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Everywhere you look in health-related media, social media, and pop culture, one central theme prevails: Lose weight for health and happiness. (Read: IF you lose weight, you WILL be healthier. IF you lose weight, you WILL be happier.) Bombarded by this message, we begin to believe it, and we search—ceaselessly, it seems—for the answer. The diet and fitness industries are willing and eager to alleviate our burden.
So we purchase expensive class packs, incentivized by our desire to be happy and healthy (and the “New Year, New You” discount). We order “healthy” and fresh meals delivered to our doorsteps and subscribe to fad diets with lengthy lists of rules and restrictions. We punish our selves for over-indulgent brunches, late-night delivery, and for ordering the side of fries instead of a salad. We grant ourselves “cheat” days, when we get to order a mocha instead of a skinny vanilla latte, or treat ourselves to a bagel with cream cheese and lox instead of a virtuous egg white omelet. And—inevitably—we eventually find ourselves exhausted and frustrated without having lost a single pound.
The initial results of our diet and exercise resolutions are successful in many cases. We feel invigorated by our new commitments to a healthy lifestyle and jump into our diet and exercise plans feet first. As we shed a few pounds, we begin to feel happier, healthier, and more confident. Walking advertisements, we can’t wait to recruit our friends to join us in our #goals. However, more often than not, our “success” is short-lived.
Why are our endless efforts to lose weight through diet and exercise so often met with disappointment, frustration, and weight gain? The answer is complicated, and has to do more with biology than perseverance. But the basic truth is that diets are unsustainable: Diets deprive of the nutrition we need and leave us always wanting, and destabilize our metabolisms.
If only there were a healthy way to increase our metabolisms so we could eat what we want, exercise, and lose weight. Certainly, there are short-term ways to increase your metabolism. Exercise can increase your metabolism for several hours after spin class ends. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: No one can increase their set point metabolism. Therefore, no one can decrease their set point weight. However, you CAN be happy and healthy without losing weight, contrary to diet culture propaganda.
This is a very complex topic. What follows is a brief explanation of set point metabolism and the reasons why diets don’t work.
What is set point theory?
Set point is the weight range at which your body is programmed, biologically and genetically, to function optimally. Just as you have no control over your height, you have no control over your set point. According to set point theory, your body will fight to maintain a weight within your set point range, despite your efforts to slim down. Eat less and exercise more, and your metabolism will decrease to keep you are your set point. Indulge over the holidays, and your metabolism will increase to compensate for the extra calories you consume. There is some comfort in this theory: Trust your body and your body will take care of you.
How does set point influence biology?
Set point is the biological reason diets so frequently fail. When we diet, our bodies begin to sense that we are consuming fewer calories than we need to function optimally, and adjust to preserve energy:
Our metabolisms slow down, and our appetites increase (and we have the urge to overeat). Not only are we burning fewer calories, we also have less energy.
- Changes in our neural networks make us irritable. And, since we aren’t getting the nutrients our bodies need, our levels of the hormone ghrelin increase and we are hungry all of the time.
- We may also sleep more and experience lower body temperatures due to lower heart rates and drops in our blood pressures.
- Rather than burning fat, our bodies try to preserve fat—which we need to protect our vital organs—and burn lean tissue mass.
- These are signs that our bodies have entered semi-starvation mode. When we combine calorie restriction with exercise, our bodies panic.
- And, of course, we miss out on vital nutrients our bodies need to function optimally.
You may be thinking that this sounds extreme but it’s the unavoidable—and dangerous—tip of the iceberg when it comes to weight loss and diet culture. The reality is that our bodies are smart and powerful, much more powerful than our will to deprive them of the nourishment they need.
The key takeaway: Trust your body.
When we restrict, our bodies react; our bodies do not conform to societal pressure and diet culture. In this way, our bodies are miraculously resilient. The key is learning to trust our bodies to take care of us: We can occasionally indulge, guilt-free, in foods we truly enjoy and our bodies will respond accordingly.
This post is intended to predicate a series on “Debunking Diet Culture,” which will explore how specific popular diets don’t work. You can also look forward to future posts on body acceptance and how to find happiness at your natural weight.