If you’ve ever gone on a diet only to regain your lost weight soon after its completion, you’re not alone — research shows the vast majority of diets are doomed to fail.
Drastic shifts in your eating habits can work and may help you slim down fast, but any changes will likely be temporary, dietitians tell the Star. Sometimes, dieters might even regain more weight than they lost.
Here’s what you need to know about these so-called “yo-yo diets” and what experts say will work when it comes to losing weight.
Fad diets work, but only in the short-term
Although so-called fad diets are “very trendy, they’re usually a short-term fix solution,” according to Nadine Khoury, a registered dietitian at Toronto’s NADNutrition.
“You lose a lot of weight in a short period of time — and when the body doesn’t have enough time to adapt to a lower weight threshold, it wants to go back to the way it’s been the longest.”
Khoury echoes the “set point theory” of metabolism — that we each have a certain weight threshold that, if we pass too quickly, our bodies will try bring us back to. While it’s “obviously true” we need to reduce our calorie intake to lose weight, overdoing it can backfire.
“The worst thing that you can do is undereat or overrestrict in terms of calories,” she said.
As such, “it’s really, really important for a diet to work, to lose weight slowly,” Khoury continued. “Most of these diets help you lose weight fast, which is motivating … But unfortunately, you regain all the weight back because the body has not had time to adapt to that lower weight threshold.”
Diets work for about half a year before your body revolts
Diets tend to work for about six months before the body’s regulatory systems kick in, said Paula Brauer, a former dietitian and a professor emeritus of applied nutrition at the University of Guelph.
“Your basic metabolic rate that you have at rest, which is two thirds of the calories you need every day, goes down — and so you’re being more calorie efficient,” she said. At the same time, “your appetite starts to increase. So the taste and smell of food starts to be more attractive because your body is working to go back to that set point.”
That’s why studies show the “vast majority” of people regain most of their lost pounds months down the line, with around 10 per cent of dieters actually gaining more weight than they lost, Brauer continued.
What’s worse, studies show one’s set point moves higher and higher the more diets they undertake, said Lyndsay Hall, a registered dietitian at Toronto’s JM Nutrition. “So it becomes even more difficult the next time around to lose the weight and maintain it,” she continued.
How can we lose weight long-term?
“The main way to lose weight and keep it off, it definitely needs to happen slowly or be a gradual progression,” Hall said, echoing Khoury. That way, our bodies have time to acclimate to a lower weight set point, leading to long-term changes.
“Generally, losing a pound or two a week is typically reasonable, depending on the person’s age, exercise level, BMI or starting weight, that type of thing,” she said, suggesting people see a doctor or dietitian to determine the pace that works for their body.
This means making gradual changes to your daily habits instead of “doing a complete 180 to what you’re used to,” Hall continued. She asks her clients to focus on one or two goals a week to work toward, like smaller portion sizes or eating more vegetables.
Khoury sees weight gain as a “symptom” of other health issues. “The body gains weight for multiple reasons,” she said. “It’s not always related to how much you eat, it’s often related to stress, lack of sleep, lack of activity, your inability to digest or absorb certain foods, for example.”
Intermittent fasting, Mediterranean diets show promise
Khoury recommends you consult an expert on what foods work or aren’t working for you — there’s no “one size fits all” she said, which is often a problem with fad diets that may adhere to strict regimens. That being said, some of her clients practice intermittent fasting, “which has some good evidence,” Khoury continued.
For her part, Brauer noted that there’s no perfect solution for weight loss and that our natural, healthy weight level is out of our control. Instead of focusing on weight loss, people should direct their focus toward improving their long-term health.
Be content with average
“If you’re interested in weight loss, I can’t guarantee you any diet or physical activity will cause substantial, intentional weight loss,” Brauer said. “But you can certainly be doing things to improve your long term health.”
For example, daily physical activity will improve your cardiovascular health, the main health factor linked to obesity, she continued. Similarly, cutting out excess sugars, fats and processed foods from your diet will make you healthier while also helping you slim down.
“You will lose some weight, but it won’t be very much, generally,” Brauer continued. “It won’t be 40 pounds — it might be 10 pounds — but you can carry that on for life.”
“There’s not a perfect diet. For people like me who have a tendency to gain weight, we need to be focusing more on physical activity and making sure that we have healthy food habits, but not focusing necessarily on weight loss,” she said.
“We have to learn to be happy with being average.”