Diet is a 4-Letter Word

The psychology of eating

Why Won’t the Scale Budge?

Ever Feel Like Your Body is Fighting Against You When You Try to Lose Weight?

            It’s New Year’s Day; the first day of your diet. For the first couple of weeks, things seem to go pretty well. Your motivation is high; the pounds are coming off; you’re feeling great. And then by week 2, it seems like the scale got stuck.

            In an effort to get the scale moving again, you cut back on your calories even more. But that doesn’t seem to work either. Frustrated, by the end of January, you’ve given up your diet completely.

            Sound familiar? Here’s the thing. Just like your body knows the weight at which it feels most comfortable, it also knows the amount of energy (i.e., calories) it needs each day to perform all of its regular functions (e.g., keep your heart beating and your lungs pumping air in and out). For most of this, this is right around 2000 a day. This is called your basal metabolic rate (BMR). When your body senses that it is not getting enough calories to meet its needs, it will slow down your BMR. So if you feel like your body fights you every time you a diet, you’re right. If by diet, you mean that you are cutting a significant amount of calories, then your BMR will slow way down to compensate for your caloric deficit. And you end up with the dreaded weight plateau. (For more on the biology behind hunger, go here.) 

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            You see, successful weight loss and weight maintenance are regulated by a number of factors – both biological and psychological. Over the coming weeks, we will review several tips you can take today to begin the path to healthy weight loss and weight maintenance.

Weight Loss Tip #1: Eat!

With your body believing that Armageddon has come every time you go on a diet, it’s a wonder that any of us can lose weight. So what’s the secret? How do people lose weight when their body is so good at fighting against them?

Get ready for it… They eat. Shocking, I know. But here’s the deal. We already know that when your body senses that it is not getting enough calories to meet its needs, your metabolism grinds to a screeching halt. So, how do you avoid that?

  • Divide your weight by 100; that’s how many pounds (max) you can expect to lose each week. Let’s say you weigh 200 pounds and you’d like to get down to 120. To lose and keep that weight off, you should aim to lose no more than two pounds each week on average. To lose one pound, you need a deficit of 3500 calories. To lose 2 pounds, that means a deficit of 7000 calories per week, or 1000 calories a day. Can someone say starvation mode?!
  • Eat regularly – remember how your liver started sending out a distress signal at 3:00pm and made your body crave something high in sugar and fat, like cake? Your liver wouldn’t have made you crave cake if you’d been eating enough calories up to that point.  Caloric deficit = craving foods that aren’t so good for us in the long run. So make sure you eat a small, balanced meal every few hours to keep your liver happy!

Weight Loss Tip #2: Exercise!

            Let’s say you weigh 200 pounds and you’d like to lose two pounds a week. Dropping 1000 calories per day is not healthy and you’ll only set yourself up for metabolic slowdown by doing that. In fact, studies with mice suggest that even a mild (5%) deprivation can increase fat storage. So what should you do? Exercise!

            Exercise can help “off-set” the lowering of your basal metabolic rate that happens when you cut calories. How does this work?

  • Exercise (especially strength training) increases in muscle mass, and muscle burns more calories than fat while taking up less space. So increased muscle mass = increase in BMR!
  • Exercise causes enzymatic changes that promote lipolysis (fat loss) – the key is to switch up your workout after every six workouts to keep your body guessing

So let’s go back to our scenario. You weigh 200 pounds and want to lose 2 pounds per week. If you plan to lose half of that weight (so 1 pound per week) through calorie restriction, then that means you only have to cut 500 calories per day. One whole milk venti caffe mocha from Starbucks. Piece of cake! (Actually cutting out 1/2 Piece Colossal Carrot Cake from McAlisters Deli would work too.) And, best of all, your body doesn’t freak out and enter starvation mode. Of course this also means you need to get moving to burn the other 500 calories per day and keep your metabolism humming. But 30 minutes of high intensity interval training should take care of that. So would a hard hour on the treadmill. Or half an hour on the treadmill plus 20 minutes of weight training.

And it doesn’t even half to involve a go at the gym. Being more active in general can help burn quite a significant amount of calories. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, park further away at the grocery store, bike to work, walk around more, and take frequent movement breaks during the day and you’ll end up burning 100-200 calories or more per day. So much better than starvation mode and fat accumulation!

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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