Here’s one that will make you rejoice and groan at the same time: Dieting is worse for you than being overweight. That’s right, the restrictive behavior of significantly reducing calories and eliminating entire categories of foods puts such a toll on a body, it’s better to simply be mildly obese. But why? It’s all due to weight-cycling, the well-established phenomenon that large shifts in eating habits lead to weight loss followed by even more weight gain. This is why they call it yo-yo dieting. Studies show that along with excess pounds, a complex mess of changes to gut flora, metabolism, fats, and, yes, mental health all work together to make you fatter, unhealthier, and more miserable. So why should you quit your well-intentioned but altogether unhealthy diet plan? And what can you replace it with? Let’s get into it.
Dieting Messes with Your Metabolism
Here’s what happens when you follow a diet — any diet — that is restrictive compared to your everyday eating habits: Your basal metabolic rate, or the minimal amount of energy your body needs to perform simple functions at rest, drops. Put another way, when you drastically cut the number of calories you eat in a day, your body flips out and says, OK, I’m going to drastically cut the number of calories I burn in a day, too. This makes sense: A massive drop in incoming energy looks a lot like famine to your body, which quickly launches into starvation survival mode and refuses to burn any more calories than absolutely necessary. This is why, on three slices of rye toast a day, you’re still not losing weight. (The good news: You usually can reset your metabolism when you start eating like a normal human again.)
Dieting Is a Nightmare for Your Gut Health
If you’ve ever had the experience of working hard to shed a few pounds, only to find yourself gaining back those pounds plus a few more the next time the holidays roll around, you’re not alone. One of the insidious truths of weight cycling is that most people don’t just lose X and gain X back — they gain X +Y back, too. A study in the journal Nature explains why: Every time you add or subtract pounds, a bunch of body-related variables changes including blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and the bacteria in your gut, known as your microbiome. When you gain weight, you develop more of a certain type of gut bacteria that supports the weight gain. But here’s where it gets tricky: When you lose weight, changes in your microbiome are slow to follow suit. So if you begin to regain the weight you lost before your gut bacteria catch up to where you’re at in your yo-yo cycle, the weight-gain-promoting bacteria still in your gut accelerates the process of packing on pounds, causing you to put on even more than before.
Dieting Is Horrible for Mental Health
Here you are trying to do the right thing for your health, and all you’re managing is to make yourself feel worse. Yo-yo dieting has been linked with depression and low self-esteem as well as a decrease in the chemical production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter in your body responsible for the regulation of stuff like mood, sleep, and, the place the slippery slope begins, appetite. Depression causes its own negative feedback loop. The worse you feel, the more food becomes a method for self-soothing, leading to weight gain, followed by more dieting, and greater depression. There’s also the less measurable but no less painful element of feeling like a failure: Regaining the weight you’ve worked so hard to lose makes you feel helpless and like you have no control.
Dieting Develops the Wrong Kind of Fat
Not all fat is created equal. Sure, fat of any kind will give you hell when you try to squeeze into the dress pants you bought for your cousin’s wedding. But under the surface, there’s subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. It’s the latter, also referred to as deep belly fat, that begins to pile up in people who weight cycle — and that’s a problem because visceral fat tissue is metabolically active, meaning it plays a role in the production of hormones that contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and inflammation in your body. As your weight swings higher and lower, again and again, the amount of visceral fat continues to climb, putting you at risk for equal or greater health problems than you would face if you never lost the weight to begin with.
How to Lose Weight and Get Healthy Without “Dieting”
Screw “dieting.” Significantly reducing calories and eliminating entire categories of foods in an effort to shed weight just doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean you just throw in the towel. Instead, you need to make small shifts in how you eat, exercise, and make healthy choices.
Practice Portion Control
So you know you don’t want to have a wildly different or restrictive diet. But just because Atkins isn’t going to work for you, doesn’t mean you could do with eating a little less at every meal. Portion control is probably the number one way to lose a few pounds without messing up your body. Drop your portions by 10 percent each meal. It will add up and your basal metabolic rate won’t know the difference.
Swap Like for Like
So you’re a meat and potatoes person, aiming to become a gluten-free vegan in an effort to lose weight is like forcing yourself to do yoga when what you really love is football. Instead, eat your meat. And your potatoes. The secret is in how you prep them. Instead of going for the cheeseburger and fries, throw a slab of 90-percent lean meat on the grill and roast a few whole potatoes. You’ll be delivering a ton more micronutrients to your body when you choose whole foods over processed while cutting your calorie consumption, ounce for ounce, in half.
Go for Strong
The numbers on the scale will tell you how much you weigh, but they will not tell you how big your biceps are, how strong your heart and lungs may be, or what percent of your body is made up of fat versus muscle. Quit fixating on some number you think is ideal for a guy your size, and start hitting the weights and pounding the pavement. On a vanity level, a fit body looks a hell of a lot better than a scrawny one. And on a life level, you’ll be buying yourself a few extra years you can use bonding with your family.
Balance Your Plate
Growing up, you undoubtedly heard all about the food pyramid — that wacky triangle thing with treats at the top and lettuce at the bottom. That’s still more or less the best way to think about the breakdown of your meals and overall daily food consumption. In practical terms, that means when you build your dinner plate, picture a clock face. 12 to 3 o’clock should be your protein (chicken, fish, beans, or red meat); 3 to 6 o’clock is your starch (rice, potatoes, pasta), the other half — or 6 to 12 o’clock — should be veggies: Salad, steamed broccoli, green beans, roasted carrots, and so on. Laying out your meal this way saves you the trouble of counting every calorie because it’s virtually impossible to overeat when the highest-cal foods are the smallest servings on your plate.
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