When wanting to lose weight the common theme I see in clinic is people ramping up their exercise routine and eating less. In theory it makes sense – burn more calories than you eat, and the kilos will come off. But, the truth is which study after study has shown that, in the long run dieting is rarely effective. Eating a low calorie diet for a long period of time does not improve your health and can do more harm than good.
When you reduce your calories, your body will compensate by slowing your metabolism down. It may work the first time you do it, but when you do this over and over again it works less and less to the point where it often won’t work at all, your body would have reached it set point, or a weight range in which the brain wants to keep the body, i.e. you’ve plateaued. This weight range varies person to person, and is often determined by lifestyle factors and genes. If you then continue to exercise more and continue eat less (aka diet) your body goes into starvation mode. When eating fewer calories than you need for a long period of time, your body switches into survival mode, also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is when your metabolism slows down as your body attempts to reserve energy. This is also when food cravings and binge eating happens, as levels of leptin (an appetite hormone) decrease, causing you to feel hungrier and increase cravings. When you continue to eat less than your body requires your body starts to break down muscle to use for energy. The loss of muscle causes your metabolism to slow even further, so you burn even few calories.
Restricting food, cutting out food, limiting food, labelling food as “bad” or “forbidden” can also cause psychological damage. Guilt comes into play, diet backlash occurs and what I’ve seen a lot of in clinic lately is body punishment, from negative self-talk and/or over exercising. This is very common. I too used to binge and over exercise as punishment. If this is something you’re going through I don’t want you to feel alone. I know how it feels, and if you need help I’m here for you. I would love to work with you to help you find a happy balance, because it’s a lot easier to break old habits when you have support.
Exercising is good for our bodies and mind, but not excessively with constant dieting and calorie restriction. This causes your body to go into a stress response (‘fight or flight’ mode). No matter how many hours you to go the gym, or how clean you eat if you are stressed your body just wont listen and it won’t function optimally.
When your body is under stress it releases cortisol, your fat storing hormone. Every time you eat your body is more inclined to store that food as fat, instead of using that food as fuel as it thinks it’s being starved, so it wants to reserve that fuel. The body doesn’t want to break down fat when it thinks your life is in danger.
If you’ve been restricting food for a long period of time, over exercising and having trouble losing weight here are 3 things you can do to help your body get back into balance.
- Stop restricting foods and give yourself permission to eat all kinds of foods – (easier said than done I know from personal experience), it takes time but start to look at food as fuel and nourishment. Stop labelling food as “good” or “bad”. Allow all foods in your diet, in moderation. Remember it’s what you do most of the time that counts, not what you do sometimes.
- Sleep more – because the body perceives sleep deprivation as a huge stressor. Lack of sleep can also increase your hunger hormone. You are much better off going to bed early, sleeping in a few morning each week or taking a nap when you can, rather than forcing yourself to go and kill it at the gym. Remember, if you’re trying to build muscle or lose fat it’s not going to happen if your body cannot function properly. Sleep is one of the most important ways to reset your body and put it into balance.
- Practice mindfulness – there is no better way (except for sleeping more) to reset your nervous system than with regular mindfulness practice. My favourite way is to put my legs up against the wall for 15 minutes before bed while listening to guided meditation, you could also journal, have a bath a few nights each week, sit and breath diaphragmatically for 5 minutes, try alternative nostril breathing.
Change is never easy, it takes time to adjust to a new mindset that eating more (of the right foods of course) and exercising less can be effective at weight loss and also supports mental health.
I hope this helps you understand a bit more about why eating less and exercising more isn't always the answer to weight loss and why it may not be working for you.
If you need help with exploring this or new ways to move forward, please don't hesitate to make contact.