Dieting has long been marketed as a quick, effective and easy way to lose weight but lots of diet plans promising weight loss aren't sustainable or healthy. In fact, the faddy eating they encourage can cause bigger issues for our minds and bodies.
Maureen Moerbeck is a Registered Dietician and Specialist Eating Disorders Dietitian for the NHS. She believes many of us have an unhealthy relationship with food – whether that's yo-yo dieting, restricting certain foods or comfort eating – because we've been conditioned to fixate on our bodies and believe that we'd be happier if we weigh less.
She says many faddy, quick-fix diets also perpetuate common food myths – such as demonising carbs or eating too little – that contribute to this unhealthy approach to food.
Her new book, Heal Your Relationship with Food: Effective Strategies to Help You Think Differently and Overcome Problems with Eating, Emotions and Body Image (£12.99; Trigger Publishing) provides clear steps and practical advice to repair these unhealthy eating habits and positively change our mindsets.
Here, Maureen shares the five things she wants people to know before they go on a diet...
DIETING DOESN'T NECESSARILY MEAN LONG-TERM WEIGHT LOSS
Although you may lose weight in the short-term when you go on a diet, you are extremely likely to gain it all back – plus more – in the long-term. Studies that appear to show dieting is effective for weight loss don’t show you what happens to weight in six months, one year or five years time.
Studies that have looked at longer term outcomes of dieting find the same thing you may have experienced if you’ve dieted – weight is regained back to pre-diet levels and often more. Not just that, metabolism slows down, which in itself is a predictor for weight regain.
DIETING AND LOSING WEIGHT ISN'T ALL ABOUT WILLPOWER
We are told that if we want to lose weight, we just have to be disciplined and have enough willpower. Ever been on a diet to lose weight and then you fall off the wagon and eat anything (or everything) you find in the cupboard because you are too damn hungry? You might blame it on lack of willpower, but the issue can actually be summed up in one word: deprivation.
Deprivation occurs when we consistently do not eat enough and drive our body into a negative energy balance. When running low, our body will drive us to eat by increasing hunger and cravings, so that we have enough energy for our vital functions. Always putting ourselves in this really hungry state can lead to out of control eating, or eating way past comfortably full.
Deprivation can also occur when restricting certain types of food. Ever said to yourself, “I’m never going to eat chocolate”, and then, although you may resist at first, the craving gets so intense that you end up eating a whole family-sized bar? Yep, that’s deprivation right there. You may be eating enough throughout the day, but you are not allowing yourself to eat the foods you want. This is a common dieting side-effect!
Deprivation can also trigger “Last Supper” eating. For example, you have put chocolate on your “banned” list and on the occasion you eat chocolate, you t push the “F*** it” button, thinking, “I’ve messed up so may as well eat the whole pack...”. You may even think that you need to get rid of the food from the house by eating it all, so that you can start the diet afresh tomorrow. This probably would not have happened if chocolate wasn’t banned in the first place.
CARBOHYDRATES ARE IMPORTANT
Carbohydrates are often demonised and we are told that we need to avoid them if we want to lose weight. Let’s shed some light on what is happening when we eat and how carbohydrate is broken down in the body. Carbohydrate is made up of molecules of sugar (don’t freak out yet!), so when we eat carbohydrates, our body breaks it down to it’s simplest form – sugar.
All carbohydrates, no matter whether it’s fruit, pasta or quinoa, are broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream in the same way. The only difference is the more complex the carbohydrate, the longer it will take for your body to digest and absorb.
When glucose (sugar) is absorbed into the bloodstream, it triggers a hormone called insulin to be released. Insulin acts like a key. It opens up the cells within our body so that glucose is able to enter. This is how energy is made. No carbohydrate = no glucose = no insulin released = no energy produced.
Insulin also helps us store glucose as “glycogen”. These glycogen stores are vital, as they allow us to draw on a reserve of energy anytime we need it (without having to eat constantly).
When someone has not been eating enough carbohydrate, there will be little to no glycogen stores. The important point here is that when glycogen is stored, water is stored alongside it. The more glycogen is stored, the more water there will be. This is why people might notice their weight drop quickly after they eat a low carbohydrate diet. It’s not because they’ve actually lost weight (fat), but because they have lost water through depleting their vital glycogen stores.
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Carbohydrates are our preferred source of energy and important to protect our muscles and metabolism. If we are not getting enough, our body will look for energy somewhere, most typically our body’s own stores and tissues. To ensure that our body’s protein (muscle and organs) is not broken down to use as an energy source, we need to be eating carbohydrate to provide that energy, thereby protecting our muscle.
We really don’t want to lose muscle, because muscle and our metabolism (the rate at which we convert food into energy) are closely related: losing muscle means our metabolism slows down. A slow metabolism often means rapid weight gain and difficulty maintaining a healthy weight in the long term. By eating carbohydrate, we are preventing our metabolism from slowing down.
RESTRICTING FOOD IS DANGEROUS
When we diet or restrict our food intake we can cause some immediate detrimental effects to our body.
About two-thirds of our daily energy requirements are for the essential functions in our body. When we do not eat enough, we do not have enough available energy for our body to fuel these functions, and something hast to give. The body starts to prioritise: what functions can it stop expending energy on that is not going to keep us alive? Common reactions to dieting therefore include feeling cold, fatigue, reduced libido, irregular menstruation and deterioration of skin, hair and nails.
If we continue to restrict our food intake we start to break down our own body’s energy stores. Yes, this can include our fat stores, but it also includes our muscles. As we cannot tell our body to break down only fat, it breaks down both and we really don’t want to lose muscle. Losing muscle will mean our metabolism will slow down.
If we keep not feeding ourselves enough, our body works even harder to conserve energy, so it will try to slow everything down. This can lead to reduced heart rate, reduced blood pressure, slowed digestion (constipation and bloating), reduced concentration and mental sharpness, and a slowed metabolism. Doesn’t look healthy does it?
DIETING AND LOSING WEIGHT EQUALS HAPPINESS
We are led to believe that if we go on a diet, we will lose weight and be happy. As if it’s as easy as that! Whereas actually, diets can keep us focused on body shape and weight as a means of aiming to feel happy, successful, or lovable. Dieting becomes consuming and shifts attention away from our ability to think about and give energy to other things that matter in life – our values and our goals.
When diets begin to take priority sometimes our friendships, family, hobbies and career can begin to fall to the side. Ironically, this tends to make people feel more unhappy, and more likely to seek ways to change or make themselves feel better, like another diet.
It is important to ask yourself what your goal is? What are you hoping the diet and weight loss will “fix”? Then ask yourself: Might there be another way of reaching this goal that doesn’t have the negative side effects of a diet? Re-focusing on happiness, pride and connection with others in life is actually more strongly linked to the health improvement you seek anyway.
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