Why is it so hard to lose weight? The science of why dieting doesn’t work — Quartz

The Cold, Hard Truth About Weight Loss

It’s time for the article that should hopefully shape the rest of your weight loss journey for the better. Let’s first start out with a fact: your metabolism, or your body’s ability to burn calories, has a ceiling. We can increase the number of calories we burn in a day with activity, but there are limits. If we run three miles versus sitting on a couch, we will burn more calories. However, if we run six miles versus three miles, we see the increase of calories burned at this distance is less than the 0 to 3 mile option.

This is reasonable, right? The law of diminishing returns provides a good assessment: when the cost to create something is greater than the benefit received from creating it. This theory applies to weight loss in a very important way. We all know the person (or may likely be the person ourselves) who has killed himself on the treadmill three times a week for several weeks only to see our weight go nowhere, or even gain weight. What the heck is going on here?

When our bodies receive the stimulus of «create the energy necessary to run three miles» it does so. But our bodies are brilliant—they innately understand that performing this task over and over again is going to be stressful and that stress can interfere with our ability to survive. This is how our brains work. The job of your brain is to keep us alive and it doesn’t care whether or not we lose 15 pounds.

Our bodies get smart. They learn how to create that same activity with less energy each time. Our bodies learn, and when they learn, we get better at preserving calories. You can see why this not ideal. So now what? What do we do about it?

The only road to creating a fit, lean body long term is to increase the number of calories burned (un-preserve them) via the proper type of activities and reduce the number of calories consumed in a manner that doesn’t tell the body to preserve calories.

Doing this is a delicate dance, and usually requires some trial and error. Finding a good coach can save you a lot of time and headache (yes, I’m a coach but no I’m not saying this purely as a plug for what I do) because there are a lot of subtle details.

That being said, let me give you a light-year head start:

  1. Learn how to strengthen your body with resistance training. A strong body, one with regularly used muscle mass, is a calorie using body — it’s also a more capable, healthy, and aesthetically appealing one.
  2. Take the time to understand your relationship with what you consume, both food and drink. Do you drink alcohol every night? Do you eat chips from the bag vs. portion them out? Do you consume sufficient protein? (There really isn’t such a thing as too much.)
  3. Learn about your body and mind’s relationship to consuming. Is it a stress relief? Is your life organized around food in a way that is sabotaging your weight loss efforts?

These are just a few of the questions that should be answered. My most successful weight loss clients have learned how to organize and reorient the forces in their lives so they no longer interfere with their goals. And when that happens a whole new world awaits you.

Nicky thinks she’s thin because of the way she eats, but actually, genetics play a huge role in making her thin. Nicky gets all the credit though, because people see the way she eats and they can’t see her genes.

Many heavy people wouldn’t be lean like Nicky even if they ate the same foods in the same quantities. Their bodies are able to run on fewer calories than Nicky’s, which sounds like a good thing (and would be great if you found yourself in a famine).

However, it actually means that after eating the same foods and using that energy to run the systems of their body, they have more calories left over to store as fat than Nicky does. So to actually lose weight, they have to eat less food than Nicky.

It’s not just Nicky’s genetically given metabolism that makes her think dieting must work. Nicky, as a non-dieter, finds it really easy to ignore that bowl of Hershey’s Kisses on her co-worker’s desk.

But for dieters, it’s like those Kisses are jumping up and down saying “Eat me!” Dieting causes neurological changes that make you more likely to notice food than before dieting, and once you notice it, these changes make it hard to stop thinking about it. Nicky might forget those chocolates are there, but dieters won’t.

In fact, dieters like them even more than before. This is because other diet-induced neurological changes make food not only taste better, but also cause food to give a bigger rush of the reward hormone dopamine.

And besides, Nicky is full from lunch. Here again, dieters face an uphill battle because dieting has also changed their hormones. Their levels of the so-called satiety hormone leptin go down, which means that now it takes even more food than before to make them feel full.

When I began the abs experiment I honestly believed I was eating healthy. My snacking was minimal. Booze was limited to once or twice a week. I actually ate vegetables. But one of the first things I was asked to do during the project was keep a food diary of everything I put into my face. The process was illuminating.

‘A lot of the time when we ask people to write down what they’re eating, even if they’re not showing the diaries to other people, they end up eating better,” said Girvitz. “Actually writing down what you consume—everything you’re taking in—allows you to take an honest look at where you’re at.”

Little things, when stretched out over the course of the week, added up. Sauces added up. I was drinking more than I thought. There were a lot of sandwiches and my fulfillment of late night cravings were often as many calories as a full meal.

The diary outlined the gap between how I was eating and how I needed to be eating to reach my fitness goals. But even with the information in front of me breaking from my routine was harder than I thought. It took awhile to find strategies that were effective.

I didn’t find the binary of good food/bad food helpful. Instead I tried to think about whether what I was consuming was further away or closer to my goal, and modify within reason. Each time I ate I asked myself if I have the ability to make a slightly better choice.

On a surface level it was pretty simple: balsamic dressing, not caesar. Black coffee as opposed to a latte. Whole foods instead of processed. That basic question, combined with a precise record of what I was actually eating, allowed me to narrow in on what I wanted to do.

One of the reasons I was so miserable during the initial eighty day regime was because drastic changes were happening quickly. I went from hitting the gym twice a week to hitting the gym twice a day. Using food for comfort was no longer an option and I needed more sleep than I ever had before. All of this in tandem took a lot of mental energy.

“So often people start with this idea of how hard can I make it what can I endure. That’s a pretty grim perspective,” said Girvitz. “Fitness, ostensibly, is supposed to be for your happiness.

So why would you approach it with the expectation it’s going to break you? Instead why not think about how much you can do regularly. It’s less sexy than the all or nothing approach but it’s how you set yourself up to succeed.”

What I was doing wasn’t sustainable. Without the framework/pressure of the article I would have quit pretty quickly. When starting a new regime there is always the inclination to go HAM, but if you are the type of person who gets lightheaded when they stand up too fast maybe it’s best to ease in.

What can you realistically manage with your schedule? How do you make that a priority? Right now I’ve committed to four days of exercise a week. Ideally those sessions are performed in a gym, but if I miss out for whatever reason, I’ve got a kettlebell at home. Sometimes I even jog.

How much a person can eat and still stay lean varies. But ultimately—barring some kind of extreme medical issue—fat loss comes down to burning off more calories than you’re taking in. That’s it. On a whole we tend to overestimate just how many calories we lose during a workout. It can lead to stunting things, even when people are working hard.

“I learned pretty quickly that not only were you not adhering to the nutrition regime, but you weren’t really in a place to start making changes—or even listen. You were too stressed,” said Girvitz. “It wasn’t until about midway through that you really started to get it.”

If you want changes in your body composition you’re going to have to eat differently. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have to eat less. I eat more now than before the project started, but the type of food that’s changed.

My meals are all some variation on lean(ish) protein and vegetables. For snacks? A piece of fruit. Some nuts. Again consistency is key: crash diets might get you where you want to go, but without making an overall change in habits they won’t keep you there.

Before and after photos can be scary. Numbers on a scale can be a pain. Writing down how long/what you did during work out is annoying. Same with tracking your food. But without all of that info you don’t really know what you’ve been doing or whether or not the changes you’ve made are working.

“You can’t enjoy professional-calibre progress with amateur-level planning,” explains Girvitz.

Having a quantifiable goal—something more specific than lòoking better naked—is also helpful. Maybe that’s dropping X amount of pounds. Maybe it’s a percentage of fat loss. Whatever. It’s not that numbers are the be all/end all, but they’re measurable in a way that other things aren’t. Information is feedback. 200 pounds is 200 pounds.

If you’re not sure where to start, and can afford it, do some research and find an expert (trainers or nutritionists) to get you on your way. If you can’t there are plenty of great free resources online.

The difference between the first and second photo at the top of this article is thirteen months and thirty one pounds. If we are getting specific my posture, my tan, and the lighting are also better in the second photo…

but there was no cut or dehydration. It was a regular day. When I began the abs experiment I was naive. I had assumed that achieving a superhero body was something that was—I don’t know—ten or fifteen pounds away?

When I lost those first ten pounds I was surprised and disappointed to find that I was only a slightly better looking version of myself. Same thing when I got to the twenty pound mark. It was only in retrospect and checking in with photos, that I realized how drastic those changes actually were.

After the experiment there was a decision to make. I could go back to how I was eating/exercising before, which would have undone the work I had put in. I could try and keep going with the experiment and make a push for a short term six-pack, though what I had been doing during the eight day challenge had lead to twice shitting myself.

Or I could try and find some maintenance level: a new normal that fit with the other things I wanted in my life. Happily, I’m in better shape now than I was when I finished the ab project, though admittedly still not the svelte figure I had imagined.

The difference is that the fundamentals of what I’m doing are now leaps and bounds above where I was, so much so that nailing the basics doesn’t take much effort. If I decide to make another attempt at a body transformation I’ve got better baselines to start from.

“There are a lot of ways up the mountain. But what I’d suggest is taking a look at what takes the least amount of work for you to implement mentally,” said Girvitz. “You shouldn’t need to perform mental calisthenics.

If it’s simple, it’s probably a good fit for you. If you use a plan that fits in your pre-existing structure of your life then you’re more likely to actually do it. Once that plan is a part of your life, you can always adjust from there.”

Graham Isador is a writer in Toronto. @presgang

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