loss goals. So if you say I'm going to eat really clean six days of the week, and then on that one day, whether it's a weekend or a weekday, I'm going to go ahead and I'm going to treat myself, it may make eating clean those 6 days easier.
The idea of one whole day is where this can backfire. Having a cheat meal or a special treat which allows you to have that food you crave within moderation. The problem is, having a full day where you eat anything you want can backfire since you may end up eating 1000, 2000, or more calories which can inhibit your weight loss goals. If you're somebody who can stick with a cheat meal or treat then it can be useful.
Sherry Zhang: What you're saying is making it a smart reward system for yourself, but with certain boundaries. So that doesn't go off the rails.
Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson: Right, there's definitely different ways to implement it and you need to find what works for you. For example, A friend and I were trying to increase our fitness and lose a few pounds. We really worked at eating clean for every meal, which was not easy since this was when we were undergraduates.
However, we did allow ourselves a treat each week. Our cheat meal was every Friday night, instead of going out to maybe a bar and drinking or ordering pizza, we went out and got frozen yogurt. We still got to socialize, we still got a treat. And it helped us stay with our diet the rest of the week. It also helped us avoid other potentially unhealthy behaviors. I think smart cheat days and smart cheat meals can be incredibly useful. As long as you know what works best for you, otherwise it can definitely backfire.
Sherry Zhang: I love it. I envy you. That's a great idea. You've got your peer support there and that's definitely a reward itself. Nice.
So Kelly, my final question to better understand the effects of weight loss and dieting is, if a person spends his or her 20s perpetually dieting and drastically cutting calories, is that person’s metabolism permanently damaged?
Kelly Van Gorden: You know, Sherry, I want to remain optimistic and I'm going to say not necessarily. We know that your history of dieting can influence your future, but I’d hate for that to hold anyone back. As we’ve mentioned, keeping muscles strong and creating life-long habits is a great place to start for repairing metabolism.
Sherry Zhang: Great. Thank you. So far, we talked quite a bit about dieting and diet mentality in part 1 and the weight loss process here in part 2. However, I am sure that there are many people who are saying, all of this information is great but I am still trying to lose those last 5 to 10 pounds, how can I lose it while staying healthy? Kristin, do you mind speaking to that?
Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson: First off, what do we mean when we say healthy diet? We have already discussed what the word diet really means but that does not stop many of us from having negative connotations with that word. I think what might be just a simple change and can be really useful is to just say healthy eating, because that's what it is.
A health eating plan or healthy diet is figuring out the optimal way to eat in order to achieve your goals. Most of us are familiar with the USDA food pyramid. This is a great place to start when you are beginning to evaluate how to build that healthy eating pattern to support overall health, but it is just the starting point. For some people, other eating patterns may be better based upon their biology. They may be a person who does better with a higher protein diet or a higher fat diet. I do think that before anybody makes an overhaul to their diet, it probably would be a good thing to talk with their healthcare practitioner.
Regardless of the eating pattern you choose, high fat, low fat, and so on, the one thing that studies have shown us is that the universal underlying component of healthy eating and weight loss is eating a diet rich in whole foods including fruits and vegetables. Additionally, eating should still be enjoyable. Many tasty foods are rich and vitamins and nutrients which can help you with your overall health. A healthy weight loss should focus on a balanced lifestyle, that includes what you eat and exercise. Physical activity doesn't always necessarily have to be you going out running. It can be golfing, yoga, it's whatever exercise you like, that you can stick with.
Additionally, we know there is no one-size-fits-all solution, this is where personalized nutrition and personalized weight loss can be really helpful. What do we mean when we say personalized weight loss? It means that when you're creating a diet plan or a healthy eating plan, you're taking in not just the foods that you consume, but the complete context of a person. That starts from the very base layer, our genes.
We know that there are genes that play a role in what our optimal dietary composition should be, meaning the ratio of fat to carbohydrates to protein. Some genetic variants, such as those found in the genes FTO, ADIPOQ, or NPY can also play a role in our eating behaviors. Your genes may influence what your taste preferences are, or make it more likely you enjoy fattier foods. They can also contribute to how satisfied you feel after a meal or if you are prone to mindless snacking.
Once we understand what your genetic base code is, how it potentially could interact with your environment, and then layer in your lifestyle, your fitness level, and your preferences, we can really then figure out the best way to move forward to support your weight loss goals. That is really where we get into this idea of personalized weight loss which has the potential to be much more effective than traditional dieting.
Sherry Zhang: Personalized nutrition is the key for gaining insights into your own body and making a plan based on your unique biology. So far we have discussed why it is so hard to keep weight off, tips on how to keep your metabolism up even during weight loss, and what science holds for weight loss moving forward. Besides that, what are the big takeaways that you want to highlight Kelly?
Kelly Van Gorden: Kristin brought some really good stuff up in that last section. Thanks Kristin. Overall I’d highlight that we only have so much mental energy. So think about what is taking up that brain space. Are you thinking about what brings you joy, what activities you love doing? Or are you thinking about wanting to look a certain way? Nourish your body as best as you can with good fuel, fun activities, and try to enjoy your life. We are worth so much more than we weigh.
Sherry Zhang: Well said, You are worth so much more than your weight. Love it. Well, thank you so much, Kristin and Kelly, always a pleasure. I love this kind of conversations where we can speak to our background expertise as well as what is on our minds on real life problems and everyday challenges, and being able to share it out with our audience here at GenoPalate.