Crash Diets & Cravings

Many of us have tried diets in order to shift a few pounds, I myself have tried several over the last decade ranging from the cabbage soup diet, smoothie diets, the green and red diet, low fat, low carb, GI diets, vegan diets, fruitarian diets, various bodybuilder diets to lose fat and retain muscle, and a wide range of diets endorsed by celebs advertised in my favourite magazines. I tried herbal fat loss pills and capsules, differing tonics, eating protein just before bed, not eating after 6pm, having 3 square meals, having 6 small meals, having water with each meal, herbal teas, weighing food, counting calories and counting points all to no avail.

Whilst each diet had a positive effect mentally in the short term and I felt in control of my body seeing the weight steadily decreasing, as soon as I went back to eating normally the weight crept back on and sometimes I gained more than I lost.

The benefits of a very restrictive diet are the feeling that one is on “holiday” from eating, a break from routine. Though this is central to the success of a diet, there is little long term success due to previous eating habits being repeated.

When on a “crash diet” basically eating 20% less calories than usual, the body goes into starvation mode to preserve fat stores from the inevitable famine it assumes is on the way. Water will be released during this storage process so it appears that weight has been lost. This reinforces the belief that the diet is working.

As the starvation continues, the body needs to preserve its energy and muscle uses the largest amount of energy to work. The body reduces muscle mass and preserves energy so more weight is lost. However if the goal is to burn up fat for a more lean toned look, using up muscle will not help. When muscle is depleted, the metabolic rate decreases as it requires less energy to survive. This slows the weight loss so a further decrease in calories is the only way to get any more weight loss.

After the diet is over, and normal eating continues, the new body shape with less muscle will require fewer calories than before. Fat stores start to rise again which is rather depressing, as the result is a marked increase in fat as lean muscle has been depleted. The dieter will be even unhappier with the body composition and will either try a different diet or will come to the conclusion that “dieting makes you fat”.

Another side effect of dieting or restricting oneself is the cravings that ensue. When told a food type is banned, it merely heightens the desire, contributing to the failure of a diet and feelings of guilt and a lack of self-control.

Often we eat when we are not hungry, due to a variety of emotional and physiological factors such as boredom, loneliness, stress, worry and anger. If someone is a “restrained eater” then any of these feelings can cause them to overeat and play havoc with their self-control. It takes practise to distinguish between emotional and true hunger, and to resist eating purely due to emotions.

Sometimes weight maintenance is a more realistic goal and just as important as weight loss. Just preventing further weight gain can bring many health benefits and far outweigh the short-term benefits of a diet. In fact yo-yo dieting can cause health consequences due to the increase and decrease of carbohydrates, in particular sugar, and can affect insulin resistance.

The pleasure we get when eating foods is linked to the hormone dopamine and obese people have fewer dopamine receptors, meaning they require a larger portion of tasty food in order to have the same pleasurable effect. Which means dieting is even more difficult for obese individuals. However recent studies show that overeating can cause further reduction of dopamine receptors.

Cravings and depressed moods are inextricably linked. Generally foods craved are sugary or fatty such as chocolate. Although chocolate does contain a cannabinoid relatively unique to cocoa, the average person would have to consume 25kg of chocolate to receive a noticeable high. More likely, the elevated mood after eating craved foods is due to the “guilty pleasures” feelings associated, and the taste of sugar and fat.

Instead of trying out the latest fad diet, I always recommend cutting out one “bad” food per week, this is far easier to adhere to in the long term. For example, this week try avoiding crisps, next week try abstaining from crisps and cakes, for the following week avoid eating crisps, cake and chocolate and so on.

This will not feel like a diet, it’s a healthy eating plan for life. Allow yourself one cheat meal a week consisting of a “bad” food type such as a piece of cake. Replace the “bad” foods with “good” foods like fruit, veg, nuts, seeds and berries. Before you know it you will be on your way to a healthier life.

Causes of the Obesity Pandemic

In spite of all the modern advances in science and pharmaceutical health in the developed countries, we still face one major health concern which affects our cardiovascular health and wellbeing – obesity. Although there are a multitude of causes, the result is the same for all, almost all obese people have developed some symptoms of chronic disease by the age of 40, and most will need medical intervention by the age of 60. 

Fast foods and processed foods have been blamed for the increase in obesity, due to the high energy content and low nutrient content. Physical activity has also decreased over the years helping the level of obesity rise exponentially in richer and poorer countries alike. In fact, obesity levels are higher in low income families with less education whereas healthier people are the ones who earn more money. 

Labour saving devices in the home and at work mean less activity takes place throughout the day. We drive more and walk less, we have remote controls, power tools, gadgets, etc. Food is more accessible than before, we can eat out, order takeaways, have food delivered, drive through, use the internet to do our supermarket shopping and can supersize on most occasions. 

We are said to be half as active as our parents by about 500-800 calories per day, and our children will be half as active as we are. That’s about the same as running a marathon each week. We all know we need to eat a bit healthier and exercise more, but as no country has yet managed to reverse the trend in the rise in obesity, achieving this would take a lot more than that. 

Famine is still responsible for more human deaths than any single disease; hence the humans who could withstand famine better were more able to survive. Storing more body fat was an evolutionary advantage.  Any strict diet mimicking starvation will set these mechanisms into play. Metabolism will slow down, fat will be stored, and lean mass utilised, hunger pangs will take hold and the mind will be fully occupied with finding food. 

Nutrition plays a big part in being healthy and maintaining a healthy weight, however studies have shown that obese people do understand the importance of healthy eating. 

A vigorous exercise routine whilst burning calories will not help an obese person lose weight if they simply keep eating too much, so exercise in isolation is not the answer. In fact after a lifetime of sedentary behaviours and a general lack of exercise, an obese person will find it hard to start and stick to a program of intensive exercise and may find it uncomfortable. 

Though the environment is often to blame, there still continues to be a number of slim lean people, who live in the same environments as obese people, being subjected to the same adverts, the same peer pressure, the same availability of food and the same surroundings.

So what is it that keeps this declining minority from piling on the pounds?

Although there is evidence of a “fat gene” and animal studies have found various mutations linked to obesity, human obesity is much more complex and there are far more factors to consider then simply genetics. There are certain medical conditions that cause excessive weight gain, including hyperthyroidism, metabolic disorders, sex hormone disorders, polycystic ovaries, brain damage and congenital disorders, however this only accounts for 5% of obesity in the UK.

There are 3 main body types known to exist, namely Ectomorphs with long lean limbs, Mesomorphs with a stockier muscle-bound frame, and Endomorphs with a rounder softer shape. Though most people fall into more than one category, such as an Ecto-mesomorph, this merely accounts for the body shape, not the total quantity of fat we hold.

The early stages of pregnancy determine the quantity of fat cells the offspring will have throughout life, and that this total number usually stays consistent unless severe famine or overeating occurs.

We can diet and shrink the fat cells, but their very presence will cause immense hunger pangs and a burning desire to eat again, bringing us back to the initial weight, as with yo-yo dieting.

Also breast-fed babies generally grow slower than bottle-fed babies, and so are less likely to become obese in later life. Weaning practices also affect obesity in later life, in particular an early adiposity rebound – putting on body fat (normally occurring around 6 years of age) if occurring as early as 3 years of age, causes an excess of fat to be stored and so obesity results in later life. This ties in with a set point theory that we are born with a particular target weight, and despite our best efforts, our body’s homeostatic mechanisms will control this rigidly.

Overeating in childhood causes the existing fat cells to become full. When storage is at an all-time low, additional fat cells are formed and this level stays constant throughout adulthood. Any deviation in the actual size of the fat cell causes changes in behaviour and metabolic rate via hormonal changes, and a resulting return to our body’s “target weight”.

In conclusion, it is not impossible for obese individuals to lose body fat, but it takes a great deal of hard work and requires changing habits of a lifetime. Each pound of fat amounts to 3500 calories, but with the right healthy eating plan and a tailored training regime anything is possible.