or most of my life, I’ve watched my mom lose and gain the same 10 pounds.
I remember her being on Weight Watchers and Atkins, loosely monitoring calories at times and more intensely following food rules at other times (typically before vacation or when she thinks her pants are starting to get a little too snug). She always, always, always manages to shed the 10 pounds she desires, but it also always, always comes back. And it’s not like she ate poorly during the “off” times-- she sustains a largely red-meat free diet, does not eat much-processed food, and is constantly concerned with “saving” calories. She’s also physically active, walking our dog once or twice a day in the warm weather and running on our treadmill in the colder months. Hell, she out-hiked me at Camelback Mountain. So how come, despite all this, she just can’t manage to keep those 10 pounds off long term?
The truth isn’t what we’d assume: a lack of willpower or self-control around food, an insufficient workout regime, that one indulgence or a weekend of rest that sent her catapulting back over the edge. The truth is that the brownie she had last week or the day she didn’t reach her Fitbit steps goal most likely did nothing to affect her weight. Rather, with those 10 pounds, my mom reaches her weight set point. When she loses that weight, she dips below the range her body is comfortable functioning and performing at, and it does everything in its power to get her back up to the weight it desires.
According to Traci Mann, who has studied eating habits, self-control, and dieting for more than 20years at the University of Minnesota, “After you diet, so many biological changes happen in your body that it becomes practically impossible to keep the weight off. It's not about someone's self-control or strength of will.”
The first change is neurological: your brain becomes over responsive to food. Tasty looking food becomes more appetizing, more tempting, and the very thing you’re trying to resist neurologically becomes harder to resist. According to Mann, this is because your brain has increased the food’s reward value.
The second change is hormonal. When you lose body fat, the number of hormones that help you feel full decrease, and the ones that make you feel hungry increase. Evolutionarily speaking, this is about survival. Think about it-- Your body is literally preparing itself to make you hungry so that you will gain the weight back again.
And the third change is metabolic. Your metabolism slows down as your body begins to use energy in the most efficient way possible. Again, evolutionarily speaking, this is a great system our body has to protect us when we’re starving to death. It’s not so great when you’re trying to lose weight, however, and really proves that dieting and weight loss are unnatural things. Our body literally resists them, storing as many leftover calories as fat in order to protect itself when it feels endangered by such practices.
We assume that if we fail a diet or regain the weight it is because we did not have enough willpower or self-control. But when we actually look at what goes on inside our bodies when we diet, it becomes clear that we’ve been set up to fail. So how has the diet industry been so good in convincing you otherwise? Well, their job isn’t, to tell the truth. It’s to sell as much product as possible. And to do that, you must believe that you can control and manipulate your body against all odds, with their help.
When you try to lose weight below your set range, these biological forces kick in to take you back to it. If your weight gets above that set range, your body will also make changes to try to bring you back down to its ideal size. That’s your healthy range, where your body wants and needs to be to function at its best. It’s different for everyone, and it is most certainly not when you are “skinny”. Skinny is not a marker of health, and your body certainly does not care about skinny. It exists to keep you alive and thriving.
According to Mann, it is possible to drop below your weight set point and stay there. About 5% of dieters can make this happen, but she says it is only because they devote every second of their lives to fighting biology and staying at that weight.
“You can do it, potentially,” says Mann, “but it's going to take over your life. And that's no way to live.”
Those beginning stages where a diet seems to be working are all people look at, even though they inevitably gain the weight back after a period of time, at no fault of their own. The reality is that no diet is sustainable-- In the long term those biological forces take over. Dieting puts your body into survival mode, and your body is bound to then revolt against that diet.
Your body is just trying to protect you. It’s trying to keep you healthy so that you can focus on being happy and living a full life. When we get caught up in dieting, we can easily forget that health is about so much more than food and exercise-- it’s about relationships, adventures, good books, good love and good sleep. You deserve better than a life taken over by diet culture. Why miss out on 95% of life just to weigh 5% less?