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Our Unhealthy Obsession With 'Weight Loss': Why Diets Don't Work, and How They Could Actually be Making Us Fatter

04/04/2016 17:14 | Updated 04 April 2016

Let's stop fixating on 'weight loss'.....

The words 'weight loss' have been quoted with inverted commas in this article, because the fixation on weight that plagues the general population, the diet and fitness industry, and the media needs to change.

Anyone can lose 'weight'. A wrestler might sit in a sauna wearing a sweat suit for hours and lose 6, 7, or 8lbs in order to make their competition weight category. Once they rehydrate, this weight returns. Guess what, the weight they lost was water. Is this what the average person who considers themselves to be overweight is looking for? No. The scales might show a 'weight loss' of 6lbs, but what an overweight person actually wants (and needs) is fat loss.

When we talk about a person's weight using the true meaning of the word, then we are talking about their entire mass. The mass of a person includes that of all body compartments, including fat mass, bone mass, water, and lean mass. This is what is measured every time you step on the scales. Weight loss is an easy to measure outcome, it can be a quick and easy tool to measure progress in some instances, such as in clinical practice. But, it must be considered alongside other measurements, and certainly shouldn't be obsessed over by the general population.

When a person aims to reduce their body mass, it is the composition of what is lost which is by far more important than the absolute figure of weight that is lost. When a trainer puts someone on a 'weight loss' diet plan, they often lose weight quickly in the first instance. This is usually because they reduce the carbohydrate intake of the individual, and carbohydrate is stored on the body with water. So as the carbohydrate stores are used for energy, 2 to 4 times that weight is lost through water. Once that store is used, the 'weight loss' will naturally slow. This is normal, but if the trainer doesn't explain this to the person and put emphasis on other measurements, they could be creating a person with an unhealthy fixation on the scales.

So let's think about fat loss, rather than weight loss. This cannot be measured on standard bathroom scales.

Fat mass is an inert storage of triglycerides, which functions to provide a reserve of energy. Muscle mass however, is metabolically active tissue, and is the largest contributor to our resting metabolic rate. This is the amount of calories that we burn at rest, without consideration of our activity. Muscle mass is the largest site of glucose disposal, meaning that it uses the most calories, even at rest.

So basically, the higher muscle mass we have, the more calories we require, and losing this muscle mass is not good. Therefore, when people talk about losing weight, what they actually want to lose is fat mass, and what they want to retain is muscle mass. The loss of weight, as measured on the scales, does not differentiate between the two.

In order to lose fat, we must create a calorie deficit. This means consuming less calories than we require, but in order to retain muscle mass it is important not to consume too few. If you drastically under eat, your body shifts away from using fat as fuel, and starts breaking down muscle tissue, due to the action of the hormone cortisol. Therefore, it is recommended that steady fat loss, with a small daily calorie deficit, will help to maintain muscle mass. Exercise, particularly that which incorporates resistance style training (weight training and body weight exercises), is the biggest driver of muscle preservation when in a calorie deficit. As well as this, an adequate protein intake is important. The other macronutrients (fat and carbohydrate) need to be consumed in the correct ratios to support recovery from exercise, and to supply energy.

The trouble with this notion is that everyone is fixated on wanting things to happen over night.

People follow quick fix diets which are designed for body builders, weight category athletes or physique athletes, but these are not sustainable long term. People do not consider the context for which diets, or pieces of research are intended. The health and fitness industry feeds off people's desire to achieve quick results, but are these results sustainable? And is this actually damaging to our health? This brings the article onto the second point....

Why diets don't work, and how they could actually be making you fatter....

Less than 20% of people who lose a large amount of body mass at some point in their life actually manage to sustain this long term. Unfortunately, most people regain this, and many actually regain more. This is due to metabolic adaptation.

As a person lowers their calorie intake, their metabolism adapts. This is natural for survival, because if a person's body continued to burn the same amount of calories as they consumed less and had a smaller body mass, they would eventually die. In human evolution, the ability to store calories as adipose tissue is likely to have inferred an advantage when food was scarce, but in our current environment, where food is abundant and activity levels are low, this is a problem. A small decrease in metabolic rate is normal as a person loses body fat at a slow pace. However, problems arise when people go on very low calorie diets, for long periods of time.

Very low calorie diets cause the metabolic rate to slow drastically.

The leaner the person gets, as well as the lower the calorie intake, the lower the metabolic rate becomes. Apart from the fact that the person is likely to be losing muscle mass (which isn't good, as explained previously), this isn't usually a huge problem at the time. However, long term low calorie diets cause the metabolic rate to become very low. Furthermore, these diets are not sustainable for life, and when people get to the point at which they either crack and return to their previous diet, or they reach their pre-holiday 'weight loss' goal and think "thank god I can eat normally again", guess what??? They regain the weight.

The worst thing is, their metabolic rate has slowed and adapted to their new calorie intake level, as well as their new body mass (if they have indeed become leaner). The fat cells in their body are in a state where they are highly sensitive to insulin, very sensitive to soaking up nutrients, and there are low levels of leptin around. Consequently the appetite is highly driven, and the fat cells are primed and ready to expand. So, as soon as they return to eating the pre-diet food, the body is suddenly having to metabolise the pre-diet level of calories again, but with a much slower metabolic rate. This results in them quickly regaining fat. What's even worse is that they were likely to have lost muscle mass during their low calorie diet, but what they actually gain back is fat mass, because it is much harder to regain muscle mass that quickly.

Consequently, their diet has actually made them fatter.

Even more worrying are those people who yo yo diet. Constant cycles of losing and gaining weight can be damaging to your health. As well as losing fat and muscle mass, every time you lose weight in an unhealthy manner (too quickly), you are likely to lose nutrients from tissues, such as bone. You are not just losing what you can see, the things that you can't see being lost over and over again as you yo yo up and down, may cause long term damage.

So what do we actually need to do?

The simple answer to this is to stop believing there's a magic solution. The two dietary behaviours that are most associated with sustained fat loss are;

1) Self-monitoring, and being aware of what is being eaten
2) Eating a diet that can be realistically maintained by the individual

It is hugely important to look at ourselves as individuals, rather than following specific diets that we find in magazines, or quick fixes that are being promoted by money grabbing trainers. We need to be aware of what causes us to overeat, and do something about it.

We need to prioritise dietary practices in order of what will make the most sustainable difference to our own nutrition and health

So if complete avoidance of a certain food results in you going on regular unhealthy binges in excess of 7,000 calories no matter how hard you try, whereas allowing yourself this food in small amounts throughout the week stops the binging and only amounts to 2,000 calories, then you need to use common sense here. Lifestyle change is what is needed if we want to lose fat and become healthier; including small sustainable changes to our diets, and becoming more physically active, is the approach that will actually change our bodies.

If you want more information about how to lose fat and retain muscle, stay tuned for more articles by subscribing to Clean Food Queen, contact me via info@cleanfoodqueen.co.uk, or via the Clean Food Queen Facebook page, to see how we can help you.

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