At this time of year, diets are all the rage, but well-being coach Kate explains why they mostly don't work and what will actually help after last month's indulgences.
It's January, that time of time year when most people are feeling bad about the excesses of the previous month, they think about the new year and all that they want to achieve and do differently ... many creating new year's resolutions or promising themselves to get back on track with eating 'right', exercising more and, for many people, losing weight becomes a top priority.
With that comes the decision to 'go on a diet' and join a gym or 'insert any kind of extreme exercise regime'.
Yet what most people don't realise is that diets, by their very nature, set you up to fail every.single.time.
And worse than failing, some diets can set you up for weight gain and long-term metabolic problems that can take a long time to rebalance.
Diets set you up to fail because restriction of any kind is not sustainable for the long term and in most cases, if you restrict what your body actually needs (which most diets do, either through calories, food frequency or food group), then your health (mental, emotional & physical) will suffer.
Diets create a vicious cycle
- Firstly you make a decision to improve your health, often accompanied by a desire for weight loss and/or control.
- You start a drastic dietary protocol, restricting foods, food groups and/or overall calories.
- You feel good, you're in the 'honeymoon period' where you feel a short term high and you see/feel "improvements" due to weight loss and stress hormone production. What most people don't realise is that the stress hormones are due to creating a 'famine' response within the body.
- You lose weight via body fat and lean muscle and your body literally thinks it's starving and has no clue that you're doing this on purpose and so it reduces your metabolic rate - which means your body slows the metabolism down to conserve energy and fuel and increase fat storage.
- After a while, short term progress starts to slow down as the body compensates for being in starvation mode over a sustained period of time. Metabolism and digestion slows and hormone/mood issues arise.
- It's at this point that someone may start to lose motivation and in order to get it back, they dig even deeper, making more unsustainable changes - finding more 'problem' foods and adding even more restriction. Or they might skip this step and go straight to the next...
- The restriction is simply unsustainable, and a person hits a wall or falls off the wagon due to the body's natural cravings for what it actually needs. They eat the so called 'bad' foods again, feeling shame, self-loathing and even fear around the repercussions. Because the body has slowed down, the metabolism because it thinks it's in starvation mode, as soon as you start adding more calories it stores everything it possibly can in the fat cells - so you put on weight, further adding to feelings of shame and guilt around 'failing'. It's at this point a person may even develop an eating disorder trying to sustain long-term restriction.
- At some point, be it a few weeks, months or a year or so later, the person feels so bad about themselves the cycle starts all over again when they decide they need to 'improve their health' and so start a restrictive diet.
Five Biggest Dieting Myths
- Less food is how you lose weight - in the explanation of the diet cycle above, you can see how less food can cause your body to actually store fat if you go into starvation mode.
- Fat makes you fat - Fat actually satiates your appetite and keeps your blood sugar levels more stable which is everything when it comes to weight loss and food consumption. You don't need or crave as much when foods contain fat. Fat is also necessary for many important bodily functions.
- Carbs are bad for you - low carb or zero carb diets are very popular at the moment, yet the brain needs carbohydrates to function well and depending on your state, the more stressed you are the more your body will require carbohydrates and when not eating carbohydrates you will force your body to derive it's energy from the stress hormones - which is exactly what you don't want.
- Sugar is the devil - Sugar cravings are often a sign of lack of food or poor food frequency i.e not eating enough or regularly enough. It's often a cry from the body for energy and sugar or carbohydrates are the quickest way for the body to get energy.
- Raw is better - everyone assumes plants are the healthiest food source. Yes, if you were to analyse the nutritional content of plant foods in a lab they would come up top, yet this doesn't always mean that a person will be able to derive all of that goodness and energy from that particular food. Most people don't realise that raw foods are the hardest thing to derive energy from and a person experiencing stress will often have a compromised digestive system. Add to that, that most people in the modern-day world are chronically stressed, it means that we won't be able to absorb as many nutrients and energy from raw food as opposed to cooked food.
So what can you do to find balance and be healthier?
Other than the obvious (drink more water, less caffeine, exercise regularly etc) here are some top ways:
- Commit to eating three meals a day to regulate your blood sugar which keeps your moods, focus and weight stable.
- Protect your sleep. Your sleep is hugely important for all bodily functions including maintaining a healthy weight.
- Start your day off with a good breakfast - it really is your most important meal. In an ideal world your breakfast would be larger than your evening meal.
- Eat your evening meal as early as possible, ideally at least 3 hours before you sleep. Your body does most of its regeneration and repair whilst you sleep, if it's still busy digesting your last meal it will have far less time for repair.
- Make sure you are calm and focussed on your food when you're eating. The digestive process starts when look at, touch and smell your food. If you're distracted, stressed and rushing your food your body won't prepare so well for digestion, which means you won't absorb as many nutrients or derive as much energy. It also means food might pass through into intestines partially digested and cause further gut issues like bloating and a build-up of bad bacteria over time.
- When thinking about what's a 'good' food - think of quality. Even if you're eating a chocolate brownie, if it's made with simple, pure, ideally organic ingredients it is good quality. Go back to basics and choose foods that have been processed and 'messed around with' the least.
Kate Horwood is a well-being and personal excellence coach.
Disclaimer: Here at Bright Horizons Work+Family Solutions, we understand that you're the expert on your own life and body, and it's each to their own. Opinions are solely the views of the author, not Bright Horizons and are there to inform, help provoke thought and reflection on life dilemmas that often naturally have no right or wrong.