Counting calories, eschewing carbs – we've tried it all when it comes to weight loss.
Up to 50 percent of women are dieting at any given time, according to Livestrong, and yet sixty-two percent of adult Americans are overweight or obese. Ninety-seven percent of people who lose weight regain everything they lost, according to Harriet Brown, author of Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It. A recent study even found that reducing portion sizes and cutting calories could hinder, not help, weight loss.
But just because traditional diets don't work doesn’t mean it’s impossible to shed extra pounds. Here are five reasons why it’s so hard to lose weight by dieting… and the one solution that will solve this age-old problem once and for all.
1. We’re genetically predisposed to hold onto weight.
It can sometimes feel like even if you stick to your diet for weeks, one bad day can send your weight skyrocketing back to pre-diet figures.
This, according to Farrell Cahill, PhD, a researcher at Memorial University of Newfoundland, isn't just an impression; it's because we’re genetically predisposed to hang onto weight.
“We’re the only species that survives under what we call the ‘thrift-gene hypothesis,’” he explains. This theory states that natural selection led those of our human ancestors who could survive off of the smallest amounts of food to survive and procreate.
“They were the most efficient at gaining weight,” he says. “So we’re the generation that has the ability to gain a significant amount of weight from small amounts of food, because that’s what we needed to do 5,000, 10,000 years ago.”
In other words, today, our genes are fighting against us – and this is only exacerbated by the way that people try to lose weight.
“Weight loss is done too extremely,” Cahill explains. “So when you put yourself through that, those starvations, those immediate changes to your diet, your body goes into a mode of making sure you’re not going to lose weight.”
Worst of all, when you go back to your pre-diet way of eating, even briefly, “you’re now prompting your body to be more physiologically apt to gain weight.”
“Your body will try to gain more weight because it thought that the starvation and extra exercise is due to some sort of physiological anomaly,” he explains. “Your body, physiologically, doesn’t know what your mind is trying to communicate.”
2. Our environment is not conducive to weight loss.
Whereas our ancestors had to hunt and gather for food, today, we’re exposed to it all the time – and it’s not the fiber- and nutrient-dense food that we’ve sought out for centuries.
“Packaged foods with added sugar usually taste ‘impossibly delicious’ and cause massive spikes of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in reward,” explains Max Lugavre in New York Times bestseller Genius Foods. “What nobody tells us as we peruse the aisles lined with air-pumped bags of bliss is that these foods are literally engineered to create insatiable over-consumption, designed in labs by well-paid food scientists to be hyper-palatable.”
“I've been thin my whole life, and fit,” says JD Roth, co-creator of NBC's The Biggest Loser. “Cookies call me in the middle of the night, just like they call everyone else. I don’t keep cookies in the house!”
For optimum weight loss, it’s ideal to take a page out of Roth's book and eschew these foods entirely.
“Stick to foods that will naturally regulate your hunger, allowing you to eat less,” says Lugavere, noting that foods high in protein – the most satiating macronutrient – and fiber are ideal.
3. Food is a drug.
Food addiction is a real problem, as physiological as it is psychological.
Lugavere writes in Genius Foods that the more we consume of certain foods, the more we require to reach the same pleasure threshold.
“The way sugar stimulates the release of dopamine resembles drugs of abuse," he writes. "In fact, in animal models, rats prefer sugar over cocaine—and rats really like cocaine.”
This is specifically true of certain foods, such as fructose, which he writes has been shown to promote its own consumption.
“When rats were fed the same number of calories from either fructose or glucose, glucose (like potato starch) induced satiety (feelings of fullness). Fructose, on the other hand, actually provoked more feeding—it somehow made the rats hungrier.”
But the psychological side of this food addiction is just as important.
Roth notes that the recidivism rate for someone who loses 100 pounds is identical to that of people addicted to drugs and alcohol. This issue, he explains, is linked to the fact that, unlike people trying to stay away from drugs or alcohol, everyone is confronted by food on a daily basis.
“You're faced with your addiction at minimum three times a day,” he says, noting that the omnipresence of food makes it particularly difficult to avoid, even outside of mealtimes.
“You can't even go to a store to buy a television," he says. "When you get to the front of the line there's a whole section of candy on your way to the register."
The deprivation brought about by a dieting mindset, however, makes this constant exposure to food even worse.
“People always say, I'm on a diet, and Sunday is cheat day,” says Roth. “If you were an ex-crack addict, do you only do crack on Sundays?”
4. Diets end.
Diets are problematic, perhaps above all, because they call for restricting food for a predefined period of time.
“We're predetermined, in this country, emotionally, to think that the word diet has a start and an end,” says Roth. “You're trying to get to a wedding. You're trying to look good in a bikini. Or whatever it is. You eventually take your foot off the gas when the diet is over.”
This is, in large part, due to the fact that people want to diet intensely for a short period of time.
“We go too extreme," says Cahill. "We put ourselves through suffering, so that means our quality of life decreases because we got rid of all the foods that give us pleasure.”
And, contrary to popular belief, “Increasing physical activity and dieting don't increase your quality of life - not initially, at least,” says Cahill.
In deciding that a diet will someday end, we set ourselves up for failure.
“Once the program is over," he says, "you won't be able to maintain that weight loss, because you're gonna go back to the behaviors, which you haven't changed.”
5. Weight loss is a mental battle.
Anyone who has attempted a weight loss regimen may be struck, first and foremost, by the physicality of it: restricting portions, eating less, spending more time at the gym. But more than those physical changes, weight loss is an uphill emotional battle.
Many foods, especially packaged foods, increase the production of hormones like dopamine that make us feel good. Since many of us are faced with an inordinate number of stressors on a day-to-day basis, we turn to food for comfort.
“Your mood is affected by dopamine, and the same dopamine you get from eating a donut is the same dopamine you get from going for a walk,” says Roth.
But it goes deeper than that. Food can be an emotional crutch for many, and by not getting to the bottom of these emotional issues, people are often setting themselves up for failure before the diet even begins.
“We're always eating for a reason,” says Roth. “You can't eat yourself to 400 pounds, because you like pizza. You're eating yourself to 400 pounds because you're unhappy. So don't try to stop eating the pizza. Try to start figuring out why you're eating it.”
Drew Manning, the personal trainer of Fit2Fat2Fit fame, notes that he was confronted with this emotional side of the battle when he attempted to lose the 75 pounds he had purposefully gained, in an attempt to understand where his clients were coming from.
He notes that for most Americans, the perception of health and fitness “has to do with our own self-worth and our value.”
“We think we are more valuable, or we’re worth more, if we’re skinny, or we have the body that we see on Instagram.”
Confronting this misconception is a major key to a better approach to lasting weight loss.
So What’s the Solution?
Obviously, there are ways to lose weight and keep it off, all of which boil down to two major premises: making small, sustainable changes, and making them with the mindset that this is your new lifestyle, your new reality.
“Many small changes over time will be able to allow for you to have not only weight loss, but a consistent weight loss that's now maintainable,” explains Cahill.
Instead of setting yourself up for failure, set yourself up for success. Remove trigger foods from your home; prepare healthy meals; surround yourself with people who share your goals – who will encourage you when you succeed, and when you fail.
“This is a journey,” says Manning. “Not a destination. There is no finish line. This is something that has to become part of your lifestyle every single day.”