Are you caught in the weight-loss dieting trap?

 Let’s be clear about this. Diets don’t work because they take us down the wrong path. Yet we are a nation obsessed with dieting; diet books often top the best-seller list for weeks. We see food as a necessary enemy, associating it with weight gain as opposed to its true function: to nourish and fuel our bodies.

Anyone who has been on several diets is familiar with the depressing phenomenon of rebound weight gain after weight loss. You start a new eating plan, drop a little weight and walk around on a high thinking this weight loss diet is going to be the one. But once you’ve gone the whole course, you not only feel depleted, bored or both, but end the diet only to regain all the weight plus a little extra. Half a dozen diets later, you’re carrying more weight than you did before you first started weight loss dieting.

This weight loss dieting trap has been borne out by recent research. In 2007, researchers at the University of California examined 31 weight loss studies and found that dieting doesn’t result in permanent weight loss and many dieters regain the kilos they shed.

Weighing up the weight loss facts

Your total bodyweight — the number that fills you with anxiety and guilt every time you stand on the scales — is made up of fat, muscle, fluid, organs and bones. Dieting and weight loss can result in loss of fat but also of muscle and fluid, and any loss will reduce your total bodyweight (in some cases for just a few hours or a few days).

This is why weight loss is possible — sometimes a whole dress size or notch on your belt — only to find that the number on the scales barely budges. Similarly, you can get excited about weihgt-loss only to step into your clothes and realise they feel just as tight as they did before.

The statement “muscle weighs more than fat” is technically incorrect; they weigh the same. However, they have different densities. Muscle takes up less space than the same weight of fat. You could easily hold five kilos of muscle in one hand but you’d need both hands to hold five kilos of fat. If you have weight loss of five kilos of muscle, you’d weigh five kilos less on the scales but your dress size and waist size wouldn’t change very much. If you lost five kilos of fat, you wouldn’t need to check the scales — you would notice that you’d lost weight every time you dressed, moved or looked in the mirror.

Most diets result in an initial weight loss of about three kilograms in the first few days, but the weight dropped is not permanent because it’s fluid, not fat. This creates a false sense of achievement about dieting and weight loss and you become euphoric thinking you’re well on your way to a new and healthier body. But in reality you’ll regain the fluid as soon as the diet stops, your body adjusts to your new eating regime or you return to your old eating habits.

It’s the reason why jockeys are able to resort to extreme measures such as saunas, hot baths and diuretics to lose a few kilograms of fluid to meet their required weight before a race. Fluid loss is not a long-term form of weight loss. If your true goal is fat loss, a regular weigh-in can be useful, but the most important thing is to take a slow and steady approach to weight loss that includes regular food intake and exercise.


Muscle vs fat in weight loss

Diets don’t work in the long term because they don’t change unhealthy eating habits. It is taxing to live on apples or cabbage or low carbs forever — it’s too repetitive, nutritionally restrictive and socially isolating. If you don’t make any sustainable healthy changes to eating habits, as soon as your diet ends you go back to your old ways and the weight returns.

More insidiously, diets damage your metabolism. Every time you restrict kilojoules you are simply slowing your metabolic rate so it’s less able to burn kilojoules. So when your diet ends, your body and metabolism are both in a less healthy state than they were before you started dieting.

One of the primary reasons for the decline in metabolism is muscle loss. Most diets cause you to lose muscle as opposed to fat — in fact, if you’re losing weight rapidly, the ratio may be 60 per cent muscle loss to 40 per cent fat loss. So a sudden plummet on the scales in a very short time most likely means your muscle is being rapidly depleted. Muscle is more active than fat tissue, so the less muscle you have, the fewer kilojoules you burn.

For weight loss of mostly fat, you need to reduce bodyweight as slowly as possible and exercise at the same time to maintain muscle density. Clearly, you want to do everything you can to prevent muscle loss and focus solely on losing body fat during weight loss. No amount of exercise or protein shakes will stop you losing muscle if you’re literally starving yourself. So remember that muscle is precious and preserve it by eating regularly and well during weight loss.

Years of weight loss dieting can result in a condition known as sarcopenia, which literally means “poverty of flesh”. A person suffering from sarcopenia can be normal weight or even underweight but have a high body fat percentage due to loss of muscle. Normally, a condition limited to elderly people, sarcopenia can be caused by chronic dieting and weight loss and result in someone in their 20s, 30s or 40s having as little muscle as someone in their 70s or 80s.


Famine fear

Weight loss diets that restrict kilojoules (and that’s most of them) actually trick your body into thinking it’s in the middle of a famine. Complex hormonal changes then kick into gear to slow your metabolism to conserve body fat. Mother nature has cleverly given us this fat storage ability to help us stay alive in times of crisis, when food is likely to be less readily available and we may be on the move so have little time to eat.

This means low-kilojoule weight loss diets can actually cause weight gain instead of weight loss. Perhaps the latest celebrity diet book should come with health warnings, similar to cigarettes, that read: “Warning: this diet may slow your metabolism, decrease your muscle mass and promote fat gain.”


Diet and weight loss addiction

Weight loss can be as addictive as a drug. Eating a low kilojoule diet, skipping meals or over-exercising all stimulate the release of adrenalin, the “fight or flight” hormone, from your adrenal glands. In the short term, high levels of weight loss adrenalin make you feel good. You rise to the occasion full of energy and ready to take on the world, under the influence of an adrenalin high. However, long-term elevated levels of adrenalin literally cause your body to eat itself up because adrenalin stimulates the breakdown of structural proteins in your muscles and bones. Remember this when you first start a weight loss diet.

A sudden reduction in kilojoules can kickstart your adrenal response and, because you associate the adrenalin rush with that initial weight loss, you may continually diet to try to maintain this feeling of buzzing with energy and becoming skinnier. However, the health repercussions can be dire. Adrenal burnout can produce symptoms such as allergies, accelerated ageing, insomnia, depression, fibromyalgia (nerve-related pain), cystitis, decreased bone density and a suppressed immune system.

Disaster weight loss diet methods

Now you know why most of the more extreme weight loss measures and weight loss diets are problematic: they depend on cutting kilojoules far too much. Obvious examples are fad weight loss diets that restrict too many food groups and kilojoules. Other common weight loss approaches that lead to loss of muscle tissue instead of fat (and should be avoided) include the following.

Weight loss don’ts: Fasting on water or juice

Fasting is defined as the act of abstaining from food for a designated period of time. People may choose to fast for religious, spiritual or health reasons and it’s often seen as a quick, easy way to lose weight. Fasting has long been recognised as a powerful “medicine” to overcome chronic disease by resting the digestive and immune systems and allowing stored toxins to be mobilised, detoxified and excreted.

While it may be beneficial to health, a weight loss panacea it most certainly isn’t. Dr Alec Burton, who runs the Arcadia Health Centre in NSW, which conducts medically supervised fasting programs, does not recommend regular one-day fasts. In his essay Fasting and Rejuvenation, he describes the physiological processes that occur during the fasting state.

“During the first day of a fast your body breaks down muscle tissue to convert to glucose for energy and it is only after the first day or so that your body will switch to burning fat for fuel, so short-term fasts deplete your body of protein, causing muscle loss.”


Weight loss don’ts: Diuretics

The use of diuretics will only result in water and fluid weight loss, not fat loss, the ultimate aim of any weight loss program. Diuretics have the potential to cause severe electrolyte imbalances, low blood pressure and dehydration. Ironically, certain diuretics can also lead to low potassium levels, which impairs your body’s ability to metabolise glucose properly and can lead to increased fat storage. Taken over a sustained period of time, diuretics may also lead to rebound fluid retention, causing the fluid retention to worsen instead of improve.

Weight loss don’ts: Diet pills

Most “natural” diet pills are based on caffeine from either green tea or guarana, which acts as a stimulant to increase heart and basal metabolic rate. These may suppress appetite by making you jittery, but your metabolism will drop because you eat less often and this will cause your body to go into famine mode.

Prescription diet pills are associated with the most severe side-effects. Fat blockers reduce the absorption of fat from your digestive tract but also decrease the intake of fat-soluble nutrients such as essential fatty acids and vitamins A, D, E and K. Short-term side-effects include diarrhoea and stomach-aches while long-term side-effects are due to nutrient deficiencies and include “faecal incontinence” or the inability to control your bowel movements.

Other prescription diet pills work by suppressing your appetite, making it easier to stick to a low-kilojoule diet, but obviously this leads to a slower metabolism and greater muscle weight loss.


Safe and effective weight loss

You need to be healthy to lose weight, not lose weight to be healthy. Effective fat weight loss will occur only once hormonal balance is achieved, not the other way around, according to Dr Diana Schwarzbein, a respected American endocrinologist from California who specialises in diabetes and fat loss and has written numerous books outlining her methods.

According to Dr Schwarzbein, hormonal imbalance of any kind can result in increased fat gain. It can result from disease processes that affect hormone-secreting glands, but more commonly it is the result of lifestyle, diet, nutritional deficiencies and even medications such as the contraceptive pill or antidepressants.

Common inducers of hormonal and metabolic imbalance include skipping meals, not getting enough sleep, chronic stress, long-term pain, over-exercising and an unbalanced diet.


Eating for weight loss

In her programs designed to reverse diabetes and help people lose body fat, Dr Schwarzbein emphasises the importance of balancing protein, fat and carbohydrate at every meal. Carbohydrates that come directly from plant sources such as fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes are preferable to manmade carbs, such as bread and pasta.

Fats from natural sources including animal fats, eggs, avocadoes, fish, nuts and seeds are healthier. They are less damaging to your metabolism, hormones and health than processed and refined vegetable oils, margarine (a possible source of trans-fatty acids) and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils found in cheap chocolates, cakes, biscuits, donuts and crisps.

Proteins from animal and vegetable sources are preferred to protein powders and textured vegetable protein (TVP), even though these may be present in so-called “health” foods.

Eating regular meals is also a critically important part of a healthy fat-loss program. If you’ve been a chronic dieter you may find you have a low appetite, which is a sign of a slow and damaged metabolism. If this is the case, don’t wait until you feel hungry to eat; instead, aim to eat a minimum of three balanced meals per day. If you suffer from food cravings or anxiety, you should also include two small snacks between meals to stabilise your blood sugar levels and your mood.


Exercise for weight loss

Although cardio exercise such as running and aerobics can help burn fat, we now understand that strength and resistance training are equally important to conserve and increase muscle. As we age, we lose muscle mass, so resistance exercise (which causes the muscles to contract against an external resistance) is a good way to combat this muscle loss. In particular, weight training helps maintain the type two muscle fibres, which we lose the most rapidly and which are used when lifting heavy loads such as washing or children.

Invest in some free weights to bring an element of resistance to your workouts or consider trying a pump class at the gym. Far from bulking up muscles, strength training helps you maintain more muscle which, in turn, assists your body to burn more fat while toning your shape.

Worried you might end up looking like The Hulk? Women don’t have the hormones it takes to build muscle easily and, even for men, in order to bulk up they would need to go on an intensive program that would take hours of muscle building, which is not what happens with weight training.

Weight loss diets simply don’t heal damaged metabolisms, balance hormones or correct nutritional deficiencies. Nor do they lead to fat loss, which will sustain over time. The most effective way to lose fat and keep it off permanently is to develop healthier ways of eating, be active and live.


When your body is adequately nourished, your metabolism and hormonal systems are balanced and working properly. In this state of wellbeing you feel healthier and food cravings no longer sabotage your efforts to maintain a lower level of body fat and higher level of muscle. Your energy levels increase and it becomes much easier to find the motivation to start the right type of exercise program.


Weight loss methods matters

Extreme weight loss should always be avoided. It can have severe health ramifications including:

  • Oestrogen deficiency: This is caused by low levels of body fat from weight loss. Symptoms include cessation of menstrual period and early osteoporotic changes in your bones.
  • Infertility: Your fertility can be significantly impaired by extreme weight loss and frequent dieting. This can result in low levels of oestrogen and nutritional deficiencies. Falling pregnant while underweight or suffering malnutrition can endanger the health of both you and your baby.
  • Osteoporosis: This bone disease can result from nutritional deficiencies and low oestrogen levels from weight loss, which are more likely on low-kilojoule diets.
  • Malnutrition: A low intake of nutrients because of weight loss can affect every aspect of your health and wellbeing and cause fatigue from anaemia, a lowered immune system resulting in frequent infections as well as mood and nervous system changes such as depression and anxiety.
  • Skin problems and hair loss: These can result from nutrient deficiencies and hormonal imbalance from weight loss. Common problems include dry or itchy skin, dermatitis, acne, allergies, poor skin tone, early ageing, poor healing, easy scarring and hair loss.


Weight loss fat facts

Understanding the answers to common questions about fat weight loss ensures you make more informed health decisions about how to best maintain your weight.

Is being fat caused by bad genes?

Around 50 genes that are related to weight gain have already been discovered. That doesn’t mean that if you’re a fat-gene carrier you’re destined to become overweight, but you may have to work a little harder to prevent weight gain as you age. Genes are only one factor that influences fat gain. Your lifestyle has far more impact.

Once I gain weight will my fat cells ever shrink again?

Yes, but like a balloon filled with water then emptied, they may expand more easily next time. That’s why repeated weight loss and gain through yoyo dieting can be so counter-productive. Instead of giving you the slim body you’re after, it can make your cells more prone to storing fat.

Will I be healthier if I cut all fat from my diet?

Definitely not. Going too low in fat can reduce fertility and compromise the health of your cells, skin, immune system and brain function. The recommended daily intake of fat is 40g per day and this is best achieved through reducing bad fats such as trans fats while increasing good fats found in foods like fish and olive oil.

Can concentrated exercise help reduce fat in one spot?

When you reduce fat it comes from fat stores all over. In women this often means losing fat first in the hips, thighs and breasts. But that doesn’t mean focused exercise on your trouble spots is a total waste of time — it’s still useful to help tone the muscles.

Is cellulite really fat?

It certainly is. It’s fat that contains more water, which is why it has a crinkly appearance. Women develop cellulite more easily than men because their bodies store fat reserves more quickly and readily in case of pregnancy.

Genes also make some of us more prone to cellulite than others by compromising factors such as the strength of the connective tissue supporting our fat cells. There is no magic treatment for cellulite — the best cure is a good diet and exercise. Reducing salt intake may also help because salt encourages fluid retention.


The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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