Do you know the study I’d like to do? One where you compare a person’s weight to the number of diets they’ve been on. I would bet money that the heavier you are, the more likely your weight gain occurred in the pattern on the right:
On left, there’s slow, gradual weight gain that you might expect over a great deal of time. Maybe there’s a little of eating more, moving less in there, probably with a little aging-related metabolism slowing down.
On the right is the kind of yo-yo weight loss and gain that I think most dieters find very familiar. I know it’s my story.
A lean body mass set-point?
So I found Jimmy Moore’s recent podcast with Greg Ellis to be very interesting. In it, Dr. Ellis suggested an explanation that goes above and beyond the idea of fat stores wanting to be refilled (starting at 44:50, emphasis mine).
[After weight loss,] the fat tissue itself sends out very, very strong signals trying to make you eat. And they’re almost impossible to overcome … you start laying down body fat at a tremendous rate.
But you also want to increase your lean body mass. But the fat mass will increase up to 150% of what it was before the lean body mass gets back to where it was, and your hunger is not going to turn off until then.
In other words, when you go off your diet and start piling on the pounds (again), they don’t necessarily go back on the same way they came off … you’re far more likely to put on more fat first.
So if you keep going until your lean mass is restored, by the time your weight stabilizes, you’re likely to have gained more weight than you lost. I don’t know about you, but boy, does that sound familiar!
Interestingly, this rat study suggests that dieting may be even more problematic than starvation in this regard:
Starved and restricted rats had lost 11 g of protein and 28 g of fat. Starved rats regained protein earlier than body fat. Restricted rats recovered body fat much earlier than body protein or weight.
Wow. Sure explains a LOT if this holds true.
Of course, there are many other knocks against dieting. It might lead to food addiction problems, it’s a stressor that raises cortisol levels and messes with your mind, and of course, there’s just not a lot of evidence that “diets lead to lasting weight loss or health beneﬁts.”
If not dieting, then what?
Whether or not Dr. Ellis is right about a set point for lean body mass related to fat mass, there are certainly some implications for weight loss:
- Any weight lost must be fat; losing lean body mass may set you up for all sorts of problems related to regain and/or metabolism.
- Crash dieting is the worst thing possible, as it implies that you’ll go back to your old way of eating. If that at all resembles an industrial food diet with its refined carbs, sugar and omega-6-laden veggie oils, you’re likely to be unable to maintain your loss. As Dr. Ellis says in the podcast: “Your biology will always beat willpower.“
- The diet industry is no more interested in your well-being than the food industry is; they are laughing all the way to the bank while we ride the yo-yo dieting rollercoaster.
So here’s my current strategy:
- Changing the way I eat, not going on a “diet.” I like Kurt Harris, Loren Cordain, Mark Sisson, or Paul Jaminet for good approaches (am doing my own variant of these).
- Trying to fix what’s broken. For me, that’s insulin resistance and lowered lean body mass. I’m three weeks into trying high-intensity strength training and already love it. I took a big hit this week on the scale, and think that’s a great sign ;).
- Trying new strategies for dealing with stress-related overeating, including neurofeedback.
I’m not sure the health at any size folks would agree with my approach, but I agree with them that it’s essential that we change the focus from weight to health. Because it’s really looking like the only proven way to gain weight is to go on a diet!