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Weight loss and dieting: Why is it so hard to lose weight?

Thomas Secrest's picture
Thomas Secrest

Weight loss through dieting is something you have probably tried. In fact you are probably reading this because you have tried losing weight in the past and you weren’t as successful as you would have liked. In yesterday’s article we spent time looking at and understanding why weight goes on so fast. Today we will look at why it comes off so slow.

To quickly summarize yesterday's message, weight goes on fast because our physiology as been tuned for thousands and thousands of years to store any extra calories available to us. In the past, our species had a feast or famine lifestyle, with the famines being more common than feasts.

Without even primitive techniques for storing food, when confronted with a feast (i.e. more calories than you needed that day) the body would store any extra as fat. Then the fat would act as a calorie reserve during days of famine.

Since feasts back then were much less bountiful than feasts today, our great ancestors were not usually overweight. The physiology of our bodies today has barely changed but food availability has made every day a feast day. We have no way of telling our body that the days of famine are over. Our bodies live as though tomorrow will start a long period of famine and so it happily stores all the extra calories you eat each day as fat.

If all of that weren’t bad enough, the human body can also store incredible amounts of fat, almost to the point of being unlimited.

In the third article of the series we faced the hard reality that your body doesn’t know where your calories come from and we saw that whenever our caloric intake is above the number of calories we burn each day, the body will store those extra calories, mainly as fat. What’s more, it’s true for all foods. You can get fat on broccoli, oatmeal, grapefruit, bran-flakes, steak or ice cream. Your fat cells store broccoli calories exactly the same way they store ice cream calories.

However, and you probably already know this, you can gain weight much faster eating ice cream than broccoli, but if you eat more broccoli calories than you need, you will still gain weight.

So why is it so hard to loss weight?

Again the answer lies with our physiology. Even though numbers are our friends, I apologize now for what follows. However, if you understand these numbers you’ll never believe one of those spectacular weight loss ads ever again. Remember, knowledge is power and power means a more successful weight loss program.

We need to go back in time and visit the life of a typical cavewoman. Let’s assume she burns 2000 calories per average day. Now let’s assume there have been 10 days of feasts. On each day she consumed 3000 calories, so she would store about 1000 calories as fat on each of those days. At the end of 10 days she has stored a total of 10,000 calories. If she stepped on a scale she would see that she had gained about 3 pounds. So far so good.

Tip: One pound of fat is equal to 3500 calories

On the eleventh day a famine starts and our cavewoman is only able to consume 1000 calories per day. You may be thinking, no problem she can burn 1000 calories of her stored fat each day for a daily average of 2000 calories (1000 from food + 1000 from fat), which is what she needs. This is perfect if the famine last 10 days. But how long do famines last? It's like asking how long is a piece of string? We don’t know and neither does your body.

Therein lies the rub. The body immediately starts to conserve calories on the off chance that the famine goes on for weeks or months. Every day that passes without eating 2000 calories causes the body to reduce it’s caloric needs to live (i.e. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) -- remember we talked about that in the third article?)

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Within a few days, the body has reduced her daily needs to 1800 calories per day. Now she only takes 800 calories from fat. Over the next few days, the body reduces her needs to 1500 calories per day and her body only burns 500 calories of fat -- and on and on. The body does everything it can to make the fat reserves last as long as possible. Once you run out of fat, the body must begin to burn protein, usually muscle mass. In the past reduced muscle mass could easily spell death in a world that was very physically demanding.

What if the famine gets worse? That is, what if she can only find 800 calories per day instead of 1000? Her body would respond by shutting down more less-essential body functions, her BMR would reduce further and she would conserve fat even more aggressively.

What are less-essential body functions?

Remember everything your body does requires calories. Did you ever notice that if you dieted hard, your hair slowed or stopped growing. Hair growth uses calories and is less-essential than keeping your heart beating. Menstruation can also change under diet conditions. Bone growth slows or stops, muscle growth slows or stops. Almost everything that you can do without temporarily begins to change.

In my opinion, the absolute worst thing that happens is hunger. The chemicals in your body that are steadily reducing your metabolism and conserving every calorie you have stored as fat, are also acting on your brain creating food obsession. More and more of your waking hours are spent thinking about food. For our cavewoman this is a benefit. It drives her to seek food continuously, to look everywhere, to try anything to get food, since without it she would die.

Our physiology allowed our species to survive long periods of famine. Without this ability, we wouldn’t be here. We, our species, would have passed into the pages of history long ago.

Now you know why it is so hard to lose weight. As soon as you start your diet your body starts its famine response. The more harsh your diet, the greater the response. At first the weight comes off pretty fast, but as your body gears up, the weight loss begins to taper away. You become food obsessed, you’re eating almost nothing, but the scale barely changes. The cravings, fatigue, and the mental fog soon get the better of you and the days of feasting return.

It’s a battle you will likely lose every time. Your diet is nothing more than trying to impose famine conditions on your body to make it burn fat. However, your body has thousands and thousands of years of experience fighting famine conditions and it has an arsenal of weapons to resist weight loss. Without the right knowledge you will be out-gunned every time.

Having made it this far you now understand why weight goes on so fast and why it comes off so slow. It’s all about physiology.

You are probably realizing that all those crazy diets are also going to be out-gunned by your physiology. Of course the weight loss industry knows the fad/crazy diets don’t work, they know you will end your weight loss attempt with days of feasting. They know you will feel guilty and when the guilt and social pressure reaches a certain level you will start your diet again, and when you do they will have a new fad/crazy diet waiting for you.

Tomorrow we will start to look at how to work within our physiological limits to get our bodies to cooperate with weight loss instead of fighting weight loss. Your body doesn’t want to be overweight, it just doesn’t want to starve to death.

If you would like to read the other articles in this series you can find them below. Remember there are lots of people who want to lose weight and not all of them have stumbled onto this series of articles. If you think they’re useful, share them with your friends. I hope to see you tomorrow.

Article 1: The ‘Never Diet Again’ diet plan
Article 2: Aren’t protein calories better than carbohydrate or fat calories? No!
Article 3: Weight loss and dieting: knowledge is power and power is success
Article 4: Weight loss and dieting: Why do we gain weight so easily?

If you have any special questions you want answered as part of this series of articles, please let me know and I will address your question in one of the upcoming installments.

You can contact me at: Email Thomas Secrest