If you are one of the many people this year resolving to lose weight, be careful! I just came across a very interesting and slightly disturbing article about the potential consequences of dieting on your long term weight loss. The study was published a few months ago in the New England Journal of Medicine, and the authors ran a weight loss clinic in the area. They noticed that their clients would work incredibly hard to lose weight over the course of a few months, but once they had left the clinic, most people would gain nearly all of it back. This is something you hear about all the time, and perhaps many of you have struggled with this; weight gain is reasonably easy for awhile, but very difficult to maintain long term. The researchers thought there may be something more to this phenomenon than failing willpower, so they studied the hormonal changes in subjects who continually regained weight.
They found that people who lost a large amount of weight by severely restricting calories had some very important hormonal changes after dieting. The subjects had significantly increased the amount of circulating ghrelin, which is a hormone that stimulates appetite AND reduces metabolism. They also had lower levels of leptin which has the opposite effect of ghrelin; it stimulates metabolism and supresses the appetite. In effect, once people began a severe diet, their bodies believed they were starving, and altered their hormonal levels to increase their weight. It is incredibly difficult to maintain weight loss when your appetite is increased and your metabolism is lower than before you started your diet.
So does that mean we are all doomed? Not quite. One thing to note about this study is that the subjects lost the weight by going on a very low calorie diet. The participants ate fewer than 1,000 calories per day, with some eating as little as 500 (the typical diet is 2,000 calories per day). This extreme restriction may have been the cause of the long-term and significant hormonal changes. What this means is that people who are able to achieve weight loss through less drastic measures may not be so susceptible to these hormonal changes. A healthy rate of weight loss is 1-2 pounds per week and everyone should consume at least 1,200 calories per day.
If you are starting a diet this New Year, here a few pointers to make sure that your diet is healthy, and that you don’t sabotage your weight loss down the road:
1. Eat frequently. It is easier to maintain a lower calorie intake if you don’t have to wait 6 hours until your next meal. If you allow yourself to feel starving, you’re more likely to overeat.
2. Don’t starve yourself. Remember that food isn’t evil and your body does require energy to function. If you restrict your calories too much, you may be setting yourself up for feeling terrible in the short-term and just gaining the weight back in the long term.
3. Balance is key. If you pick up a new diet book this year, make sure that you continue to eat all three major food groups (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and that you include plenty of fruits and vegetables. This will ensure you are getting all the vitamin and nutrients your body needs, and it won’t feel as though it’s starving.
Best of luck with your weight loss! Stay tuned for my next post about keeping the weight off!