Home Emotional Eating Can You Lose Weight—and Keep it Off—On a Diet?

Can You Lose Weight—and Keep it Off—On a Diet?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

An essay in the New York Times says no:

The root of the problem is not willpower but neuroscience. Metabolic suppression is one of several powerful tools that the brain uses to keep the body within a certain weight range, called the set point. The range, which varies from person to person, is determined by genes and life experience. When dieters’ weight drops below it, they not only burn fewer calories but also produce more hunger-inducing hormones and find eating more rewarding.

The brain’s weight-regulation system considers your set point to be the correct weight for you, whether or not your doctor agrees. If someone starts at 120 pounds and drops to 80, her brain rightfully declares a starvation state of emergency, using every method available to get that weight back up to normal. The same thing happens to someone who starts at 300 pounds and diets down to 200, as the “Biggest Loser” participants discovered.

This coordinated brain response is a major reason that dieters find weight loss so hard to achieve and maintain. For example, men with severe obesity have only one chance in 1,290 of reaching the normal weight range within a year; severely obese women have one chance in 677. A vast majority of those who beat the odds are likely to end up gaining the weight back over the next five years. In private, even the diet industry agrees that weight loss is rarely sustained. A report for members of the industry stated: “In 2002, 231 million Europeans attempted some form of diet. Of these only 1 percent will achieve permanent weight loss.” [source]

So, this is a weirdly unsubstantiated claim about the human body surrounded by a lot of very hyper-specific information. The idea of a “set point” isn’t new or unique—it has been around various corners of the Internet for a very long time, especially with regard to people who are visibly overweight looking for a way to explain to others why they can’t lose it.

(I prefer those people simply tell others “mind your business,” but not everyone is as blunt as I can be.)

When it comes to conversations surrounding the “set point,” I think back to what I read in The End of Overeating (and yes, if you use that link to check out a copy of the book which I highly recommend and have for years, I’ll get a few pennies for making the recommendation!) about the subject:

We have presumed that the wisdom of the body is maintained through a feedback system known as homeostasis. Like temperature or blood pressure, which the body also tries to keep within relatively narrow ranges, energy is supposed to be regulated by a homeostatic process that keeps the body’s energy stores stable. By closely matching food intake and energy expenditure, this biological strategy has allowed us to consume hundreds of thousands of calories every year without losing or gaining much weight.

It’s a highly sophisticated system that can be explained simply: Many parts of the body talk to one another.

The brain is the command center of an elaborate communications network essential to energy regulation. This network involves the brain, the central and peripheral nervous systems, the gastrointestinal tract, the hormonal system, fat tissue, and more. The brain’s hypothalamus receives signals from all these sources, integrates that information, and decides what needs to be done to maintain the body at a steady weight.

But this homeostatic system, while relevant, turns out to be less powerful than many scientists have assumed. If we could maintain energy balance effectively, we wouldn’t be gaining so much weight. Our bodies would compensate, either by burning more calories or by shutting down our appetites. Obviously, that is not happening.

Over the past decade, scientists have tried to explain this failure by searching for defects in the homeostatic system. Their results have been disappointing. While some genetic and chemical defects have been identified, they seem to be rare and don’t adequately account for the most common forms of obesity.

Robert De Niro’s efforts to gain weight for the movie Raging Bull-and then lose it-demonstrate the limits of the homeostatic system. Hollywood celebrities may not seem to have much in common with the average American, but the extremes to which De Niro had to go for his role gave us experimental information it would have been hard to get another way.

First, he gained sixty pounds for the film by loading up on calories, and then he dropped most of that weight.

When I asked how he’d been able to do it, De Niro explained that it had been easy to lose the first thirty-five or forty pounds. “I stretched the rubber band and let it come back,” he said.

But the last twenty pounds had been much harder. His body seemed inclined to settle at a weight that was higher than it had been before his gain. Returning to his pre film weight, De Niro said, had required a vigilant mind-set. He likened the process he’d gone through to that of an alcoholic trying to stay sober.

Without knowing the biological explanation, De Niro had sensed that the homeostatic system was not acting alone.

Despite all the research focused on homeostasis, it is not the only influence on food intake. Researchers have shown that what we eat doesn’t depend solely on signals sent by the brain to maintain a stable weight. Another region of the brain, with different circuitry, is also involved, and often it’s in charge. This is known as the reward system.

And in America, in the fight between energy balance and reward, the reward system is winning.

There’s a rush to declare some kind of defining principle as the justification for the Biggest Loser’s results—70% of the weight gained back? Jeez Louise—and attaching it to neurochemical (“neuro”=brain and “chemical”=hormonal) circumstances, but I’m skeptical of that. It only leaves me wondering when we’ll see the next pill that attacks that neurochemical response and alters our overeating habits in a hormonal way instead of exploring other variables.

I think it’s much more complicated than that, especially since the compulsion to eat is about more than your body attempting to balance your weight against what it thinks it should be… especially in the era of processed food that is engineered to impact the way your brain understands food and how it should make you feel when you’re finished eating it.

Take a look at the story the writer shared about her own fitness journey:

For three decades, starting at age 13, I lost and regained the same 10 or 15 pounds almost every year. On my most serious diet, in my late 20s, I got down to 125 pounds, 30 pounds below my normal weight. I wanted (unwisely) to lose more, but I got stuck. After several months of eating fewer than 800 calories a day and spending an hour at the gym every morning, I hadn’t lost another ounce. When I gave up on losing and switched my goal to maintaining that weight, I started gaining instead.

Who is surprised that a person eating around 800 calories a day while spending an hour in the gym every morning is starving? No part of that should be surprising to anyone, especially considering how a strenuous workout longer than 45 minutes that you didn’t properly fuel before the workout began is only likely to leave you craving more in the end.

I’m not going to keep excerpting this article. There’s so much of it that is unfounded and there are no links providing enough information to validate any claims with research, and this is an idea I discussed last time it came around about these Biggest Loser contestants.

Here’s what you need to know: the author opines on why dieting doesn’t work long term, and rattles off a list of marginally related bullet points. The reality is, the way we eat is habit. There are very few people who, seven days a week, eat 3 completely different meals a day. Everything from how much cereal you pour to the way your body responds to the last bite is habit-based, and it is solidified by your “reward system.” Because dieting doesn’t address those habits or why they are your habits, most people tend to be able to—at best—stick to the regimen for a short enough time to garner some success…but ultimately fall back to their old habits.

Further, because dieting often imposes a strict regimen on someone without catering to their individual life—what, with people believing they require Biggest Loser-esque boot camp “no bullshit” forcefulness and all—people have nothing to help them understand how to navigate life when drastic changes like job loss or relocating happens. What’s even worse, some diets are so drastic that they result in muscle loss which exponentially decreases your metabolism, meaning that when your habits naturally take you back to eating the way you used to, you’ll gain weight and gain even more. Please check out this post I wrote from earlier this year for more details on that.

One more excerpt:

I finally gave up dieting six years ago, and I’m much happier. I redirected the energy I used to spend on dieting to establishing daily habits of exercise and meditation. I also enjoy food more while worrying about it less, now that it no longer comes with a side order of shame.

Here’s the thing—the way people approach dieting is rooted in shame and desperation. People think they deserve the cruelty of starvation—remember, “beauty is pain, girls!”—and grueling, unenjoyable exercise because they’re fat. They believe they deserve bland food, unhappy evenings spent staring longingly at junk food commercials and binges in the middle of the night in the kitchen while everyone’s asleep. Hence why so many people believe this is what successful dieting looks like. They feel the shame is a cornerstone of the success.

It’s not. In fact, it’s so strange that the author mentions the shame at the end, because the shame is a core contributor to the other bullet points she listed in regard to how people approach weight loss. Shame is why people believe they don’t deserve the empathy necessary to listen to their “excuses.” Shame is why they think that addressing the challenges they see in their own lifestyles are merely “excuses” meant to let them stay fat, instead of troubleshooting to help them change their lifestyles in a sustainable way. Shame is why they want to run and hide from their current weight as quickly as possible.

I’m off that. You should be, too.

A successful and long-term weight loss effort is going to help you uncover what in your current life contributes to weight gain, what you can do to replace those things, and what you can add to help you achieve your goal in a meaningful and sincere way. Not 800 calories and an hour a day in the gym. Who wouldn’t be miserable living like that?

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