Posted on September 08 2018
Not everybody is interested in losing weight, but many people are. Witness the huge diet industry (Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, Jenny Craig, and various name-brand “diets” too numerous to mention). Losing weight can be an important goal, as being overweight can contribute to many serious health problems like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc. But many, many people find it almost impossible to lose weight and keep it off, and I am going to tell you why. I am also going to tell you how to finally lose weight and become healthier.
There are three primary factors contributing to weight gain: 1. What you eat; 2. How much you eat; and 3. How much you exercise. I am going to focus on the first two factors, as they are the primary contributors to weight gain, and therefore they are the keys to losing weight.
What you eat and how much you eat determine the number of calories you consume. You can eat a lot of low-calorie foods and be OK. You can eat a little high-calorie food and be OK. You can’t eat a lot of high calorie food and be OK. But that is exactly what most Americans are doing, resulting in the fact that two-thirds of adult Americans are overweight.
So here is the “secret” to weight loss and health: you have to change your lifestyle, not go on a diet. And here’s why:
As you lose weight, the number of baseline calories you burn doing what you normally do begins to drop. In other words, it is like in response to losing weight your metabolism slows down and you start burning fewer calories and your body starts to demand more calories to compensate for the weight loss. Technically, this is because your body starts to reduce the amount of a hormone called leptin it secrets, and leptin is a hormone that helps inhibit hunger feelings. As leptin goes down, the feeling of hunger goes up. And the more weight you lose, the more leptin is reduced, making you feel hungrier.
Not only that, but the body starts to secret more of another hormone, ghrelin, which stimulates hunger feelings. So, the hunger inhibitor is going down and the hunger stimulant is going up, making you feel hungrier and hungrier the more weight you lose. The result is that as you lose weight your body compensates by making you hungrier. In one study, participants’ calorie intake was closely monitored and it was determined that for every pound lost, appetite increased by 45 calories per day. So, by losing 10 pounds, your body starts calling for an additional 450 calories per day. And, to make things even worse, the number of calories you body is actually burning is going down by about 10 to 15 calories for every pound you lose, again as a way for the body to compensate for the weight loss. So, losing 10 pounds causes your body to burn something like 100 to 150 fewer calories per day.
This is why going on a diet is almost always a failure, and any weight that is lost is gained back. When you first start your diet, you lose weight, but your body starts producing more ghrelin and less leptin so you feel hungrier and hungrier, then you plateau, then you start to gain the weight back. Sound familiar? In addition to these physiological changes, there are complementary psychological changes going on. Your initial enthusiasm for the diet and losing weight begins to diminish as you approach the plateau, because you see diminishing returns on your efforts to maintain your diet and lose weight. Then you hit the plateau and it becomes extremely difficult to maintain your motivation and diet when you are seeing no additional weight loss. So, you start to give up on the diet, and maybe start looking for an alternative diet.
What can you do about this dilemma? The most important thing you can do is to get out of the mindset of “going on a diet” and “giving up” things to eat. You must get into the mindset of “changing your lifestyle”. Try to formulate your own healthy diet that is as low in calories and as high on satisfaction as possible, because basically you have to stick to your new “lifestyle” diet forever. Probably the easiest way to do this is to simply eat less of the things that you like that are high calorie and eat more of the things that you like that are low calorie. In addition, you should try to avoid (if possible) “empty calorie” sugary drinks like soda pop and try to strictly limit the frequency of fast food and restaurant meals, because (believe me) restaurants do not care about your weight or your health, they only want their ultra-processed food to taste great, so they load it up with fat and sugar and salt.
You may ask, have I tried to follow this advice? Yes. Does it work? Yes. I like meat, but I cut my steak or chicken breast in half and only eat half of a “normal” portion at each meal. And I like vegetables so I increased my consumption of vegetables, because vegetables are much lower in calories than meat. I also like salads and I increased my consumption of salads, too. So, I don’t feel hungry because I am full of vegetables and salad and some meat. And, I like desert, but I switched from high-calorie premium ice cream to low-calorie Halo Top ice cream, and while Halo Top is not as enjoyable as the premium ice cream, it is good enough to satisfy my sweet tooth. I really don’t feel like I have had to “give up” anything. I am confident that I can maintain this diet long term. And, as a result, I have hit my weight target and am succeeding in maintaining it (most of the time).
I find the biggest challenges to maintaining a healthier lifestyle are cultural. It isn’t that I want to enjoy restaurant food, it is that my friends and acquaintances want to enjoy restaurant food, and if I want to “hang” with them, I have to manage their enthusiasm for high-calorie snacks and meals. Not easy, but doable. It’s easier if there are available a variety of restaurants that serve healthier-type dishes that I can select from on the menu. And I have an advantage that many don’t have: all my kids have become vegan, so when I go out with them it is invariably to a restaurant with a preponderance of healthy meal choices (but I still don’t choose tofu when I can avoid it).
But you know what? I have also found that my tastes have changed. I consider the typical high-fat, high-calorie, large-portion restaurant type meal to be much less interesting than it once was. I have come to prefer the modest, healthy home-cooked meals that I can put together myself.
So, if losing weight is one of your goals, I sincerely hope this blog proves to be helpful to you. I know, from personal experience and all the research I have done, it is not easy to lose weight and keep it off. All I can add is, good luck!