Self-imposed famine: why diets fail

Now that the holidays are over, many of us are left with extra pounds gained from the beef Wellington, crème brulee, eggnogs and other holiday treats that we indulged upon during the holiday season. What do we do to compensate? We diet when we should be eating. Cutting our caloric intake only triggers our body to slow down its metabolic rate and store dietary Calories as fat, not the result we had hoped for. In fact, many people who try to lose weight fail because they do not eat enough.

Let’s examine the science behind this. A Calorie is a unit used to measure the energy in food and scientifically refers to 1000 calories, or a kilocalorie, abbreviated kcal. One kcal (Calorie) is the amount of energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 kg (about 2.2 pounds) of water by 1 °C.

Our body needs a minimum amount of energy (1500 to 2200 Calories a day) to perform the metabolic functions of digestion, respiration and circulating the blood. If we consume less than the 1500 – 2200 Calories needed for metabolism, our body goes into starvation mode, slowing down all its functions to conserve energy. The brain and central nervous system slow down and the rates of digestion, circulation, and breathing decrease. By reducing our caloric intake during a diet, we trick our body into storing Calories as fat, and gain the lost weight as soon as we stop dieting because our body continues to store Calories anticipating that the famine will continue.

We do not need to starve ourselves. Instead, we need to make sure that we eat enough to speed up our metabolism without eating excess Calories that will be stored as fat. The key — burn more calories than we eat.

Remote controls, hand free phones, ear buds. Technology is single-handedly eliminating almost every reason to move our muscles. Yet exercise can build muscle mass, which in turn increases overall metabolic rate, forcing your body to burn more Calories while you rest.

The body uses energy (Calories) for three purposes:
1. basal metabolism
2. physical activity
3. thermal effect of food

Basal metabolism
Basal metabolism is the minimal energy expended to keep a body that is resting awake and alive. Your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, is the rate at which your body burns calories to perform its normal functions of digestion, breathing, keeping the heart beating, and temperature control. For sedentary people, this requires about 60-70 percent of total energy use by the body. The main reason people are overweight is because their basal metabolic rate is lower than it should be, causing them to burn fewer calories. A low BMR means muscle, liver, brain and kidneys have low energy needs, causing food Calories to be stored as fat.

The good news is that you can speed up your metabolism. The BMR is generally higher in people with greater amounts of lean body mass than in those with large proportions of fat. Here are some tips to speed up your metabolism from:

• Do not skip meals. Always eat breakfast. Skipping breakfast sends the message to your body that you are starving because you haven’t had food in 18 hours or more (dinner the night before to lunch the following day). As a protective mechanism, your metabolism slows down.
• Do some type of aerobic exercise (walking, jogging, swimming, stationary cycling, aerobics, etc.) on a daily basis.
• Tone your muscles with weight training. Toned muscles supercharge your metabolism. This can be accomplished at a gym or at home with a few sets of dumbbells.
• Look for ways to be active. Park as far from the store as you can rather than looking for the closest parking spot. Use the stairs rather than the elevator, etc. Look for the “hard” way to do things!

Energy for physical activity
An excess of 3,500 Calories of energy consumed by our body will be converted into one pound of stored fat. Our body must burn that same 3500 Calories of energy in order to lose one pound of fat. Without exercise, we can only metabolize about 2,000 Calories per day, the same 2,000 Calories consumed, so burning fat is a slow process.

This is why moving your muscles is so important. Physical activity increases energy expended above basal energy needs by as much as 25 to 40 percent. We can easily burn an extra 200 to 300 Calories of energy per day with exercise. This means that if we expend 250 extra Calories per day above and beyond normal daily activity, while controlling energy intake, we can easily lose ½ pound of adipose tissue per week, accumulating to 25 pounds per year. And all without dieting.

I am burning 118 Calories per hour while I write this blog. Add up 29 ½ hours of typing on this keyboard and I will have lost 1 pound of ugly adipose tissue doing something that I love. We can choose various forms of exercise to fit our lifestyle. Playing basketball can burn 680 Calories per hour, bicycling 659, running 897, and walking 299. You can burn117 Calories an hour simply by driving your car. There are many activities to choose from: football, bowling, skiing and tennis. Anything that gets our muscles moving will increase energy expended. If we can find something that we consider fun enough to keep doing it, it will become a habit. Even a small start of 15 minutes of walking 2 to 3 days a week will burn excess Calories.

Results take time. A pound at first will hardly be noticeable — a thickness the width of a piece of paper lost from your body.

Thermal effect of food (TEF)The thermal effect of food is the energy the body uses digest, absorb and process food nutrients. Your body uses about 5 to 10 percent of the total energy that you eat to metabolize food. As a result, in order to supply the body with 2000 Calories for basal metabolism and physical activity, we must eat between 2100 and 2200 Calories.

We can raise the TEF, and thereby lower the Calories our body stores as fat, by eating more protein and carbohydrates and less fat. Because protein is less efficiently digested and absorbed, our body must burn more energy to consume protein than carbohydrate or fats. In fact, we use 20 to 30 percent of the Calories consumed from protein just to metabolizing the amino acids. Our body uses only 5 to 10 percent of carbohydrates Calories and 0 to 5 percent of fat Calories for metabolization. Complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes) contain about half the calories of fat, by weight. And, it is more work for the body to convert carbohydrates to body fat.

What type of diet loses body fat best is a question asked by millions worldwide. Experts suggest consuming less fat (especially saturated fat and tans fat), while others suggest consuming less carbohydrate, especially refined carbohydrate sources. Both have triggered diets specifically tailored to that line of thought, like the Atkins and South Beach diets.

Doctors Yao and Roberts from Tufts University reviewed 25 scientific studies than dealt with diet and weight loss: They found that in studies longer than 6 months, consuming low fat and high fiber was associated with 3 times the weight loss compared to those that consumed low fat only. Therefore, the best foods to eat to lose weight seem to be those that are low in fat and high in fiber. This is quite different to the average western diet comprised of foods high in fat and low in fiber, which are usually meats and low fiber baked goods. This is the same reason why those in western societies such as Australia and the US, often suffer from obesity. Replacing some of the fat in our diet with protein such as chicken breast or tuna in water may help to reduce fat.

Alcohol is a concentrated calorie source and contains few nutrients. It actually reduces the body’s ability to burn fat.

In summary:
• Do not get caught in the yo-yo diet cycle of starvation followed by gaining back the lost weight.
• Energy in should equal or be less than energy out.
• Eat. Do not skip meals. Make sure that you consume enough energy to speed up your metabolism.
• Be a food connoisseur. Read nutrition labels and eat high-fiber, low-fat meals.
• Exercise to build lean body mass and increase energy output. Toned muscles supercharge your metabolism.

6 Reasons why diets fail:

Few Drawbacks to Following a Low-Fat, High-Fiber Diet:

High Protein – Low Carb Diets: Why these Diets Fail:

Lose Weight:

Low cost high fiber recipes for a healthy diet:

Low fat eating may still not be enough to lose weight. Eat high fiber also:

Perspectives in Nutrition, 6th edition. Wardlaw, Hampl, DiSilvestro. McGraw-Hill: New York. 2004.

Speed Up Your Metabolism:


5 Responses to “Self-imposed famine: why diets fail”

  1. themiddlemanager Says:

    Very good, informative article. Your summary is dead on. Keep up the great articles and information – I will be back for more!

  2. Hi,

    When it comes to dieting it is very hard work. My upper body and my legs are fine, its just around the stomach. I’m trying to bring back that six pack. But I did notice in the first couple of weeks the fat started to come of, then I think my metobilism started to slow down, after the initial shock. But I shall keep battlling on.

    Des Smith

  3. What you say is unfortunately true Des. I’m struggling with the same problem right now. We reach a plateau in exercise where our body becomes too efficient – the same amount of exercise no longer produces weight loss. That’s when we have to bump up the exercise, like from walking to running or biking.

    Maintaining a healthy diet is so hard! And it seems to get harder and harder to make the time for exercise.

  4. Most people are concerned about thier weight. I lost 3kg a month by not eating after 6pm daily. It’s work on me. I think is the lesses fats being built up when I was sleeping. But, the harder parts is you have to be serious on this weight loss plan. Because, foods temptation is the main cause to give up yourself.

  5. Good info. My number one tip is to drink plenty of green tea.

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