Dieting Flops Your Metabolism
Dieting Does NOT Work
Neuroscientist and mindful eating practitioner Sandra Aamodt shares an alarming statistic: 80% of girls in the U.S. will go on a diet by the time they’re 10 years old. In her recent TED Talk, Aamodt uses her neuroscience research to illustrate how the brain has massive control over how much we weigh, and why, for most of us, dieting for weight loss is unsuccessful. She argues that the body is like a thermostat that wants to remain at a specific temperature setting. Our hypothalamus adjusts our metabolism and hormonal profile in response to weight loss and weight gain–so that no matter how hard we might try, our body will always want to spring back to its “ideal” weight. She argues that this predetermined bodily set point is why dieting not only doesn’t work, but will actually cause harm than good by inflicting damage to our metabolism and hormonal function. This is called metabolic adaptation and fitness professionals see it often with their clients. If a client has been eating significantly fewer calories than his or her body requires for a prolonged period of time (months and years) and if there is still very little fat loss, it is possible that he or she has become metabolically adapted; the metabolism has slowed down to adjust to the body’s new environment and, unfortunately, it is a condition that can be difficult to reverse. The mental effects are just as detrimental: dieting chronically often leads to an obsession with food, which can become disordered eating and an unhealthy body image and self-esteem.
Overweight Does not Mean Unhealthy
Aamodt found through her years of research that weight is not a strong indicator of either health or longevity. If an obese individual eats fruits and vegetables, exercises three times a week, doesn’t smoke, and drinks in moderation, their risk of death is low and very similar to that of a normal weight or overweight individual with the same healthy lifestyle.
So, if dieting is not the answer, what is? Aamodt recommends mindful eating, which she describes as “learning to understand your body’s signals so that you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.” She also offers these tips:
- Let yourself eat what and when you want
- Find what makes your body feel good.
- Sit down to regular meals without distractions
Exercise for weight management
Though Aamodt doesn’t discuss the role of exercise in her TED Talk, science has shown that our level of physical activity plays an important role in weight management. On a physical level, the more active you are, the more calories you will burn; this includes not only your daily physical exercise, but your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis).
Gaining muscle mass through strength training will not only make us strong, but it will rev up our metabolism not only during the exercise session but afterwards as well. Having more lean muscle mass means an ongoing increase in our metabolism and BMR (basal metabolic rate).
From a psychological perspective, exercise helps with weight management by alleviating the obsessive thoughts that arise from dieting and food restriction and which, perhaps counterintuitively, often sabotage a person’s weight loss efforts. A well-balanced exercise program with a focus on strength and health can help to shift the client’s mindset from restriction and suppression to that of gain and abundance. More generally as well, exercise has been shown to positively affect our experience of stress and anxiety and to improve our self-esteem.