Home Blog 4 Reasons We Struggle With “Diets”

4 Reasons We Struggle With “Diets”

Written on September 23, 2014 at 7:02 am, by Eric Cressey

It's been a while since we featured some nutrition content on EricCressey.com, so today, I've got a guest post from Sohee Lee, whose last contribution here was a big hit. It's very timely, as her new resource, Reverse Dieting, was just released and is on sale this week. Enjoy! -EC

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Dieting necessarily implies some form of restriction – normally starting with some sort of calorie suppression. The truth is, most dieters take the restriction a little too far – a combination of too few calories and too many foods on the forbidden list.

It should go without saying that resorting to extremes when it comes to fat loss will rarely end well. Yet perhaps due to the mentality that working harder should yield better results, this crash dieting phenomenon refuses to let up.

What’s ironic, however, is that the United States is the single most diet-obsessed nation in the world, but we’re also the most obese. This is no coincidence. The National Weight Control Registry reports that we spend a grand total of $20 billion a year on the diet industry (books, drugs, products, and surgeries), with approximately 108 million people on a diet in the U.S. at any given moment.

While there are a multitude of socioeconomic, technological, and environmental factors that contribute to this alarming rate, the truth is that when it comes to fat loss, we humans are fighting an uphill battle from the get-go. Our bodies were not designed to subsist on a food-deprived state. By embarking on crash diets, then, we fire up the biological and psychological mechanisms that protect against starvation and incline us, ultimately, to more weight gain.

Here are four common mistakes that you might be making with your diet.

1. You don’t consume enough protein.

Of the three macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates, and fats – protein is the most important when it comes to muscle retention while on a diet. Dietary protein is considered muscle sparing, meaning that it increases protein synthesis, and it can also be utilized for the synthesis of glucose, or glycogenesis. Additionally, protein is considered an "expensive" molecule to be used as energy, so to speak, and consequently has a thermic effect.

When it comes to dietary consumption, people tend to fall in two camps: the first camp, mostly the general population, doesn’t consume nearly enough, while the second camp, consisting primarily of athletes and bodybuilding aficionados, perhaps consumes more than necessary. The majority of people tend to fall in the former category.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that the average American male ingests 102 grams of protein per day and the average American female consumes 70 grams. Is this too much or too little?

The reality is that the body is actually highly efficient at absorbing amino acid, the constituents of protein. The small intestines and liver use a good portion of these amino acids for their own energy and protein synthesis before the remaining gets shuttled into the bloodstream – and at that point, they are further utilized by other tissues, including your heart and skin. Only after all of this happens do the amino acids get used in muscle building.

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As for the myth that high protein intake is damaging to the kidneys, those whispers can be laid to rest. A number of studies and reviews suggest that “there is no reason to restrict protein in healthy individuals” and have found no adverse effect with an intake up to 1.27 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day (1). In fact, those same studies make one question whether low protein intake may actually be a cause of renal function decline.

What happens when you’re in a caloric deficit with insufficient protein, then, is that you lose lean body mass. Which, when you think about it, is not desirable, because the ultimate goal is fat loss, isn’t it? With loss of muscle mass, you become a softer, doughier version of your former self – not anymore defined or chiseled. And ultimately, your relative bodyfat actually increases, which thereby increases your bodyfat percentage as well. Doesn’t sound so great, does it?

We can then flip the question to: if a high protein diet is not harmful to my health, then how much is optimal? More specifically, how much should be consumed per meal when dieting?

The general rule of thumb is to aim for your body weight in grams of protein each day. So if you weigh 150lbs, then you should be consuming approximately 150g protein. Obviously the exact number is going to vary from one individual to the next based on age, exercise regimen, dieting history, level of leanness, and other factors, but it’s a good starting point.

2. You go too hard, too fast.

It’s true that we live in an obese nation, consisting largely of folks who eat way beyond their bodies’ caloric needs. Sitting on the opposite end of the pendulum, however, are those who grossly undereat in an effort to shed fat faster.

Ah, you might be saying, but clearly the more I undereat, the faster progress I will make.

To that end, you swear off all your favorite foods, and exercise all of a sudden becomes your part-time job. You swap out burgers and fries for spinach and dry chicken. You’re convinced that if you push yourself to the extremes, you will reap extraordinary rewards.

The thinking is logical enough. Work hard, do well; work harder and do even better; work the hardest you possibly can and achieve the best body of your dreams. Right?

If only it were that simple.

Unfortunately, the body is incredibly complex – far more than we tend to give it credit for. We fool ourselves a la the Dunning-Kruger effect (2), which is a cognitive bias by which people tend to overestimate their competence in any given task.

We are equipped with a number of psychological and biological mechanisms that work to ensure that fat loss does not occur.

Don’t think of a pink polar bear.

Polar Bear (Sow), Near Kaktovik, Barter Island, Alaska

Don’t do it.

Anything but a pink polar bear.

Don’t!

Hard to resist, isn’t it?

From a psychological standpoint, we do not fare well with being told that we cannot do something. In fact, research has shown that being forbidden from something actually increases our desire for that very thing (3). Why? Simply because it focuses our attention onto that specific matter instead of away from it, and all of a sudden, that’s all we can think about it.

Moreover, crash diets rely heavily on willpower – which might seem like a good thing at first glance, but willpower is incredibly exhaustible. What’s more, self control when it comes to work, family, relationships, dogs, and diet all rely on the same willpower storage (4). So if you’re facing a good deal of work stress, that will deplete your willpower, leaving less room to adhere to your strict diet. Eventually you’ll reach a point at which it’s impossible to say no to those cookies, and you’ll find yourself scarfing down everything but the kitchen sink.

There are a number of physiological changes that take place as well. A reduction in energy intake leads to the body’s anti-starvation mechanisms kicking in; they include decreased thermogenesis and increased appetite due to reduced levels of leptin and a spike in ghrelin, the hunger hormone (5). These, coupled with an increased in metabolic efficiency, make it exponentially more difficult to lose fat – and the more drastic the measures, the more extreme these biological responses.

What does this mean? You’re hungry, cranky, and fatigued, and all you can think about is your favorite chocolate cake that you’ve deemed off-limits. That, to me, doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.

hangry

3. You’re impatient.

Ah, but you want results yesterday.

And who’s got the time to patiently wait three months, six months, or even a year?

Is it really necessary to be diligent for that long? Can’t you just take a pill, tap your shoes together, and wake up the next morning to a new-and-improved you?

I wish there were an easier way. But the truth is, consistency is the name of the game.

Most people will give a diet program maybe five days – two weeks if they’re lucky – before they jump ship onto the next cool fad. From Atkins to Zone to Paleo, they can’t seem to make up their minds.

The truth is, most of the popular diets out there do work, to some extent. The key, however, is actually sticking with the program long enough to elicit the desired results.

Does it provide you with sufficient protein? Adequate calories? Abundant food choices? If so, then you’re probably fine.

Just because you “only” lost one pound this past week does not mean that it’s not working. In fact, it’s a sign that it’s working just fine. So, instead of throwing in the towel or lamenting the time that you’ve supposedly wasted, might I suggest a radical idea: keep going.

4. You don’t have a plan for after the "diet" is done.

Nine times out of ten, here’s what happens with fat loss: in our angst to get to the final destination as soon as possible, we overlook the fact that there’s going to come a time when the diet is over. And when that happens, we need to be just as, if not more, prepared with a plan of attack.

Assuming that you can simply go back to your former lifestyle of potato chips and drive-throughs and easily maintain your results is a naïve yet common train of thought. But what many fail to appreciate is that oftentimes, weight loss maintenance is perhaps more difficult than the actual weight loss itself.

1024px-Potato-Chips

Why? Because the body is not static. It continues to respond to external stimuli. Meaning that if you all of a sudden consume calories in gross excess, the body will react by storing that extra energy in the form extra body fat and lean mass.

There are a number of routes to entertain at this point. One, you can continue to stay in a caloric deficit on the same diet program and keep up the intense training regimen – though from a longevity standpoint, I doubt that sounds very enticing. Two, you can bump up your calories slightly and enjoy the fruits of your labor for the time being. This also means you can slowly dwindle down any conditioning or cardio you may have been performing.

Lastly, if you’re interested in reverse the negative metabolic adaptation that occurred during fat loss, you may want to consider reverse dieting. This is a process by which you slowly and methodically increase your caloric intake in an effort to increase metabolic capacity and build some muscle while keeping fat gain at bay. This is a proven system in which people have been able to more than double their daily caloric intake while experiencing exponential strength gains.

reversedieting

Conclusion

The above is the culmination of the lessons I’ve learned through years of making mistake after fat loss mistake, plus my observations from working with hundreds of fat loss clients. My hope is that I can save you a good deal of stress, time, and energy by laying out the fundamental mistakes made in dieting that backfire.

I’ve found that, for just about every individual, if they stick to the principles above, they will see sustainable results. And ultimately, that’s the goal, isn’t it – to get off the yo-yo dieting wagon and stay lean for good, once and for all?

You have all the tools you need to succeed. Good luck on your journey.

Note from EC: In Reverse Dieting, Sohee and Dr. Layne Norton created an excellent resource. If there is someone in your life who struggles with "yo-yo dieting" - the inability to keep bodyfat off after diets - then this would be a great read (and plan) for them, especially at the great introductory deal that's in place for the next few days.

Also, references for this article are posted as the first comment below.

About the Author

Sohee Lee (@SoheeFit) graduated from Stanford University in June 2012 with a Bachelor's of Science degree in Human Biology (Psychosocial and Biological Determinants of Health). Since completing an internship at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, MA, she has worked as a coach and nutrition consultant at Tyler English Fitness in Canton, CT as well as New York City's Peak Performance. She currently works as a fitness writer, coach, and entrepreneur. Sohee is a NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.

Sohee faced anorexia and bulimia in the past, thus her main interests include eating disorders and the psychology behind relationships and decisions that we make as humans. She loves to talk fitness and admires those fit-minded people who can push and pull heavy weights. You can find her on Facebook and at her website, www.SoheeFit.com.

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  • References

    1. Poortmans JR, Dellalieux O. “Do regular high-protein diets have potential health risks on kidney function in athletes?” Int J Sports Nutr 2000(10):28-38.

    2. Kruger J, Dunning D. “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1999(60:1121-34.

    3. Vohs KD, Heatherton TF. “Self-regulatory failure: a resource-depletion approach.” Psychological Science 2000(11):249-54.

    4. Baumeister RF, Heatherton TF, Tice DM. “Losing control: how and why people fail at self-regulation.” San Diego: Academic Press, 1994.

    5. E.T. Trexler, A.E. Smith-Ryan, and L.E. Norton, “Metabolic adaptations to weight loss: implications for the athlete,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2014 11:7.

  • Frequently, I have this conversation with client. Everyone is focused on losing 20-30 pounds. A few even have a set time to reach their goal. No one has ever thought past the end date.

  • mike shearer

    I am 59, male, 71in., 170lbs, and 12%bf., so people in the gym ask me about nutrition. I tell them the points made here. You’re bringing great ideas to the forefront. The writing(grammar)is terrible. This site needs a proofreader. It may only matter to those of us over 40, but leaving an ‘ing’ or ‘ed’ off the end of a word where it is required to convey meaning is terrible writing. I do love your site though, but Eric you are the worst writer of all. Sent with respect. Thank you for all that you bring to us.

  • I haven’t actually finished the article yet, but wanted to point out a potential fallacy. She references a study and claims that the possibility of protein intake being too high is a “myth.” The study is a short-term study on ‘athletes.’ This study was 7 days long! The epidemiology on protein intake is clear- populations with higher protein intakes have more kidney disease. The graph curves run parallel.The fact that young body builders were able to consume ‘high’ protein and still maintain normal range renal clearance (though they did have elevated plasma uric acid and calcium) doesn’t at all imply folks don’t have to worry about kidney disease when consuming long term ‘high’ protein diets. Another painful error the author makes is that she cited 1.27g PRO/lb body weight– the study states 1.27g/KG! That’s a giant difference and could be terribly misleading to readers. Sorry EC, her hotness aside :), this isn’t an author i’m ready to trust yet for accuracy.

  • Thanks for the article Sohee and for running it EC!

    Scott,
    You are correct on the amount of protein in the study and it was 1.27 grams of protein / kg. Good catch!

    You are correct that it was only 7 days.

    However, epi studies as you know are not powered to be cause and effect based.

    Also, I have not seen any direct data that shows protein intake is correleated to kidney damage. I’m sure at some point you may see issues as anything that can help you can hurt you.

    It is true that the WORK done by the kidneys will go up (GFR, creatinine, etc), but makers of kidney damage has not been shown to be altered. Here is one study on it http://www.jissn.com/content/6/1/3

    Thanks
    Mike T Nelson

  • Thanks for pointing that out, Scott – you are correct. It has been fixed. Sorry about that!

  • Great Point on what happens after the diet. I see friends and family have end goals on losing x amount of weight. But as soon as they lose that weight, they celebrate by eating the food the made them gain it to begin with. As fitness leaders, it’s out job to explain to them and change their way of thinking about what comes next after the diet. Well said.


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