Why Eating Fewer Calories Won’t Help You Lose Weight

Conventional nutrition wisdom has always told us to eat less and exercise more if we want to lose weight. In theory, this makes sense – burn more calories than you eat, and the pounds will come off. But study after study shows that, in the long run, dieting is rarely effective. Not only that, but eating fewer calories does not reliably improve health and can do more harm than good.

For example, a review of over 30 long-term dieting studies showed that more than two-thirds of dieters regained more weight than they lost. Dieters are more likely than non-dieters to gain weight over time, even after accounting for genetics. And, despite what most people think, the problem is not willpower.

[See: Debunking 5 Common Weight-Loss Myths.]

Everyone has a set point, or a weight range in which the brain wants to keep the body. This weight range varies from person to person, and is determined by both genes and life experience. Our bodies are wired for survival and, as far as your body is concerned, dieting is a form of starvation. When you attempt to eat fewer calories than you need, your body switches into survival mode. Metabolism slows down as your body attempts to conserve energy. Levels of leptin – an appetite hormone – decrease, causing you to feel hungrier and increasing cravings. As you continue to eat less than you need, your body starts to break down muscle to use for energy. This muscle loss causes metabolism to slow further, so you burn even fewer calories.

Typical calorie restriction behaviors like limiting or cutting out certain foods can also cause psychological damage. Diet backlash occurs, where even the thought of a “forbidden” food is enough to trigger overeating. As soon as you tell yourself you can’t have something, it becomes impossible to stop thinking about it. The more you try not to eat certain foods, the more likely you are to overeat once you have access to them, since you don’t know when you’ll be able to eat them again. This cycle continues: food or calorie restriction, followed by deprivation, which causes overeating, then guilt.

Your brain tries to use every method available to get your weight back up to its set point. With every attempt to diet, the rate of weight loss slows down. This is why you might find that the weight comes off easily during your first diet, but subsequent attempts don’t have the same results. Over time, chronic dieting can increase your set point weight range and these biological responses kick in even if you are at a higher weight than usual.

All this to say: When health professionals tell you to eat fewer calories and exercise more, we are setting you up for failure. The problem is not your lack of willpower or self-control – the problem is dieting. The biological and psychological symptoms are a result of dieting. Dieting causes an erosion of confidence and self-trust. By putting the focus on external factors like calorie counting or food rules, you lessen your ability to listen to your brain and body. It becomes harder to pay attention to signals like hunger, fullness and satisfaction. Instead, you become more vulnerable to external cues telling you what to eat like the time of day, advertising and available food. You’re more likely to eat for emotional reasons or just because the food is there, even if you’re not hungry.

[See: 11 Things to Tell Yourself When You’re About to Binge Eat.]

If eating fewer calories doesn’t work, what should you do instead? Practice intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is about learning to trust your body and its signals. Get back in touch with the intuitive eater inside of you with these four tips:

1. Give yourself permission to eat all kinds of food.

Stop categorizing foods as “good” or “bad.” Allow all foods to fit in your diet and give yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want. Remember, food rules start the cycle of restriction-deprivation-overeating-guilt. By allowing yourself to eat whatever you want, you stop this cycle in its tracks. As your body learns to trust that it has access to any and all foods, cravings and overeating decrease.

2. Learn to honor your hunger and fullness cues.

As babies and small children, we naturally eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full. As we get older and start getting inundated with dieting messages, we lose sight of these cues. Hunger is a normal, biological process. If you try to override this process by cutting calories, skipping meals or not eating enough, your body will respond with cravings and overeating. Your body needs to be able to trust that it will consistently have access to food, so start tuning in to feelings of hunger and feeding your body. At the same time, feel your fullness. Halfway through a meal or snack, pause and check in with your body. How does the food taste? Are you starting to feel full? How satisfied are you? Do the same check toward the end of your meal. The hunger-fullness scale can help with this.

3. Don’t discount the importance of satisfaction.

You can be physically full and still not feel satisfied, which leaves you looking for more and more food until you feel content. Make a list of the foods that feel satisfying to you and incorporate them on a regular basis. For example, yogurt and granola could be a filling breakfast, but if you’re more satisfied with a hot meal, you may end up overeating later on. When you eat the foods you really want and really enjoy, the feeling of satisfaction will help you be more content (and often with less food).

[See: 6 Darn Good Reasons to Eat Sugar and Not Apologize for It.]

4. Get rid of the food police.

The food police are the thoughts in your head that monitor everything you eat or think about eating. They are the unreasonable food rules that you’ve developed over years of hearing diet talk. It’s the voice that says you’re “good” when you have salad for lunch and “bad” when you eat dessert. Challenging the food police is an essential step in becoming an intuitive eater.

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