Health & Wellbeing

Every Time I Diet I GAIN Weight!

By Laurie Bennie

Why is it that every time I diet I gain weight? It's not just laziness or a lack of willpower. It's because almost everything I ever learned about dieting is wrong! I used to believe:

  • If I eat more, I'll gain weight. If I eat less, I'll lose weight.
  • I'll lose more weight if I only eat twice a day.
  • Fat people don't try hard enough.
  • All calories, whether fats, carbohydrates or proteins, are about the same.
  • Dieting means hunger, and continual calorie-counting
  • Cheating on the diet ruins the whole day for weight loss (so I may as well really go for it).
  • I'll have to watch my food intake for the rest of my life.
  • I won't be allowed to eat what I really enjoy ever again.
  • The feeling of hunger is necessary for weight loss.
  • Exercise is only good for burning calories.

My concern to be thin started as a teenager. Looking back, my weight was probably just fine, thank you, but I felt pressured by others to change. My first diet experience was the then popular low-carbohydrate diet (eat all the bacon and shrimp you want, just stay away from those enemy starches). I didn't realize that my prompt weight gain afterwards was my body's reaction to the diet.

Then I tried a low-calorie diet. This involved eating 600 calories for the first three days, 900 for four days, and 1200 for a week. Then the cycle started all over again. You are supposed to lose 10 pounds during three weeks and keep it off. I lost ten pounds all right, but promptly gained back 20 pounds in the next couple of months.

I gave up on dieting, and decided I was a lazy, undisciplined, overweight failure. I bought some larger clothes and labelled yet another box of clothes on my shelf for the weight I hoped to return to some day. (I have a dear friend who says "Some reward for losing weight - a box of half-dead clothes!")

Your Body's Response to Food Shortage

Was my failure to lose weight the result of a lack of willpower? NO! I discovered the book "How to Lower Your Fat Thermostat" by Dennis Remington M.D. of the Brigham Young University. Medical science has at last figured out why dieting doesn't work! It seems the body has a very complex reaction to food shortage (ie. dieting), which includes:

  • slowing the body's basic metabolic rate (you use up fewer calories just being alive)
  • slowing the metabolic rate during activity (even when you're being active, your body gets stingy with how much energy it wastes)
  • increasing food absorption efficiency (you get every little crumb of energy out of your food, digest it faster, and get hungrier quicker)
  • increasing the appetite (like holding your breath, there is only so long you can resist if you are fighting a subconscious hunger drive)
  • lowering the body temperature to use up less fat (you feel colder)
  • reducing energy levels (you find all kinds of ways not to have to move around so much, and you don't have the energy to do much of anything)
  • decreasing reliability of the feelings of "hungry" and "full" (it becomes easier to confuse hunger with boredom, loneliness, anger, depression)
  • decreasing the amount of muscle tissue (muscles aren't good protection against starvation, and they also burn more calories per hour, so the body turns them into fat storage)
  • increasing fat-storage enzymes and decreasing fat-release enzymes (all of them ready to go to work storing fat as soon as you eat again)
  • decreasing cellular response to insulin.

Research has found that it takes more insulin for the cells to be able to burn the sugars, which lets more sugar get turned into fat, and then prevents that fat from being burned later as fuel. The body starts using sugar for energy and leaves the fat alone.

Increase in Body Setpoint

Who could overcome such overwhelming resistance from the body when trying to lose weight? But wait, it gets even worse. While these factors will normalize when the dieting stops, there is one that will not. The most significant change resulting from dieting can last for years, perhaps forever: the increase in the body's FAT-LEVEL THERMOSTAT, or SETPOINT.

This is the part of the brain which keeps the body at a constant weight, just like a thermostat keeps the house at a constant temperature. No matter what some people eat (within reason), the thin ones stay thin and the plump ones stay plump -- until they start to diet, and then they get even plumper. Because starvation was a part of human history, the brain has instinctive mechanisms to fight it, and that is to increase the setpoint for the body's fat storage at the earliest chance after a famine (or diet).

Depending on how serious and long the "famine" was, the body will add on a number of pounds and then keep its weight at the new level. In my case, that represented about ten pounds of extra weight for every serious diet!

There is one solution for the setpoint dilemma, and only one -- the E word: EXERCISE! Exercise works because it:

  • speeds up the metabolic rate when doing activities, and afterwards for up to five hours (as much as 200 extra calories), and the effect is even greater if you eat after exercising
  • allows the body to be less efficient in digesting food
  • decreases the body's hunger drive
  • raises the basic body temperature
  • increases energy levels (you become more active without even thinking about it)
  • improves the brain's awareness of "hungry" and "full"
  • increases the amount of muscle tissue (more muscle mass burns more fuel, an individual muscle cells burn fuel more efficiently as well)
  • increases the fat-burning enzymes and decreases the fat-storing enzymes
  • increases the cell's response to insulin (the body needs less to do the same job
  • uses up fat instead of sugars, which also eliminates sugar cravings)
  • lowers the body's fat-level thermostat or setpoint (the body decides that if it's going to be more active, it had better be able to move more quickly, so it slims down).

My own history fits with this pattern: the only time I lost weight, I ate the same as before but started folk-dancing and began daily aerobic exercise.

Fitness and nutrition expert Charlene Prickett emphasizes the importance of exercise and a balanced low-fat (but not skimpy) diet for fitness and weight loss.

"You need to do three aerobic sessions weekly just to maintain fitness," she says. "To improve fitness (and really reduce bodyfat), you need to aim at 4-7 sessions weekly." Most exercise experts recommend thirty to forty-five minute sessions for maximum benefits.

Prickett encourages doing a variety of fitness activities, and the best ones for reducing excess bodyfat are "aerobic" (sustained high heart rate activity that substantially increases oxygen consumption). She suggests your aerobic workout should be as intense as is comfortable for you. "Whether you take longer to do it at lower intensity or get it over quickly at higher intensity doesn't matter in terms of fat loss."

Intensity DOES matter in terms of fitness, however. "Intense exercise produces greater cardiovascular fitness with more improvement in the heart, lungs and circulatory system."

Regarding nutrition, Prickett emphasizes regular meals and a low-fat foods. Healthy eating is something she had to learn; she was raised on foods that were almost all deep-fried or loaded with sugar. It wasn't until after she was married that she began to give serious consideration to her diet. Dietary changes have been introduced gradually over the years. Health foods and calorie counting are not her style, but she definitely steers away from fats, which contain "more than twice the energy of a gram of carbohydrate or protein." Also, "the body converts dietary fat to body fat easily, requiring only three calories per 100 calories of fat consumed."

Changing to a diet that has more proteins (such as grains, small amounts of low fat meats and fish) and complex carbohydrates (such as whole grain breads and cereals, fruit and vegetables) will make the body work harder for every calorie eaten. As a result, you will be less hungry than eating calories from fat, and will be getting much more nutrition than fats provide -- you want to be healthy as well as slim. By eating a low-fat diet, you can eat the same number of calories and still lose weight.

Prickett stresses the importance of eating at least three times each day. Research shows that if you eat three meals and two snacks totalling 1500 calories, you burn more calories than if you skip meals and eat just one large dinner of 1500 calories. This is because when you eat smaller meals the body's activity is more paced with caloric intake, and also because food digestion itself burns fat. Also, a special kind of fat called "brown fat" will burn up calories every time you eat.

Another reason to eat more often is that the brain can sense when not enough calories have been absorbed through the day, and automatically increases your appetite so that you tend to eat too quickly and too much for supper, then continue wanting to snack throughout the evening.

Because your metabolism slows during the evening, it will burn less of any food you eat during that time. Try to have all your meals before evening, and keep your supper the smallest one of the day.

The important thing about food intake is not dieting, or counting calories, or trying to lose a lot of weight quickly, but rather eating smaller, regular meals, focusing on foods lower in fat, and following your body's natural hunger patterns (if you're hungry mid-afternoon, have a healthy snack).

For myself, the greatest challenge was getting into a regular exercise routine. For many women, finding the time to exercise seems an impossible goal. But what I've found is that by spending time each day exercising, I feel fit, move faster, think better, require less sleep, and can accomplish more during the day than before. Regular exercise doesn't take away time -- it makes you so much more efficient that you have more time! Late afternoons were once a waste, because of my daily energy slump. Now I know I need a healthy snack during the afternoon if I get hungry. Also, if I exercise mid-afternoon, my metabolism will stay revved. I feel better, AND burn more calories.

So I'm working on it. At least I'm moving in the right direction now, and I'm seeing visible progress. This time I'm going to succeed, and guess what -- I WON'T be dieting for Christmas!

Laurie Bennie is a free-lance writer who can be reached at

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