95% of Weight-loss Diets Don’t Work – Here’s Why

The facts behind why the diet industry is failing us and what you can do about it.

If you’ve ever been let down by a diet or been successful and then re-gained the weight, or worse gained more, you might take some comfort from knowing that you’re not alone and there are scientific reasons why this happens

In this article I’ll share some of the key facts to be aware of if you want to successfully manage your weight. If you’re a serial dieter, as I once was, it will be a worthwhile read.

The Numbers

To begin, it’s worth pointing out that both the diet and the food manufacturing industry work hard to influence nutritionists and researchers. The diet industry in the UK is worth an estimated £2bn a year and there are a lot of people on the payroll defending the interests of the industry.

That said, if you know where to look, there’s plenty of evidence around showing that diets are failing to provide an effective solution to long term weight management.

Two of the most recent studies worth mentioning reviewed evidence from a number of previous research studies:

In 2017, a review carried out by Samantha McEvedy and others revealed that commercial weight loss programmes fail to produce clinically meaningful weight loss. Over half of the people starting diets failed to lose as little as 5% of their weight. The research suggested that the reason for this may be because dietary changes required by commercial programmes are often unsustainable.

More recently, in 2019, another review found that half of the people who do manage to lose weight on a diet end up regaining it within two years, and more than 80% regain it within five years.

So why is this the case?

It’s not as simple as calories in and calories out

I’m going to have to break the news that the calories in and out theory as a way of managing weight is fundamentally flawed.

In simple terms, all calories are not equal. Your body uses different foods in different ways. Consuming 500 calories of fast food will have a different impact on your body than eating 500 calories of fish and vegetables. Yes, the energy yield is the same, but the compounds that the food is made up of will affect you blood sugars and fat storage differently. So, weight management is not simply about the energy available in food, it is also about the quality of that energy.

The calorie myth. Image showing how fast food is different to fresh food.

Your body is a temple…with a thermostat

Your body wants to keep you alive and healthy and part of that is keeping you at a comfortable weight, (in spite of how you might feel about it, your body is on your side). We all have a built-in thermostat in the brain known as the hypothalamus. The thermostat is set to keep you at a stable weight – this is also known as your weight set point – and it’s regulated by some very clever hormones.

In VERY simple terms, you have a hormone that works to take the energy from food and shuttle it into your liver, muscles and fat cells, to use as energy. That hormone is called insulin.

Your hunger acts as the fuel gauge to indicate when more energy is required. Hunger is activated by a hormonal switch: Ghrelin turns it on and leptin turns it off or on depending on how much energy is available in the body. Leptin is thought to be a key chemical messenger in weight control.

These hormones and others work to regulate your metabolism, which dictates how you use and store the energy you get from food, control your appetite and satiety (fullness) and maintain stable body weight.

So, everything should tick along nicely, right?

In theory, yes. But, the quality of the typical modern diet, the stresses of day-to-day life and our habit of yo-yo dieting messes with it.

The typical Western diet, pushed by the food manufacturing industry, contains lots of hidden sugars, refined grains and inflammatory fats. These foods react with the body in different ways. If we’re consuming lots of refined carbohydrates and sugars (often unknowingly) the body increases insulin production, the muscles and liver become full of energy and the remining glucose is stored in the fat cells as triglycerides. This is what I mean when I say, not all calories are equal.

When we gain a few pounds and are tempted by weight-loss diets that restrict foods and reduce calorie intake, it triggers a hormonal reaction. That reaction increases appetite (know how you just can’t stop thinking about food when you’re on a diet?) and slows the metabolism to preserve energy. This process is known as metabolic adaptation and explains why dieters often experience dramatic weight loss at the start of a diet, which then slows.

There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that the more we continue to interrupt our natural balance in this way, our weight set point gradually increases, which is why many serial dieters end up heavier than they were pre-diet.

Your emotional health is also a vital factor in healthy weight management

Your emotions, sleep pattern and stress response can also affect your weight.

These days, we experience a lot of underlying stress. Marital issues, problems at work, arguments with children and prolonged negative emotions are all serious stressors that can disrupt sleep patterns and trigger the stress response in the body.The stress response produces cortisol, a steroid hormone that increases blood glucose and increases appetite. Back in the days when we were cavemen escaping the woolly mammoth this was useful, these days, when we are mostly sedentary, not so much.

Research has also found that interrupted sleep patterns influence our hormones. Disrupted sleep and shift patterns have also been found to lower the body’s levels of leptin which causes increased appetite and lower metabolic rate. Often resulting in weight gain.

If we’re having difficulty processing emotions and turning to food as a source of comfort regularly, this adds to the problem.

The real solution

Don’t worry – there is one. The aim of this article isn’t to startle you. The knowledge is intended to help you to better understand some of the factors affecting weight regulation and why dieting might have been failing you.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that prioritising food quality over quantity, making some simple and sustainable changes to the way we eat (a little more cooking and less yo-yo dieting) and doing what we can to manage stress and improve our sleep could be the path to effective weight management. From what I’ve read, I think there’s a good case for it.

If you’d like to sign up to hear more about my new healthy weight management programme, click here to stay informed and I’ll send you some sample recipes that you can try out.

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