Have you tried diets of all sorts, only to see them fail one after another? American researchers may have found the reason why this happens.
In their recent study, they found that at least 58% of adult dieters report frequent cravings — an intense and uncontrollable desire for treats and high-fat foods that occurs two to four times a week.
One of the key findings of the study is that strong cravings for “forbidden” foods can contribute to the failure of a weight loss diet, at a time when this very craving was cited by study participants as the most common reason for stopping the diet. This is because cravings, when combined with a desire to eat specific foods, are often considered an expression of hunger, especially by women.
Our food preferences may contribute to our failure to stick to a weight loss diet. Our exposure to certain foods increases our appetite; preference for high-fat foods (treats) is ultimately associated with fat intake and weight gain in adults. Specific food preferences for most obese men include foods such as pizza and French fries, and for obese women mostly sweets. In other words, both sexes prefer high-calorie foods that can negatively affect the effort to lose weight.
In fact, the problem is that for many people, food is beyond their control. In the human brain there is the reward center: while we’re full, a treat comes along that overwhelms us. In the reward center, certain eating habits become stronger when we eat certain “pleasant” foods that give us great satisfaction, such as foods that are high in calories, fat, starch, sugar, and salt. The more regularly these habits are repeated, the harder it is for the brain to signal that we are full. Thus, obese people consume large amounts of food compulsively, regardless of feelings of satiety, fullness, or aversion to the food they are eating.
The scientists who conducted the research looked at the combination of two active substances, naltrexone and bupropion, and the effects it had on the brain’s reward center to curb cravings in obese people.
The two active substances act together on the brain and can lead to up to four times more weight loss, as a supplement to a reduced calorie diet and exercise, compared to weight loss achieved by diet and exercise alone. The combination of naltrexone and bupropion in tablet form is available only with a doctor’s prescription and to people who meet the clinical indications for its administration.
Why diets fail
Food plays a central role in society and so do diseases linked to diet. In Western countries, about 1/3 of the population is overweight and 1/3 is obese. But, the most common “disease” is repeated diets. The scales becomes a tool to relate to food. There is a fundamental flaw in this approach. Food becomes the enemy. You may create an addictive relationship with food like with smoking. The difference is that smoking can be stopped, but eating cannot. Food is everywhere and everywhere there is social pressure to consume it. The phrase “Eat but stay thin” is deeply etched in our subconscious. Life becomes a constant struggle and food becomes a burden.
The usual attempts to lose weight are not effective. Out of 20 people who will make an attempt, 19 will fail (95%) and most will not only have more weight, but also more stress. This is not a desirable result.
A healthy approach to dealing with food-related problems should focus on:
- Quality of life
By working with these issues, diet-related illnesses can be overcome, and weight is slowly but surely lost. All that is needed is a different and more comprehensive approach.
Why are diets unhealthy and fail?
Diets don’t seem to work, at least for most people. One may lose weight but soon gain it back, and perhaps more than before. Failure is then attributed to personal incompetence, lack of will, etc. But the fact that diets don’t work is no one’s fault. There are important reasons why they do more harm than good.
- If someone is on a diet (i.e., reduced calories), the body assumes that there is a lack of available food. As a result, metabolism, or the so-called “basic metabolic rate”, decreases. This means that the person will gain weight with the same diet that they were stable with before going on the diet. The rule is: The more diets you go on, the more weight you will gain. This is pure physiology.
- When someone is on a diet they limit themselves from what they want to eat. This restriction increases the desire for it. During the diet, the person is constantly busy with food. Even deciding to start a diet, for example in one week, a person increases food consumption until then. And after the diet to greedily eat more of the foods he craved and had been deprived of for so long. Diets do not reduce desires, on the contrary, they increase them. That’s how our minds are designed to work.
- Dieting is usually seen as synonymous with willpower to be able to deal with food cravings. But this is partly true. Willpower is like a muscle. There is only a limited strength available. We can resist certain temptations, but this resistance works less and less. We make about 200 food decisions a day (whether or not to eat and what). This is beyond man’s ability to resist temptation. A survey showed that children and teenagers have more willpower than previous generations, but the point is that in the modern world the temptations have increased dramatically. Furthermore, when the willpower for food is depleted there is less willpower for other matters, such as making decisions and other issues of everyday life. That is, even if someone is able to maintain the willpower to stick to a diet, they will have less for other things and make poor choices. Diets lead to psychological exhaustion.
- Dieting is not a normal eating process. Dieting further disrupts the natural relationship with food and turns it into an addictive and dysfunctional one. The diet, in other words, increases the problem it apparently tries to cure.
The myth about calories
Obesity occurs when a person consumes more calories than they burn. A calorie is a calorie. We all more or less know this explanation. But, this idea is wrong. In such a complex subject as food, such simple explanations do not work. Some people with the same food and about the same physical activity gain weight, while others stay thin. That is why many who insist that they eat little and gain weight do not believe them. Of course, some may underestimate the amount of food they consume. But there are different reasons why people gain weight from the same calories. Some of them are:
- The basic metabolic rate is different for each person.
- Some foods are more easily stored as fat. That is, the quality of food can be more important than the calories it contains.
- The reaction to glucose, the so-called insuline resistance of the cells may be different.
- Calories obtained from food are highly dependent on gut flora, and gut function may be more important than calories. So calorie intake is not the key to health.
This incorrect explanation is also used for how someone will be able to burn calories. The effect of physical activity for weight loss has been completely overrated. What we manage to burn during a workout is a small slice of pizza. Also, walking for an hour may be less effective than dancing for 5 minutes. In addition, it has to do with the frequency of the exercise. With regular physical exercise and an increase in muscle mass, the basic metabolic rate gradually increases. It could increase by 13 calories per day for every pound of muscle mass gained. That’s not much. 2 kg of more muscle mass (a realistic scenario) equals up to 1 kg of fat lost in a year. The other effects of physical activity can add up to another kilo or two. This result is not desirable for the dieter. High expectations are the first guarantee of failure in trying to lose weight.
Those who want to lose weight realize the effect of exercise on the pounds they lose. They see exercise as the bitter pill to take until real life begins again. The relationship between physical activity and weight loss is different. First, its effect is mild and takes time to be seen. Second, if perceived as annoying and compulsive it undermines willpower, contributing to a poor sense of life. But when it is seen as an important part of life (not as a strategy to lose weight), it will slowly lead to a better sense of body, more will and more self-esteem. The above are characteristics that will help in general but also for a better physical and psychological function.
The intestinal flora
Trillions of microbes live in our gut. We have about a kilogram of living organisms in our digestive system. This is called intestinal flora. These microbes play an increasingly important role in medical research. Some say it’s like a second nervous system. Some even say it is a second brain.
In our gut there are millions of nerve endings which examine the content, i.e., the quantity and quality of the food, send information to the brain and wait for instructions how to act. In addition, the microorganisms send hormones to the brain. Sugar-loving microbes send information to the brain to get a “fresh supply.” That is, microbes will increase cravings for certain foods, e.g., sweets. This is part of sugar addiction. Microbes shape how we feel and behave. Some microbes will get double the calories from the same food as other microbes. That is, excess weight depends to a large extent on the intestinal flora. Some researchers estimate that 50% of obesity depends on our gut life. However, gut flora depends on the foods we eat. That is, foods are important not only according to their quantity and calories. The quality of the food we eat has a huge impact on how our gut works, how we feel, and how our whole body works.
The quality of food
Food provides everything our body needs. But what does it need? Some distinguish proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and other essential substances as important components. However, this view is not enough. For example, meat is considered equal to protein. But broccoli and potatoes have more protein when it comes to their effect on body weight. Spaghetti usually equates to carbs. But whole grain spaghetti is rich in protein, iron, calcium and fiber, something that has been mostly neglected in all these “food-equations”.
Fibers are substances that are not digested even though they are vital for good intestinal flora, for good digestion and for weight loss efforts. A slow but effective weight loss strategy is to simply increase fiber in your diet.
Fat has been considered the culprit of obesity. But this turned out not to be true. Low-fat products tend to increase weight rather than reduce it. According to this, low-fat diets are as useless as low-carb diets. Lately the trend is leading to the increase of high fat products. Fat makes foods tastier and more filling. Thus, we consume less food.
If there’s one thing we’d like to learn from all the research on diets, it’s this: All simple recipes don’t work.
Hunger and satiety
When we consume the amount we need we feel full, at least this is what happens to most people of normal weight. However, this mechanism does not work satisfactorily in most overweight and obese people. Their brain does not react to hormones and satiety signals. This is why all attempts to regulate satiety with drugs have failed. When the inner sense is lost, as it is for many of us, it leads us to rely on external signals to know when we’ve had enough. In an experiment where people took their food through a closed tube where they couldn’t visually check how much they ate, normal-weight people consumed about the same amount and calories at each meal. On the contrary, obese subjects had no pattern. Sometimes they consumed large quantities, sometimes small, but in reality, most of the time small. This is related to the statements made by obese people that they do not consume large amounts of food. This is true most of the time. In the case of the above experiment, they consumed more food because sometimes they ate huge amounts without realizing it.
Satiety largely depends on the type of food we eat. Sugar and refined (white) flour create a metabolic disorder, reactive hypoglycemia, which increases appetite and the desire for more food. To avoid sweets, some use sweeteners such as aspartame or stevia. But this option seems to be worse. In this way they give the brain the feeling that something sweet is coming into the body. But the sensory organs in the gut signal the opposite and the brain feels cheated. This is the explanation scientists give for the fact that people who use sweeteners consume more calories, gain more weight.
Restoring the feeling of satiety is a difficult process and any strategy to improve metabolism and lose weight should aim to improve this feeling. Diets, however, do not aim at this restoration. The most well-known diet strategy, which is now considered outdated, is to have frequent small meals. The logic of this advice was to keep the metabolism active and not cause any disturbance. This strategy works for some people. We could call them “chicken style eaters”. This category includes people who eat a little food at small regular intervals (about every 2-3 hours) and feel good about it.
There are others who are better off with one good meal a day (those who “eat like a lion”). When nutritionists try to put the lions on a diet to eat like a chicken, the lions feel bad and their program is ineffective. A lion needs quantity to be satisfied and with small meals it is very difficult. In recent years the “lions” have fought for this. There is a lot of evidence that going without food for most of the day, at least 14-16 hours is a great process. Many people can lose weight by eating whatever they like and as much as they like, but only within an 8 hour window, say 12-8. When nutritionists try to put the lions on a diet to eat like a chicken, the lions feel bad and their program is ineffective. A lion needs quantity to be satisfied and with small meals it is very difficult. In recent years the “lions” have fought for this.
There is a lot of evidence that going without food for most of the day, at least 14-16 hours is a great process. Many people can lose weight by eating whatever they like and as much as they like, but only within an 8 hour window, say 12-8. This technique is called “16/8” and has many benefits. For example, the body is challenged and this challenge is good exercise for the metabolism. Moreover, for a large number of hours we are not concerned about whether we should eat or not. The 200 food choices we have to make per day are significantly reduced. We must not forget, however, that for those who belong to the “chicken” eating style the “16/8” is not the right choice. Metabolism varies from person to person and everyone has to find their own personal style.
Eating is more about habits than hunger and appetite. We eat at certain times, in certain places (e.g., at night in front of the TV), to socialize, etc. Some of these habits are very useful and reasonable, some are not. We can and do eat quickly, while standing, while walking, in the car or in front of the computer. One approach to losing weight is to be able to work with these habits such as the size of the plates, the amounts of food, where and how you eat. This approach does not deal with the content of foods at all. We just need to create a new routine. This strategy is different and effective.
Eating mindfully is about appreciating the quality and taste of food. This is how we will appreciate the quality and taste of life, in general. By focusing on a more quality life we will slow down the tendency to eat unhealthy foods. No more eating in the car or in front of the TV (which tactic, according to all research, is the worst for weight gain). Little by little, food becomes an expression of dignity and increases self-esteem.
However, changing a habit is difficult. We stick to a certain way of life that we are used to. Sometimes this is just a matter of habit, a mindless repetition. But most of the time it is an expression of our feelings. Eating, and especially overeating, is often deeply rooted in the psychological realm.
The psychology of nutrition
The relationship between nutrition and our emotions and eating behavior is complex. Sometimes food is a sedative, sometimes it acts as a self-reward or self-punishment, and other times as a way to avoid boredom. Mostly it’s just a self-repeating habit, often inherited from previous generations and developed within a larger framework of beliefs. Our relationship with food (how, what and how much we eat when we eat) has significant implications for whether our body’s needs are met or not. Conversely, our body’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction changes our eating habits. Simply being aware of how and what we eat is one of the most powerful methods for overcoming food-related problems. But to achieve this, a little effort is necessary. In this way the effort seems smaller than any diet. Fighting for oneself alone is rarely effective. In practice support groups are the best way to overcome unhealthy behavior patterns.
Effective weight loss and health improvement
Effective strategies to lose weight do not have immediate results. They are effective in the long run. But they are effective. There are various methods to do this such as using different physical, psychological and social mechanisms. Each person will have to find their own most suitable technique. The goal is to create a change in behavior. Trying to lose weight shouldn’t just be a phase until real life begins. It is real life, but the beginning of another life. The notion that we must first lose weight and then feel better does not work. Feeling better during the weight loss process is essential. It starts with the belief that we could do something about ourselves, for ourselves and that we have entered a course of improvement. Punishment, resignation, and oppression do not lead to a better quality of life, even if 5 or 10 pounds of fat have been lost.