Why Diets Don't Work

When Kirstie Alley’s weight zoomed above 200 lbs., it set in motion a much-publicized saga that led to her own reality sitcom Fat Actress. In the opening scene of the pilot episode, she stepped into her bathroom scale – and she dropped to the floor and howled like a wounded animal. Losing excess pound is an enormous problem. It is a heavy burden. Overweight people are everywhere: making anti-Bush documentaries, testifying in Senate investigations, filing libel suits, etc. But it’s mystifying how obesity became so widespread even in Third World countries. Some Filipinos go South Beach (or Atkins or “After 6”) – but they don’t last long. They were weighed and fount panting. Even the 2006 Time Person of the Year – “You” – find it hard to lose weight. Aside from ningas-cogon, what other factors contribute to weight-loss failure? Let’s examine some of them. Over-compensation. Dieters tend to compensate after a weight-loss regimen. “Most experience sensations of intense hunger – and respond by eating at least as much before the diet has started,” wrote Geoffrey Cannon and Hetty Einzig in Dieting Makes You Fat (Simon & Schuster). “As a rule, any diet that has resulted in a loss of 10 to 15 pounds in the first week or two will result in the gain of the same amount a few months after the diet has ended.” Over-eating. “A person can start life with a perfectly normal metabolism and by overeating cause metabolic disorders,” wrote Dr. Neil Solomon, Ph.D., and Sally Sheppard in The Truth About Weight Control: How To Lose Excess Pounds Permanently (Stein and Day). “Yo-yo dieting – up and down and up again – is not only discouraging, it’s dangerous,” wrote Edwin Keister Jr. and Sally Valente in a Reader’s Digest article. “When you’re reducing, you take off both fat and muscle. But when you regain weight, you regain mostly fat. Each time you lose and regain, the percentage of body fat increases.” Diet Myths. Wrong information leads to unsafe dietary practices. In an article in the British magazine Women & Home, Canada-based fitness and weight-loss expert Dr. Rosemary Leonard exposes some common food fibs: Skipping breakfast is good. “You are more likely to pile on the pounds if you don’t eat first thing in the morning, as you’ll run the risk of nibbling foods such as cookies.” Strict diets are good. “Rapid weight loss is accompanied by a plunge in metabolism. This means your body becomes less efficient at burning calories.” Low-fat is good. “Low-fat doesn’t always mean low in calories. Many processed low-fat products contain almost as many calories as regular versions.” Eating late at night is bad. “When you eat has no effect on what happens to the calories.” Starch is bad. “Starchy, high-carbohydrate foods in moderate amounts are filling, give long-lasting energy, contain vital vitamins and minerals (including B vitamins, calcium and iron), and are an essential part of a well-balanced diet.” Carb-protein combos are bad. “The idea of keeping proteins and carbohydrate apart goes against all the rules of healthy eating.” Fat is bad. “It is true that fat contains lots of calories, but it is also a key component of a healthy, balanced diet and a good source of the vitamins A, D and E.” Not eating will shed weight. “If you are genuinely eating very little, there may be other causes of weight gain. Some medications, such as antidepressants, steroids and high-dose hormone-replacement therapy, can make weight-loss more difficult.” Furthermore, “It may also be worth consulting your physician for a test of your thyroid function (an under-active thyroid slows your metabolism, making it more difficult to burn off calories).” Medical disorders. Certain endocrinological conditions lead to a yo-yo metabolism. Solomon and Sheppard reveal some of them: Thyroid hormone deficiency. “Low thyroid functions afflict only a small percentage of obese persons, but it presents a real problem.” A case study showed a patient who had achieved her ideal body weight with thyroid medication and a well-balanced diet. Low-glucose level. A patient with a yo-yo metabolism was suffering from headaches, dizziness and sleeplessness. “Tests revealed that a tumor of the islet cells of the pancreas, the insulin-producing area, was the culprit. The tumor was removed.” The symptoms disappeared and the patient achieved her proper weight. High levels of thyroid antibodies. An overweight patient was suffering from fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold, brittle fingernails and dry skin. Blood tests for thyroid hormones were normal. “Our laboratory tests, however, found her blood high in thyroid antibodies. When antibodies of a particular substance was present in the blood, they tend to neutralize the normal action of that substance. Thus, her thyroid antibodies were neutralizing her thyroid hormones.” The patient was placed on proper medication and diet, and she reached her ideal weight within three months. Genetics. Genetically, food cravings are suppressed by leptins – hormones secreted by the cells of fat. Obesity will result if they cannot reach the brain because of defective melanocortin-4 receptors. “For example, the hormone doesn’t bind to the receptor, or the message is passed on in a weakened form,” explains Annette Schurman, a pharmacologist at the German Institute of Nutrition Research in Potsdam “If both parents are obese, chances are 4 out of 5 that you will be obese,” says Dr. Albert J. Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania. It is still possible to lose weight, “But it will be more difficult.” “On the other hand, if Mom and Dad are doing physical things like swimming and bike riding, and it’s an active family, chances are children will model their behavior after you,” according to U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona. Environmental factors are also important,” says Prof. Volker Pudel, a nutritional psychologist from the University of Gottingen. “And people can shape their environment to a degree. Ambiguous motivation. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, the battle is half-won if the aim is clear and realistic. “Swimsuits and class reunions are the biggest incentives for people to lose weight,” observes fitness and nutrition expert Lilian Cheung. Unlike children, adults “want to lose weight, to fit into that wedding dress, this year’s bathing suit and so forth. They are self motivated. Most children aren’t,” laments Dr. Reginald Washington, pediatric cardiologist and co-chairman of the National Task Force on Obesity for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Gullibility. People believe what they want to believe. “Losing weight can be a very demanding challenge, so people turn to diet books that promise quick results for little effort,” points out Dr. A. Harold Ludin, director of the personal health and nutrition department of the American Medical Association. “The diets that sell are those that promise something for nothing,” says Dr. Gabe B. Mirkin, associate professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University. Fad dieters are getting set “up for regaining any weight they may lose. Studies indicate that everytime people put the weight back on, they can lay down arterial plaques at an accelerated rate and also increase the size and number of fat cells in their bodies.” Restricted diets. “Fad diets don’t work,” according to Dr. C. Wayne Callaway, director of the Center for Clinical Nutrition at George Washington University. “If you stay on a very restricted diet, the metabolic rate goes down and you burn less and less, and it becomes harder and harder to lose. When you do start eating again, you’ll more like to store fat rather than burn it, because you’re burning at a lower level.” Sign of the times: “Dr. Robert Atkins’ 33-year-long fad diet finally came to a crashing end last week,” Joel Stein wrote in the Aug. 15, 2005 issue of Time. “Atkins Nutritionals, which makes more than 50 low-carb products and 100 nutritional supplements and no grammatical sense, announced that it’s $300 million in debt and filed for bankruptcy.” Ultimately, it’s not your waist line that gets you – it’s your cholesterol and blood pressure. “Fitness is not a matter of being skinny,” says Carlos Crespo, professor of social and preventive medicine at Buffalo University in New York. “It’s a matter of being healthy.”

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