How Dieting Wrecked your Self Esteem and Made you Overweight

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This article is for all serial dieters. If you’ve been dieting on and off for years yet never achieved or maintained your “goal” weight, you’ve been handcuffed to the multi-billion dollar diet industry. I’m here to tell you why you need to break free and how to do it.

Why You Need to Break Free From Dieting

If you are a perpetual dieter, in search of the latest magic weight loss diet or pill, you may be doing more harm than good.

Dieting Slows Your Metabolism
Losing weight leads to a drop in the amount of calories you burn each day so you need to cut your calories even more after you lose the weight to maintain your new weight. This happens even if you preserve muscle (each pound of muscle burns about four more calories per day then a pound of fat) (9). This is termed metabolic adaptation and the reasons for it aren’t entirely clear though the decrease in metabolism is correlated with how many calories you cut and changes in the hormone leptin. Leptin is a hormone secreted by fat cells; it helps regulate body weight and energy balance (7, 8).

The more you cut calories the more your metabolism will drop.

Rapid and massive weight loss seems to lead to the greatest drop in metabolic rate.

Though this happens, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t lose weight if needed for health reasons. However, the “Oprah” cycle of repetitive low calorie dieting followed by weight regain needs to stop.

Diets Over Promise and Under Deliver
Diets promise you’ll get ripped in no time. Research tells us you won’t lose all of the weight you expect to lose (1). And that’s ok. However, unrealistic expectations are a problem because they make you want to ditch the diet or worse, binge eat because you are pissed off that you’ve been lied to.

Reign in your expectations with these validated weight loss calculators:

Pennington Biomedical Research Center Weight Loss Calculator

USDA SuperTracker

Your Life Won’t Magically Change
Dieting tells you your entire life will get better once you lose 10 lbs. Sure, you might need to hem a few pairs of pants and your self esteem may improve a bit. However, you won’t turn into a GQ or Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition cover model. Your boss will treat you the same, your relationships won’t magically improve and everything else in your life might appear to be static if you are waiting for fireworks.

There are many times I run into people who want to lose weight and as I start asking questions and digging I realize they are attempting to control their weight and hyper control their food intake because there is something in their life that is out of control. They are transferring the focus on their body, food and exercise to calm their brain down and decrease anxiety about parts of their life that are raveling out of control.

Don’t use dieting as an excuse to avoid major life issues.

Dieting Tells You “You’re Not Okay”
Many popular diets, pills and programs marketed through airbrushed ads tell you one thing “there is something is wrong with you and this book, program or pill can help you fix it.” They are preying on your vulnerable self-esteem. Taking the bait is like jumping into a dark and depressing pit over and over, attempting to crawl out, losing your grip and getting kicked right back down. Every time you gain a little weight back or judge yourself based on the bathroom scale you’ll feel dejected.

“Where there is perfectionism there is always shame (guilt, regret, sadness),” Brene Brown.

Consistently feeding your mind with a diet of “I’m not good enough” is no way to live. Treat yourself with some respect.

“I’m not good enough” is also a mental roadblock to achieving your goals. One day you’ll have a tough day, come home and say “F this. I’m fat, I might as well eat this whole package of Milky Ways.” Next thing you know you feel like a failure and fall into the ultimate Feedback Loop from Hell. “Why can’t I stick with a diet? I suck.” Once stuck in this mindset, it’s hard to recognize there could be something wrong with the diet itself and the promises (lies) you’ve been told if you just follow it.

I’m here to say you are okay.

Letting Go of the Diet Crutch

If you’ve been dieting on and off for years, recognize that you will have some anxiety in letting go. That’s okay. There are steps you can take to combat anxiety over time and still achieve good health.

What if You Want to / Need to Lose Weight?
If you need lose weight for health reasons, yet you’ve dieted over and over in the past, without reaching your goal, it is time to do something different. Here are steps you can take to a healthier weight and life without dieting:

• Get Support – research shows people who have support are more likely to take weight off and less likely to gain it back.

• Keep in mind moderate weight loss can make a tremendous difference in health. Even small amounts of weight loss can lower blood fats (triglycerides), cholesterol, blood sugar, risk for diabetes and other chronic diseases.

• Start with exercise while focusing on the immediate benefits of exercise – improved mood, improved memory, greater self esteem.

• Be proud of small “wins.” If you haven’t exercised since recess in elementary school, it isn’t necessary to jump right into high intensity interval training three days per week. Start small and be proud of your changes along the way. Even 5 to 10 minutes of exercise each day plus one diet change will help build healthy long-term habits.

• Realize that nobody is looking at you in your bathing suit on the beach and judging your body. We are the harshest critics of ourselves. Someday you will look back and regret not wearing that bathing suit and enjoying the water.

• Go on a diet from the media. Constantly viewing “ideal” body images reduces body satisfaction. In other words, the more you look at popular magazines with airbrushed pictures the worse you will feel about yourself (2, 3, 4). This is true for both men and women.

• Find a physical trait you love and focus on it daily. You will feel better about your body when you focus on the parts of your body you like the best. Conversely, focusing on the parts of your body you do not like will increase body dissatisfaction (5).

• Check out the Happiness Trap – an empowering self-help book based on behavioral psychology.

Follow This Approach
There are two approaches to not dieting and both go hand-in-hand. The first one is Intuitive Eating. Intuitive eating breaks the dieting cycle and teaches you how to feed your body based on hunger and satiety cues. There are number of intuitive eating counselors who can help you with this.

The second approach is Body Kindness. This book is about creating a happier and healthier life. The focus is on spiraling up, the idea that your mindset and mood influences your choices and vice versa to help you stay more positive, optimistic and open to bring the best you to the world — and it has nothing to do with what you weigh. Author Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, a former chronic dieter who broke free from the cyle of dieting and emotional overeating, believes dieting creates a downward spiral because it enhances your negative emotions. Body Kindness is based on three pillars: Love Connect Care. Make choices from a place of love, connect to your body to find out what you really need, and fully commit to your self-care plans.

I use diets, when warranted, and prescribed the right way for those who are not perpetual dieters. I do not recommend them for people who have gone on and off them for years and have a poor body image. I will never forget the time I counseled a woman in her 30s who had been on and off Weight Watchers since she was a pre-teen. She said, “it works for me.” And she was surprised at my response “no, it hasn’t worked for you because if it did you wouldn’t be sitting in front of me today.” She said she was ashamed about how she looked. My response, “let’s work on that. It’s time to let go, break free, give up emotional overeating and body shame.” That’s no way to live.

References

1 Dhurandhar EJ et al. Predicting adult weight change in the real world: a systematic review and meta-analysis accounting for compensatory changes in energy intake or expenditure. Int J Obes (Lond) 2015;39(8):1181-7.

2 Morry MM, Staska SL. Magazine exposure: Internalization, self-objectification, eating attitudes, and body satisfaction in male and female university students. Can J Behav 2001; 33: 269–279

3 Grabe S, Ward LM, Hyde JS. The role of the media in body image concerns among women: a meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies.
Psychol Bull 2008;134(3):460-76.

4 Agliata D, Tantleff-Dunn S (2004) The impact of media exposure on males’ body image. J Soc Clin Psychol 23: 7–22

5 Smeets E, Jansen A, Roefs A. Bias for the (un)attractive self: on the role of attention in causing body (dis)satisfaction. Health Psychol 2011;30(3):360-7.

6 Lowe MR et al. Multiple types of dieting prospectively predict weight gain during the freshman year of college. Appetite 2006;47(1):83-90.

7 Zhou Y and Rui L. Leptin signaling and leptin resistance. Front Med 7: 207-222, 2013.

8 Knuth ND, Johannsen DL, Tamboli RA, Marks-Shulman PA, Huizenga R, Chen KY, Abumrad NN, Ravussin E, and Hall KD. Metabolic adaptation following massive weight loss is related to the degree of energy imbalance and changes in circulating leptin. Obesity (Silver Spring) 22: 2563-2569, 2014.

9 Johannsen DL, Knuth ND, Huizenga R, Rood JC, Ravussin E, and Hall KD. Metabolic slowing with massive weight loss despite preservation of fat-free mass. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2012; 97: 2489-2496.

3 Weight Loss Truths

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If you haven’t been bombarded with weight loss ads over the past week, you’re probably on a remote island soaking up the sun with the waves gently teasing your feet (bring me next time). There’s something about the start of a New Year that makes people freak out, lose their senses and develop completely unrealistic eating plans they will never follow for more than a few days. Before you get sucked into a crazy diet or juice cleanse, you should know the top three truths about weight loss.


1) No One Eats “Clean” all of the Time

Instagram and Facebook are full of photos of broccoli, brown rice and chicken meals neatly placed in Tupperware and followed by #mealprep #eatclean. The only thing more boring than looking at these meals is eating them day after day. No one eats like this all of the time. No one.
I’ve worked with a number of elite athletes who cut weight before a fight, match or event. They diet down, compete then loosen up their diet a bit before they need to diet down again. They aren’t eating bodybuilding-type meals every day year-round.

2) There is No One Perfect Diet

Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, juice cleanses, Paleo, Whole30. There is no “perfect” because what’s right for you isn’t necessarily right for me. Figure out what changes you can realistically stick with, combine these with the general principles of healthy eating and start there. Forget what everyone else is doing, how your neighbor dropped 50 lbs. or what the actress on the cover of a magazine did. If you can’t stick with a plan, it won’t work.

Progress, not perfection, is the goal.

Celebrate each “win,” those small changes you’ve made that will add up to a big difference. You won’t necessarily notice a weight loss right away by making a few simple switches in your diet. However, I would rather people focus on the immediate difference – more energy, feeling better, more sleep, than the number on the scale. Feeling better each day will drive you to continue when the scale isn’t moving much.

3) You Must Exercise for Weight Loss

Can you lose weight without exercising? Yes absolutely. However, if you do not exercise you will lose more of your weight as muscle then fat. In addition to burning fewer calories each day when you lose muscle, you will notice a decline in strength and as you get older and everyday activities will become harder to do – lifting groceries, gardening, washing your car.

If you are not an exerciser and typically fall off when you start a new workout program, figure out what you like to do and do it. Forget all of the back-and-forth “noise” about high intensity interval training, the amount of rest in between sets and if you should train until muscle failure (until you cannot possibly lift the weight again). Instead, determine what brings you joy. What do you love to do? Dancing, yoga, hiking? What did you love doing as a kid? Hula hooping, double Dutch jump rope?

Do what makes you happy. Get moving and stay moving.

In addition to following these weight-loss truths, spend time feeling good about your body every single day. I meet so many people that are hyper focused on losing 5 pounds or 50 lbs. As they rattle off the reasons why they want to lose body fat and how this will drastically alter their life and make them happy, my mind often drifts off. I wonder what percentage of their thoughts are consumed by losing weight and dieting and if they are hyper-focused on controlling this aspect of their life because something else isn’t right. A marriage, their job, a friendship, their child’s behavior. If I ask the right questions something else they are ignoring often comes up.

Maintaining weight within a good range is very important for overall health. Obsessing about weight and dieting isn’t. I’ve coached enough people to know that one day you’ll look back years from now and wonder why you wasted so much time hating your body.

You’ll look back and say, “damn, I looked good! I wish I felt better about myself.”

“I wish I wore shorts in the summer.”

“Why didn’t I go to the beach in a bathing suit?”

“I wish I went to that party.”

I promise you, no one is criticizing your body. Every one around you is too busy focused on themselves. So go out and wear shorts, put on a bathing suit, try on that dress.

If you don’t love your body now, you won’t feel your best every day. You won’t enjoy life to the fullest. Work in this first (or in conjunction with healthy eating / a healthy approach to weight loss).

Because it’s a waste of time to spend your days bashing the body that does so much for you.

Do Carbohydrates Make You Fat?

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When I was in college I would often eat 3-4 bagels per day (free from the cafeteria and portable), along with cream of wheat in the morning, fruit and/or starchy veggies at lunch, heaping quantities of brown rice at dinner, and a bowl (or two) of Raisin Bran with milk after dinner. I wasn’t on an all carbohydrate diet, I ate all of this in addition to regular meals . As a cross country runner, I was just plain hungry. Despite my high carb diet, my body fat via underwater weighing (the benefit of being an exercise physiology student) was very low, as in elite distance runner low. So when I hear people suggest carbohydrates are a surefire path to obesity for everyone, I shake my head and think “no, clearly they are not.”

Carbohydrates have taken a hit in recent years because 1) they taste good and are therefore easy to overeat (Which one tastes better: a jumbo size blueberry muffin or grilled chicken breast?) and 2) carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin from our pancreas, a hormone that increases carbohydrate (in the form of sugar) uptake by muscle and fat cells while also suppressing the breakdown of fat tissue. Sounds like a double whammy right? It definitely can be if you chronically overeat. But, if you only eat the amount of calories you need each day or less than you need over time, you’ll maintain or even lose weight (in the absence of Type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance). And that is why the weight loss research shows that over time higher carbohydrate diets result in similar weight loss as low carbohydrate diets in healthy individuals. However, there are two big caveats to this “total calories” approach to weight loss:

1) If you don’t eat enough protein each day (and I recommend a minimum of 30 grams of protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner) – 0.55 – 0.91 grams per pound of body weight per day, you will lose a good bit of muscle during weight loss.

2) If you have insulin resistance, PCOS or Type 2 diabetes, a lower carbohydrate diet combined with exercise is the most effective way to take off weight (work with your MD to adjust any glucose lowering medications or insulin you are on based on your change in diet and/or drop in weight).

If you want to read more on this topic including the design of an exciting upcoming study, check out this thorough overview I wrote for FitnessRx.

In the meantime, remember there is no one perfect diet for all people. Are there times I ask my clients to cut down on their intake of carbs (particularly the junk food carbs)? Yes, absolutely. But, I take their overall diet, goals and what they will realistically do into account. And you should too. Because adherence, the ability to stick with a diet program, is the biggest factor that will predict weight loss success. So don’t jump on your neighbor’s diet detox 2 shakes-per-day bandwagon or let yourself be dragged to Weight Watchers meetings while kicking and screaming.  Instead, take into account your current food intake (what do you like to eat?), lifestyle, cooking skills, medical history, diet history and physical activity and come up with a plan that works for you.

The Top 3 Reasons You Aren’t Losing Weight

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I’ve probably blogged about this before. But, its a recurring theme that deserves its due space on the internet. There are 3 things that will prevent you from losing weight and they are all too common:

1)  You underestimate what you eat. Studies show most people underestimate what they eat or as I learned from my clients who are in Weight Watchers, these are called BLTs: Bites, Likes and Tastes. We are a society of standing up and eating in our kitchen, grabbing fast food and flying down the highway (or sitting in traffic depending on where you live) and eating while cooking. And, I’ve noticed time and time again that people disregard those BLTs. It’s an unspoken, underlying theme in America along the lines of “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas”: what you eat while standing, driving or reading facebook gossip doesn’t count. Do I always sit down to a meal and do nothing but eat? No, I certainly don’t, after all, that’s so….un-American. But, I am aware of my hunger and when I’m eating outside of hunger (like last night’s chocolate craving).

When I see food logs where people are eating the same amount every day and never indulging in anything that doesn’t come straight from the ground or from the butcher shop, yet they aren’t losing weight, I’m inclined to believe they need a reality check. I better see at least 1 beer, chocolate, fried something or food that comes out of a package or from a drive through window or we are going to have a reality check.

2) You don’t exercise like you think you do. This is a classic one and, I’m going to let you in on one big fat marketing lie, those numbers on the machines in the gym aren’t accurate. If it says you burned 300 calories after biking for 30 minutes, subtract about 100 and you may get a better estimate. And, never exercise to eat (i.e. just because you burned 300 calories that doesn’t give you a license to eat a 300 calorie sundae if your goal is weight loss). If you really want to get an idea of how hard you are working out, hire a trainer for a few sessions and compare what you do with what they have you do. Or, find a friend who regularly does interval workouts and join them. Another idea, strap on an accelerometer or pedometer (I like accelerometers better). I strapped one my foot and found out that I walk way less than the 10,000 recommended steps daily (on days I don’t run or do the stairmill). And, using one has made me more aware of the fact that I need to get walking more often.

Once you try these two things, and if you don’t lose weight, then we can look at step 3. But, first, you must keep a food journal of every single BLT every day for 1 – 2 weeks straight (or alternatively, follow exactly what I tell you to eat an the amounts I give you for 1 – 2 weeks). Next, change your workout routine, put on a pedometer or see a personal trainer. These 2 steps alone get the majority of people from “there’s something wrong with me, my metabolism is slow” to “holy smokes, this works!” Remember, if you are serious, keeping a food journal isn’t really that big a of a deal.

3) If you still aren’t losing weight, let’s look at your hormones. Fasting insulin (? PCOS in women), thyroid hormones (T3 and TSH), estrogen and testosterone for starters. If some of these are low, there are ways you can manipulate them with hormone replacement and diet.

I’m confident most people can lose weight if, and this is a huge if, they are diligent about what they are doing. There are of course cases where people have tried everything and if you are following a good diet and exercise program it’s time to delve into what’s going on physiologically in your body. Sometimes it’s a detective game and, the patient is the one who must do the detective work, find the right doctors, follow through and keep on top of their health.

Best Weight Loss Program: Weight Watchers

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The absolute best way to lose weight is to get a customized nutrition program from a Registered Dietitian who specializes in both weight loss and whatever else you need help with (PCOS, kidney disease, PKU, diabetes, sports nutrition etc. – there are a number of specialty areas) and combine that with a good training program that meets your current state of health and physical capacity.  However, for a multitude of reasons, some people like what I call Canned Weight Loss Programs. Programs that work with the masses and give a one size fits all approach. And, there’s nothing wrong with this but, you should go into it knowing what to expect.

Programs that give you meals like Nutrisystem, work if you follow them.  And, they take the guesswork out of dieting if you just want to lose weight asap without having to put any thought into it. These programs are fantastic for busy people on the go but those who need variety may get sick of the meal options sooner rather than later. Nutrisystem like programs get you used to appropriate portion sizes but, they do not teach you how to pick and choose and put together your own meals.  And while that sounds easy, it is typically where people fail.  They fail to plan and end up making poor choices because they are hungry and have no food with them or come home and can’t figure out what to make for dinner.

As a professional who has worked with many clients who are on Weight Watchers, I feel this is one of the better, more sound dieting approaches out there.  While you count points (which are determined based on calories, fiber and fat in food) versus calories, you’ll get used to sticking within a basic calorie budget with some room for those days you go out to eat, hit a party etc. (each person gets 35 extra points per week). And, aside from learning portion sizes and re-training yourself with how much food you should be eating in a given day, Weight Watchers forces you to plan at least some of your meals.  When you choose a higher calorie breakfast, you’ll start thinking about how many points you have left and what you should eat for lunch and dinner to stay within your point allotment.

Like all canned programs, Weight Watchers falls short in a few areas. First, you are only required to eat 2 dairy per day. In a world where many people have blood levels of vitamin D that are deficient or insufficient and we aren’t consuming enough of this vitamin:  55% and 68% of U.S. men and women aged 31-50 consume below the Adequate intake for vitamin D, 2 dairy just aren’t enough. In addition to making it more difficult to get vitamin D, dairy is your best bet for getting calcium and 42% and 67% of U.S. men and women consume less than the Adequate intake for calcium*.  Secondly, Weight Watchers encourages a high fiber (good), higher carbohydrate diet. Many women I’ve met with are falling short on protein and healthy fats on this diet. And, high carbohydrate (even if you cut calories) just doesn’t work well for some people especially those with blood glucose issues, PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) or insulin resistance. Anyone who fits in one of these categories needs an individual tailored program that manages their blood sugar levels.

For a Canned Diet Program, Nutrisystem works, Jenny Craig works, and Weight Watchers works and teaches you something about portion sizes in a supportive group environment. But, if you choose Weight Watchers, know ahead of time you are very likely to fall short on both vitamin D and calcium (a multivitamin will not make up for the calcium shortfall and in many people it won’t help your vitamin D levels too much either) and if you have PCOS, insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, diabetes or any blood sugar abnormalities, I do not recommend Weight Watchers. Instead, talk to a dietitian who specializes in weight loss and these issues. It’s worth the time and cost – you’ll end up less frustrated and with a better chance of being successful.

*NHANES data 2005-2006.