Why Chronic Dieting Makes You Fat

Step one, you decide that you want to lose a little bit of weight. You research different diets and decide to follow one that creates caloric restriction of, say, 500 calories per day. You repeat this daily for a few weeks and you lose some weight.

Nice going.

However, here is the HUGE problem in this fairy tale: Most people have no idea what their caloric baseline should be and they almost never take the time to find that prior to restricting calories. Instead, they restrict calories on an already calorie restricted body, further disrupting the natural order of their hormones and sending their metabolism into a tailspin.

It is very often underfeeding, not overfeeding, that plagues most active people who try and lose weight.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s take Jamie, a 5’6″, 155 pound female who is moderately active and is 25% body fat. Her typically calorie intake would sit around 1,800 – 1,900 calories per day in order to maintain her current body composition. Typically. However, the overwhelming majority of folks we have coached in nutrition come in nowhere near where they should be (particularly women).

While Jamie needs to be at 1,800, she is in all reality probably closer to 1,200 from experience. She has retained her body fat in that caloric range likely because her endocrine environment is greatly disturbed and as a result, she’s storing fat instead of burning it.

So, going back to step one from above let’s say that Jamie decides she wants to lose weight and cuts calories down to 1,000 per day. She isn’t really tracking or counting what she eats, she just reads that she needs to cut calories for weight loss, so cut she does, and she notices in the first couple of weeks that she’s down three pounds. Because she is so encouraged by her initial weight loss (that is very likely muscle and water, not fat), she decides to cut a little bit more, and a little bit more. After a few more weeks, her initial weight loss (again, muscle and water) stops and she flat lines.

Jamie decides she’s over it, and goes on a binge, no longer eating 1,000 calories but is now eating a “whopping” 1,600 (that’s not a lot)! Even though she should be able to handle 1,800 just fine, Jamie puts on weight very quickly. The initial weight that she lost is quickly re-gained, and, her weight keeps going above where she started.

Her “diet” not only didn’t result in weight loss, it produced weight GAIN.

How? Why?

I present to you, the vicious circle of chronic underfeeding:

Why Chronic Dieting Makes You Fat

The “Weight Re-Gain” phase I mentioned occurs for two reasons.

  1. Jamie’s body has adapted to her lowered caloric intake over time. It has decided to burn less calories because it is interested in not dying, so it’s matched her low input with low output. This low output essentially re-wires Jamie’s Resting Metabolic Rate. Where at normal levels she should be consuming 1,800 per day, she is consuming 1,200 so her RMR down regulates to that level.
  2. When she goes to eat at the appropriate level (1,800), she gains weight. Her RMR is not primed to handle “all of those calories” and the weight shoots back up.
  3. She decides to fix that weight gain with a reduction of calories. Again.

AKA The Vicious Cycle of Chronic Underfeeding.

The only way to step out of the cycle is to spend time establishing your proper maintenance baseline, and existing there for at least a month.

This is a big, big concept with our Nutrition students that we hammer home early.

Cutting does not always mean fat loss. In most cases, unless a proper length of time is spent creating a baseline before the cut, the caloric deficit will nearly ALWAYS result in more weight than before you started.

The better route is to develop sustainable habits centered around whole foods prepared at home, sound sleep, and adequate hydration. Long term, that will always win out.