Have you ever dieted and gained all the weight back? Do you blame yourself when you see the numbers on the scale going up again? These months of restrictions just end up being stressful and tiring for nothing. Rest assured, it’s not your fault. Dieting doesn’t work and neuroscience explains why.
Neuroscience and dieting
According to Sandra Aamodt, PhD and former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, dieting doesn’t work and can even lead to weight gain. One of the reasons is that dieting is stressful. Stress hormones act on fat cells to increase abdominal fat.
Moreover, weight anxiety and dieting predict later binge eating and weight gain. In other words, dieting may do the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do. Almost all dieting is “Yo-Yo” dieting: you lose weight and it always comes back. Sure, if you cut down your calorie intake drastically over a short period of time you will lose weight. However this is not sustainable and you’ll end up binging and gaining all the weight back, if not more.
How much you weigh depends on how much you eat and how much energy you burn. Aamodt argues that our body weight settles at set points: the 10 to 15-pound range the brain maintains despite our numerous efforts to lower it.
When we diet, we put our brain into starvation mode. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that regulates body weight. Aamodt explains: “the system works like a thermostat, responding to signals from the body and adjusting your hunger, activity and metabolism to keep your weight stable as conditions change”. The brain responds to weight loss by using powerful tools to push our body back to what it considers normal.
If you lose a lot of weight, your brain reacts as if you are starving and you end up using less energy. That makes complete sense from an evolutionary perspective. When food was scarce, our ancestors had to save energy to survive. Our bodies are just not designed to lose weight, but to maintain it to be able to survive.
The solution: Mindful eating.
Aamodt stopped dieting and started eating mindfully. As a result, she lost weight and kept it off since then.
“I define [mindful eating] as eating with attention and joy, without judgement“, Aamodt explains. That includes attention to hunger and fullness, to the experience of eating and to its effect on the body. Shift the focus from weight loss to self-care.
With mindfulness you learn to understand your body’s signals so that you eat when you’re hungry and you stop eating when you’re full.
Intuitive eaters vs Controlled eaters.
People who focus on their hunger – the mindful – versus people who use their willpower – the dieters.
Research shows that intuitive eaters are less likely to be overweight and spend less time thinking about food. On the other hand, dieters are more susceptible to overeating. A small indulgence like eating a scoop of ice cream for example is more likely to lead dieters to a food binge.
If you’re tired of yo-yo dieting and are curious about what mindfulness is, check out this article.
For more information on why dieting doesn’t work, you can watch Aamodt TED Talk.