Weight loss is simple, right? Eat fewer calories, exercise more, and the weight will fall away. No one is going to argue that method doesn’t work to an extent. But in the long term, a restricted calorie diet will not only fail in maintaining weight loss, but it will negatively impact your health.
The mainstream dietary advice of restricting calories in order to lose weight has been around since the middle of the twentieth century. Since then, a lot of scientific research has been done showing that this is not a sound long-term weight management strategy.
“Really?” you say, “I’ve never heard that.”
Most people haven’t heard about this newer research because an entire system has been built around the now outdated but still en vogue low calorie, low fat dietary advice: doctors, nutritionists, school lunch programs, specialized diet foods, supplements, fitness centers, advertising. There is so much money to be made from dieting that the myth has become completely entrenched in our society.
What is wrong with restricting calories?
The calorie as a concept was in usage scientifically during the early 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the word “calorie” was a term recognized in most households as referring to units of energy found in food. Common sense might lead one to think that this new-found knowledge would lead to a decrease in obesity rates if losing weight was really as simple as restricting caloric intake, but the introduction of the term “calorie” as a household word actually coincides with skyrocketing obesity rates, which we are still seeing today. On average, all societies we have record of prior to the common use of the term “calorie” were thinner than those who have lived since its common use began.
Our bodies are really amazing, and they have innate wisdom that we don’t understand. If you can remember back to high school science class, you might recall that all living organisms strive for homeostasis (read: balance). Your body is no exception. Think about it: if you drink more water, you go to the bathroom more often; if you are using more oxygen than you are taking in, you begin to breathe more quickly. These are unconscious processes over which you have no control. The way your body uses calories is no different! While you may control what you put into your body, you have no way of regulating the processes by which your body burns calories.
If you look at animals in their natural habitats, you don’t find individual animals that are overweight. I can’t say for certain, but I would be willing to bet that there isn’t a single species that spends any time thinking about restricting the amount of calories they eat in order to avoid weight gain. We are animals ourselves. When eating our natural diet of real, minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods, counting calories is not necessary in order to avoid obesity or even to lose weight. Studies have been done in which researchers deliberately try to overfeed people with nutrient-dense foods in order to make them gain weight. They fail every single time. The subjects don’t gain weight because the body doesn’t allow you to overeat nutrients.
If our bodies don’t allow us to eat more nutrients than we need, how do we gain unwanted weight and become obese? Undesired weight happens when we mess up our bodies’ carefully regulated balance by introducing highly processed, nutrient-poor food into our diets. It’s the junk food that does it!
The Weight “Set Point”
Our bodies have an automatic “set point” of sorts, the basal metabolic rate, that determines how many calories your body needs to properly function. When we eat food void of nutrients, the body isn’t satisfied because it knows it isn’t getting enough of the nutrients it needs to optimally function, so it allows us to continue eating beyond our “set point” in hopes that it might gain more nutrients. This results in upsetting the regulatory balance of the body, causing it to gain weight and raising the “set point” to a higher level. Remember that principle of homeostasis? Once the “set point” has been raised to a higher weight, the body will do everything it can to maintain the new higher weight!
In order to lose undesired weight, the conventional wisdom of restricting calories asks us to fight against our bodies. This may temporarily be effective, but at what expense? Studies show that around 95% of people who go on restricted calorie diets are NOT able to maintain their weight loss long-term (after seven years), and many people not only gain back the weight they have lost but end up weighing more than what they started with. Why? Because you can’t fight your body and win! If you don’t believe me, just try not blinking or sleeping!
Restricted calorie diets, especially those that include excessive or unnatural exercise, actually slow down the body, lowering the metabolism and causing it to burn calories less effectively. From an evolutionary standpoint, when calories are restricted, our bodies think we are starving and go into energy conservation mode. Fat is the body’s last resort to protect against starvation, so the body will actually burn water weight and lean muscle tissue before it burns fat. Putting less energy (i.e. calories) into your body also means you will get less energy out of it. Many people on restricted calorie diets will start to notice symptoms such as lowered body temperature, cold hands and feet, decreased energy, feeling the need for a nap during the day even after a good night’s sleep, brain fog, memory loss, or general lost productivity. These symptoms may increase with length of diet or “yo-yo dieting” (repeatedly losing weight by dieting and then gaining it back again).
When the body’s “set point” has been raised and weight has been gained, what can be done to lose the weight and lower the “set point” in a healthy, sustainable fashion? In short, eat real food! By concentrating on eliminating processed, nutrient-void, junk foods and disregarding calories, the body will gain the nutrients it needs (and is probably lacking)and will reset itself. Ironically, you may actually be eating more calories and exercising less than before, but for most people, simply eating a minimally processed, nutrient-dense, real foods diet along with a moderate amount of enjoyable exercise will lead to weight loss and management at an acceptable “set point.”
The goal in eating a real food diet is to think about quality over quantity. Don’t worry about how much you are eating (or not eating) but about the amount of nutrients each food you are eating is able to provide you. Sandwich bread, breakfast cereals, crackers, flavored yogurts, sugary granola bars, processed cheese, and other so-called health foods may be deceiving at first. Just because something claims to be healthy doesn’t mean that it is! Eat ingredients as close to their natural state as possible, and find food from organic, local sources. When it comes to animal products, grass-fed and pastured are always the best options, with organic grain-fed being second. See my 4 Food Resolutions for Everyone for first steps toward a healthier, real food diet that everyone can make.
Have you already switched to a real food diet and still aren’t seeing the weight come off? I recommend reading this article from a certified nutritional therapist for more ideas on why your body may be clinging to that weight.
Our bodies are beautiful and seek to keep us healthy, but when we give them less-than-optimal fuel, they can’t be expected to perform their best. By eating organic, unprocessed food and cutting out junk, your body will not only be able to lose excess weight and keep it off for good, but it will perform better at all levels, helping you avoid chronic disease and degeneration.
Are you a dieter? Have you had luck with weight loss after switching to real food? Is this all new to you? Tell me about your experiences!
This post has been shared at Allergy Free Wednesday, Real Food Wednesday, Wildcrafting Wednesday, Simple Lives Thursday, Homeacre Hop, Thank Your Body Thursday, Fight Back Friday, Unprocessed Fridays, Small Footprint Friday, Natural Family Friday, Old Fashioned Friday, Healing With Food Friday, Simply Natural Saturday, Clever Chicks Blog Hop, Mostly Homemade Mondays, Thank Goodness It’s Monday, Natural Living Monday, Homestead Barn Hop, Fat Tuesday, Tuesday Greens, Wellness Wednesday, Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, Tuned-in Tuesday.
CC images courtesy of Jeanette Goodrich and FootosVanRobin on Flickr