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Why dieting doesn't usually work

Millions of people pour their heart, soul and hard earned money into weight-loss products and services that don’t usually work. While losing weight in the short-term doesn’t seem to be a problem for some, keeping it off is a real struggle, even for the most determined of individuals.

During 2015-16, Australian’s will spend a whopping $614 million on weight-loss counselling services and related low-calorie foods and dietary supplements. That doesn’t even include personal trainers or gym memberships! Yet Australia’s collective waistline continues to grow to alarming levels.

So why does it seem like nothing works, no matter how hard people try?

Perhaps it is because in many cases, people are setting themselves up to fail, restricting too many calories and sweating it out in the gym. Don’t get me started on the ‘Biggest Loser Competition’. These types of activities are generally not sustainable as life usually gets in the way. However, there is more to it than simply just falling off the wagon because you’re happy, sad, emotional, busy and these sort of things. There is something else at play here.

"Hunger and energy-use are acutely controlled by the brain"

Obviously, your weight depends on what you eat and how much energy you burn - core principles of most weight-loss products and services. What you may not know is that hunger and energy-use are acutely controlled by the brain. The brain has a set idea of how much you should weigh. This is called your ‘set-point’. Our mind may say eat less and exercise more, however when we lose weight, our brain responds by increasing hunger signals and lowering metabolism to ensure the weight comes back to normal.

There are several chemical signals in the brain telling your body to gain or lose weight depending on whether you are above or below your ‘set-point’. The more weight we lose, the stronger these signals become. Let’s use the appetite hormone ‘grehlin’ as an example. Ghrelin is thought to be released in the stomach, signalling hunger to the brain. Everybody experiences hunger, but to what end? When you lose a large amount of weight, one weapon in your brain’s arsenal is to increase grehlin release, therefore increasing hunger and more efficient energy storage. Always hungry on a diet? Now you know why.

Another example is ‘lipoprotein lipase’ (LPL), an enzyme released from fat cells that updates the brain on the status of fat storage. When we lose weight, we experience greater LPL activity. The more LPL activity, the more inclined we are to store fat. Picture the breakdown nutrients of a t-bone steak traveling around in your blood. The more LPL activity present, the more fat will be absorbed from the bloodstream. The result - weight gain back towards the original set-point.

So what does all of this mean?

Stop wasting time and money on diets that don’t work! They are usually too extreme and cause your body to suffer. Let’s be honest, dieting isn’t much fun. The more extreme the diet, the more your brain works against you.

The solution is to work with your brain and your body by changing what you eat, not how much, whilst participating in activity that is enjoyable and sustainable. Calm your brain down and slowly convince it to lower your current ‘set-point’ overtime so that it then defends a lower weight that you are comfortable with.

Below are some simple tips to achieve this:

  1. Before thinking about following any of the below tips, get serious about addressing your underlying food and physical activity behaviours, one at a time. See my previous blog post - Easier said than done...

  2. Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are not – listen to your body

  3. Take note of how different foods make your feel and learn from your mistakes

  4. Sit down to regular meals without distraction. Be in the zone

  5. Set up your food and physical activity environment for success

  6. Relax around food. Tell yourself that you can have it if you want it, but ask yourself if you truly feel like it?

Nick Nation

Nutrition Nation

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