Posted by: Chris Maloney | January 26, 2014

Why Does Every New Diet-Yes, Even Yours- Eventually Fail?

It has troubled me that we seem to have trouble recognizing that the only response to weight loss is to create a program that a patient can follow for the rest of his or her life.  Anything else, vegan to paleo,  fails over five years.

Here is neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, talking about the brain’s response to weight loss and how the brain, using the simplistic term “set-point” really fouls up even the most advanced dieting scheme.

For those of you, like me, who like summaries, here are the highlights:

Hunger and energy use are controlled by the brain without our awareness.

To quote Dr. Aamodt:  “if dieting worked we’d all be thin.”

The “set-point” is a range of ten to fifteen pounds that is controlled by more than a dozen brain chemical signals that are largely unconscious.  Another dozen tell us to lose weight.  The set-point adjusts hunger, metabolism, and activity to help us maintain weight.  Over our human history, those who could adjust downward easily did not survive .

Here’s the really bad news.  The set-point can rise, but it does not drop.  Successful dieting does not lower the set-point, even after seven years of keeping the weight off. Dr. Leibel at Columbia found that people who lost 10% of their body weight burn 250 to 400 calories less than controls because their set point has been suppressed.  That means those individuals must continue to eat that much less every day for the rest of their lives to maintain their weight loss.

A temporary weight gain, over several years, may increase the set point.  If you think about growing up, then having a higher body weight at fourteen than at seven makes an enormous amount of sense.  Girls who diet in their early teen years are three to five times more likely to gain more weight than their peers. Children who try to control their body weight by dieting are much more likely to have binges.

Before we all go drown our sorrows in hot fudge, Dr. Aamodt points out two things: first, we can honor our set-points by eating mindfully (without distractions).  That would, pretty much, rule out eating while driving and watching media (guilty looks all around).  By paying better attention, we can naturally find a slightly lower weight within our set point.

The really, really good news is when you look at obesity and death.  When you look at following four healthy habits (more fruits and vegetables, exercise three times a week, not smoking, and drinking only in moderation) there is hope.  After fourteen years, obese patients were seven times more likely to die than normal weight individuals.  But by following all four healthy habits, they brought their death rate down to the same as normal weight individuals.  In other words, our fixation on obesity  isn’t the most efficient method for helping ourselves and others stay alive and healthy.

Love your weight, and live your life.


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