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Why Low-Calorie Diets Fail
Spring is almost here and summer is just around the corner. It’s not uncommon for us to revisit our New Year goals as the weather warms up. For many, the goal of losing weight before summer is fairly common. However, it’s one that many either have difficulty reaching… OR they reach their goal, only to gain some, all, or more weight back in a short period of time.
When many decide to lose weight, the first thing they do is cut their calories significantly. A large problem is that many don’t know what they are currently consuming to know how much of a deficit they are creating. Keep in mind, you only need 500/day calorie deficit (3,500 calorie deficit per yield) to begin producing results. And those calories don't have to all come from nutrition but can be split between exercise and food consumption. (Example: Cut 250 calories from what you’re currently consuming and burn 250 calories through exercise). But that’s another blog for a later date ;)
Let’s talk about the problem with jumping into a low-calorie diet and why it typically does not produce sustainable results.
The more restrictions you place on yourself, the harder it is to adhere to over an extended period of time. You may be hungry, feel deprived, craving your favorite food that you’ve completely banned yourself from…. Or all of the above.
In two studies, 21% of dieters dropped out in the first 2 months, 45% had quit by the end of the year. On the flip side, let’s say you commit and stick with a low-calorie diet until you reach your goal weight. Unfortunately, 90% - 95% of people who lose weight with highly restrictive diets gain most of the weight back within 3 to 5 years. We assume that if you’ve made a commitment to reach a goal of weight loss, your hope is to maintain those results. So, finding a sustainable approach - that doesn’t leave you feeling famished or deprived - is key!
Most diets restrict your caloric intake so much that metabolism slows down.
Drastically reducing calories can slow your metabolism down and hinder the weight loss process. A dieter’s body becomes highly efficient at conserving calories and storing them as fat. Cutting your calories too low can send the body in a “fight or flight mode.” It’ll sense that it’s being starved and go into survival mode, which can, in fact, cause weight loss to STOP entirely. If your body isn’t being fueled properly, your metabolism will slow down. (We’re sure you’ve heard this analogy before, but it really rings true: You can drive your car unless you put gas in it. Same goes with proper, adequate nutrition and calorie consumption). A lower metabolism increases the likelihood that the dieter will regain even more weight when old eating habits are resumed.
Regarding metabolism, let’s discuss this a bit further. Not everyone has the same metabolic rate. Many variables come into play, such as:
Body size: Metabolic rate increases as weight, height, and surface area increase.
Body composition: Fat tissue has a lower metabolic activity than muscle tissue. As lean muscle mass increases, metabolic rate increases.
Gender: The basal metabolic rate (BMR) averages 5-10% lower in women than in men. This is largely because women generally possess more body fat and less muscle mass than men of similar size.
Age: A decrease in lean muscle mass during adulthood results in a slow, steady decline of 3-5% per decade after the age of about 30. This can be largely avoided by strength training throughout adulthood.
As you lower your intake of calories, your body will adapt by slowing down metabolism because calories are in short supply. Once your metabolism drops, it won’t come up unless you begin to increase muscle mass. Then when you move back to eating more calories you begin to gain more weight than before because your metabolism stays low. This same thing happens when you lose weight at a rapid pace. I have attached a picture of a study performed on the biggest loser contestants. RMR is the resting metabolic rate. See how it drops after the 30-week contest but then stays the same even though weight increases back.
Now for the GOOD NEWS!
Even if you are at this point with a slow metabolism... you CAN increase it back! Here’s how :)
Build Muscle Mass - Muscle requires more energy to function than fat. So the more muscle tissue you carry, the more energy your body needs just to exist.
Exercise - Regular exercise increases muscle mass and encourages your body to burn calories at a faster rate, even when at rest.
Sleep - Several studies have found that inadequate sleep may also lower your metabolic rate and increase your likelihood of weight gain
Surprisingly the same things that help increase your metabolism are the same things that will aid in your weight loss journey! Calories in/calories out are only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to losing weight. Increased muscle mass, regular exercise and adequate sleep are all needed to reach your goals. And if you’re looking for some additional help in setting realistic goals and achieving them in a healthy manner, contact a YMCA personal trainer. They’re there to help!
Written by Gateway Region YMCA Sports Director John Broadway.
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