As someone with quite an analytical brain that comes from a Maths and Science background, it’s taken a little while to get to grips with the world of diet and nutrition. I like black and white, input output, x = y ( or at least f(x)=f(y) + c), but diet, nutrition, weight loss and general health are ‘grey area’ multidimensional issues. D & N for most people is a soft science, but near 100% of what is written and spoken about on the topic is a discussion had almost solely in the realms of hard science. In a practical sense D&N is much more about feelings, emotions, human behaviour and mental health than it is about grams and calories.
In my last blog post I wrote about the government’s war on obesity and in it I took a fairly anti-diet stance. That is generally how I feel on the whole thing but it isn’t as simple as that. I want to, in this post give people some advice on how to make positive changes to their health and there may very well be a percentage of people who read this and think that following a diet is a good idea for them, but my main purpose more than anything is to get people to engage with their meals and to take some time to think about how their diet makes them feel. Through that, I think we can make some positive changes that are going to improve your health over the short and long term. Even if you don’t end up changing anything about your eating habits and you just become ‘ok’ with how you eat vs the guilt that you have been taught to feel about enjoying chocolate, or for having a beer on a Saturday night for example.
Failure rates in dieting
Diets have a 95% chance of failure. We as Personal Trainers (along with nutritionalists, dieticians, life coaches etc) have been taught to try and get our clients into that 5% of successful dieters. We do that through a number of ways.
-We help clients pick diets that fit with their lifestyle, likes and dislikes as opposed to trying a diet they read about in a magazine or one that worked for a friend.
-We look at patterns of behaviour and try to coach better behaviours.
-We educate on what different types of food contain and what outcome they might have when consumed.
-We look at ‘lifestyle’ as opposed to just diet and suggest healthy changes that can be made in all areas of their lives.
-We hold our clients accountable and follow up on ‘how their diet is going’
-Some Trainers also like to get super technical and encourage their clients to undergo food sensitivity testing, hormonal tests etc with follow up diets prescribed based on those findings.
And it works…….. it works a bit. You are far more likely to be successful at dieting if you have the help of a professional, but the odds of you succeeding are still far lower than 50%.
What does a failed diet look like?
Up until this point I have exclusively used the definition of a ‘successful diet’ that is used in almost every long term study into the effectiveness of diets. To be successful a person must lose a significant amount of weight and keep it off for a long period of time, or forever. The main ways to ‘fail’ a diet are either:
• Not lose any weight
• Regain the weight you lost
This definition does work for certain people. If your goal is purely weight loss, and you aren’t concerned about health, or interested in the experience of dieting itself then this black and white ‘pass’ ‘fail’ view of dieting probably cuts it. Also if your goal is losing weight and keeping it off and you are in the 5% of people that experience that, you are probably also very happy to call yourself ‘a success’.
Unfortunately society uses the weighing scale to measure both health and attractiveness. Which is where this ‘success’ ‘fail’ attitude come from with regards to diet. It is commonly thought that a person can’t be healthy until they have reached a certain size. Lots of people think (more about themselves than about others) that no one will find them attractive until they are a certain size. This isn’t true in the slightest and gives a hugely warped picture of what health is and what attractiveness is.
Why do diets fail?
Diets fail for all kinds of reasons, and a lot of those reasons are good reasons for not starting the diet in the first place. In many cases the diet failed the person and not the other way around.
Homeostasis, and Metabolic damage
First I want to deal with the diets that have worked in the short term, in so much as the dieter lost weight and then went on to fail in the medium/long term because the dieter regained the weight and probably more on top of that. Although a lot of the reasons will be the same for people who failed to lose weight in the first place.
Our bodies are incredibly complex and have so much going on behind the scenes to produce what we look like and how we feel. One of the main goals of the human body is homeostasis (fancy science word that means staying the same). If we are alive, we want to keep it that way and to do that we try to keep everything how it is and in balance. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Our bodies are working for survival, and not towards conforming to beauty standards. They don’t have hormones to give you arms like Michelle Obama, a torso like Chris Helmsworth, or a butt like whoever the hell people want their butt to look like, J-Lo maybe?
Mechanisms in the human body are there to create weight homeostasis using a host of orexigenic and anorexigenic hormones that work to maintain a stable healthy weight. When energy stores in the form of glycogen or adipose tissue (carbohydrate stores or fat stores) are depleted through dieting, overcompensation to replenish them often occurs. Your body sees this as absolutely vital. Dying of starvation is seen as a very real threat to your body, not fitting into your bikini by summer is not. You can die of starvation or do serious damage to your organs, hormones, bones, and muscles. Being overweight is by far the lesser risk and your body is more than happy to store lots and lots of fat.
Overeating is one of the homeostatic responses. However, there are other responses to hunger within the body that reduce thyroid hormones, lower metabolism, and produce fat cells. In short, they cause metabolic damage.
Most traditional (read old fashioned) weight loss advice, very much including that of your GP or other health care provider and almost all of the well established commercial dietary companies (weight watchers, slimming world, the Cambridge diet etc) have at their core fairly extreme calorie restriction, this often and inadvertently (to the dieter) triggers the compensatory mechanism that lead to rebound weight and yo-yo dieting. It triggers failure and very few of those recommending these diets ever prepare the dieters for failure.
Your body is concerned with health and these homeostatic responses are there to promote health. Being smaller doesn’t guarantee health, and somewhere along the way society has confused adhering to beauty norms and health. Terms like ‘obesity’ exist as a medical term to categorise weight and they scream ‘unhealthy’. Regardless of data that places ‘underweight’ as the most dangerous medical category to be in and research to suggest ‘overweight’ might be the healthiest 
If your motivation for weight loss is purely health I would at this point advise that you reconsider whether weight loss is necessary to achieve your goals. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t examine your diet, and look at how you eat, but simply using the scale as a measure of how healthy you are probably isn’t a good idea, and you can tell your GP as much!
If you still want to lose weight, because you think you’ll look better, your partner or future partner thinks you look better, you want to look like J-Lo, you want your old clothes to fit, etc etc then that’s fine too. It is possible to create a new homeostasis point in a slimmer body.
To create a new homeostasis point it takes a lot more hard work than the initial diet ever did. That’s why so many people regain weight and yo-yo. You can create this new homeostasis point pretty much anywhere within a weight range, and that’s what eventually ends up happening in some of these 5% of successful dieters, the rest have chosen to live their entire lives ‘on a diet’ because “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. There are two good ways to do this:
1- lose weight slowly and consistently over time so that you avoid metabolic damage in the first place
2- Lose weight fairly quickly but plan a long period of consolidation at the new weight. In other words, follow a diet then follow another diet to heal you from the first diet.
You could use method 1 or method 2 or a little bit of both. If we call this post metabolic damage diet as a ‘rehab diet’ then the length of time you spend on a rehab diet is likely needed to be inversely proportional to the time you spent on the initial diet.
Method 1, slow and steady wins the race:
Pros: you are unlikely to experience any negative side effects from dieting these could include: metabolic damage, muscle loss, hair and nail damage, mood swings, depression, loss of energy, fatigue, stress, etc.
Cons: it takes a long time. A slow and steady approach typically means about a pound of weight loss a week (a little more for bigger people and a little less for smaller people), so a 25lbs+ weight loss goal will take 6 months or more.
Method 2, quick weight loss with a period of ‘rehab diet’
Pros: it’s quick and gets you to your goal weight fast. Society loves rapid weight loss, your friends will all call you inspirational and they’ll all want to know your secrets. If you had the goal of losing weight by your holiday, wedding etc then you can achieve that with rapid weight loss.
Cons: You will probably experience some negative side affects: metabolic damage, muscle loss, hair and nail damage, mood swings, depression, loss of energy, fatigue, stress, etc.
It could take 6 months+ to get your metabolism back working properly and find homeostasis at your new weight.
Some other considerations:
There are some health benefits to both types of diet. For rapid weight loss, intermittent fasting diets have been shown to reduce inflammation which can reduce the risk of cancers and heart disease, reduce insulin levels which can improve pancreatic health and reduce the risk of diabetes etc, increase human growth hormone which can improve muscle building and other benefits [3,4], increase cellular repair by encouraging your body to use damaged cells for energy and thus removing them from your body , and beneficial changes in several genes and molecules related to longevity and protection against disease [6,7]. There is a similar body of evidence supporting the health benefits of a ketogenic diet and pretty much every rapid weight loss diet.
Losing weight slowly has its benefits too. Losing weight slowly is only going to involve cutting about 250-500kcals from your diet a day. This can be done in many ways but could be as simple as dropping a bar of chocolate a day from your diet, reducing portion sizes, removing a weekend binge, or more drastically removing gluten products, going vegan, eating low GI, eliminating refined sugar, cutting processed carbs, etc etc. If you are only cutting 250-500kcals a day from your diet it’s a huge opportunity to examine what you eat and make little tiny sustainable changes to your diet that will last forever. You don’t need to see this approach necessarily as being on a diet. ‘I’m going to diet until I lose weight then go back to eating normally’ doesn’t have to apply here, you can build a slightly new normal, learn what that means for you and let it run its course.
A lot of diets fail for emotional reasons. Poor diet can often be a symptom of mental health problems and not a cause of ill health. If a diet is dealing only with the physical (the diet’s ability to increase human growth hormone or to reduce insulin production etc) and not the emotional side of eating then it’s failing a huge percentage of the population.
Emotional eating is a much bigger topic for discussion than any of the other area of diet. Too frequently we are told simply not to emotionally eat, without anyone examining the alternatives. I don’t think people should be ignoring their need to emotional eat without a good plan behind it.
Emotional eating is bad for you, but so is injecting yourself with insulin which could lower your blood sugar levels to the point of a coma or even death, but for a diabetic it’s probably a good idea to inject yourself with insulin pretty regularly. Emotional eating can be the same.
If you are stressed, depressed or anxious there are many many much worse things than eating a whole tub of Ben and Jerry’s at the end of a hard day. In fact if eating a tub of Ben and Jerry’s at the end of the day every day for a year helps you deal with what you are going through then definitely do that.
The guilt around emotionally binge eating is only there because we are told it should be there. You can recognise that it isn’t the healthiest coping mechanism but it might be a necessary one. You can fix your emotional eating another time right now if you need it, you need it. Don’t feel bad about it.
I, like a lot of Personal Trainers have always tried to replace people’s emotional eating patterns, and I have tried to replace them with my own coping mechanism- exercise. If I feel down (for me anxiety more than depression or stress), I exercise. If I feel really down, I exercise more. I do the type of exercise that is long and mindless and physically painful and it works, I feel better. But as much as I want to believe it, exercise doesn’t have that result for everyone. People don’t have the same responses to exercise, the endorphins are less for some people and the pain is more uncomfortable. On top of that there can be a lot of anxiety around exercise. Some people do not feel comfort going out into the world wrapped in Lycra exercising for all to see and don’t find any comfort in it at all. I take time to listen to each client’s needs and try to find a type of exercise that they will enjoy and a level of intensity that also fits their needs. You are far more likely to find an exercise routine that is enjoyable, sustainable, nourishing and comforting with the help of a fitness professional than you are without, but it’s not always the perfect substitute for comfort eating and we are quite often being given a square peg for a round hole.
The fix for emotional eating isn’t an easy one. There is a right place and a right time and there might be suitable substitute for each person’s emotional eating, and it might not be exercise.
Address the underlying issues
One solution to emotional eating is to look at the emotions behind the eating and try to fix the problem at that level, before you even have the emotional response of binge eating etc.
As I said in my previous blog post, stress, depression and anxiety are major health issues that we are currently dealing with as a society. The focus is often pointed at obesity but mental health is highly correlated with lots of physical health issues. People who emotionally eat and are going through a lot of negative emotions can develop binge eating disorder. Weight gain can be a symptom and sufferers of binge eating disorder often have to wear their mental health condition in the form of bodyfat. It’s not the bodyfat itself that is massively damaging but the underlying emotional state. Getting to grips with your mental health is paramount to ridding yourself of emotional eating or any eating disorder (binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia etc).
When you’re under stress, your body is likely producing higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that amongst a lot of other much worse physiological reactions tends to make people crave sweet and salty food—the stuff that’s generally calorific, moreish and fattening. If you’re experiencing stress too regularly and aren’t finding a release of some kind to ease the stress as quickly as possible, cortisol could be driving your hunger, as well as contributing to many other health problems (that aren’t as visible). Take some time to address these causes and not just the symptoms.
Focusing on the cause of the problem starts with tapping into what type of situations cause you the most stress or depression or anxiety and look at ways to avoid those situations or ways to deal with them better. It might be a drastic solution like quitting your job, leaving a toxic relationship etc. It might be a number of therapy sessions. It might be taking up a hobby that relaxes you, reading more, going for a walk at lunch time or after work, etc.
Binge on your terms
If you have identified yourself as a binge eater with a pattern of emotional eating and you have a goal of weight loss or health one thing you could do is to try and control the binges. Engage in the experience of binge eating and find what works for you. Emotional eating is often called “mindless eating” because we usually don’t think about what we’re doing and let our unconscious habit control the experience.
A normal pattern of behaviour for a binge eater might look like this:
Stressful day -> triggers hunger hormones and the need for endorphins -> the person cracks and reaches for their chosen comfort food -> they overeat -> they feel bad (guilt, sick, sugar rush, etc) -> negative emotions return (possibly greater than before)
At the point where the binge actually occurs there is a loss of self control. The person loses sight of all the other goals that they have for themselves and reaches for food. This is a very natural and primal reaction. Thousands of years ago if human beings had these cues in their body and they had the opportunity to eat, then they should absolutely binge. Food can be scarce to come by and a constant reminder to single mindedly seek out food and consume as much as possible is a useful survival reaction to stresses. When binging (as a modern human) we can dial these feelings down a bit and get to grips with what we need from our comfort food.
Awareness can be your biggest tool for change, in many areas of your life but especially towards emotional eating. Becoming more aware of your pattern of emotional eating is the first step.
A mindful approach to the actual eating is helpful, but before you can put it into action, you should become aware of how you feel right before you eat.
Next time you feel that you need comfort food don’t sleep through the experience. Engage with your emotions and your physical reactions during your binge- you are planning on eating one of your absolute favourite foods after all, try to enjoy it ! It might help to keep notes for the first few weeks. Write a journal of how you are feeling when you first feel the need to binge. How you are feeling and what are you craving. Jot down a big list of everything you want to eat then engage with the experience and start to delete a few things. Once you’ve decided on your foods take the eating slowly. Take a few bites and see how that feels. Remove the guilt from the experience. You don’t exist just to eat 1600kcals a day of organic whole-foods, comfort foods might have a happy healthy place in your diet. I’m not saying have a square of dark chocolate after your quinoa salad in the evening or any of that fitness and diet industry nonsense. I’m saying that if you find the optimal comfort after a really shitty day is to eat a 15 inch pizza and a tub of icecream then do that and don’t feel bad about it. I’m also saying that if you were previously eating a lot of comfort food after a hard day and then feeling overfull, sick, and guilty and suffering further negative emotions as a result then you could try lessening the total amount of food and engaging with how that makes you feel. A whole pizza could become half a pizza and a tub of icecream could become a few big spoonfuls in a bowl with the rest tucked away in the freezer until the next time it’s needed.
Good diet choices for emotional eaters
Calorie restriction diets are very highly correlated with binge eating. The stricter the diet the more likely the chance of relapsing into a binge. If you have identified that you are prone to binge eating. Then picking a very restrictive diet to follow is setting yourself up for failure from the off. I would recommend diet choices that are easy to follow, sustainable and don’t leave you hungry or a feeling of being restricted in what you eat.
Top tips for emotional eaters (summary)
• Deal with the cause and not the symptoms
• Binge on your terms
• Avoid restrictive diets
You didn’t fail
If you are reading this post, you have probably ‘failed’ at dieting (in the definition of failing a diet given earlier in the post), but failure isn’t the right way to look at it. Diets aren’t pass, fail. You either lose weight and keep it off or you learn something about the diet and about yourself. Simply saying, ‘I tried Keto and it doesn’t work’ isn’t a useful evaluation of your experience. ‘I’ve tried 100s of diets and they don’t work for me’ is only slightly better. If you don’t learn from these experiences then you are condemned to experiencing the same failures. If Atkins didn’t work for you then Keto probably won’t, if weight watchers didn’t then slimming world won’t, and if the Cambridge diet didn’t work then Herbalife won’t.
Have a think about the diets you have tried and failed at. Did you lose weight initially or not? How did you feel during the diet and after the diet had ended and how did you respond to those feelings? Revisit all your ‘failed’ attempts and look at them as learning experiences. You might have learnt that you hate tofu, you might have learnt that you are highly responsive to the hunger signals of calorie restriction. You might have learnt that banning a food from your diet only makes you want it more.
Does the diet allow you to eat foods you love ?
Giving up foods you love is very hard. When I look at clients food diaries or discus what diet they are considering I always ask about the foods they can’t or don’t want to give up. People tend to lean towards carby foods or fatty foods. If someone loves carbs then a low carb diet doesn’t give them as much chance of success as a low fat diet. How you eat should match your tastes.
Does your diet make you eat things that you hate?
A bit of an obvious one here. Forcing yourself to eat food that you don’t like is even less sustainable than diets that restrict the food you love.
Keeping a food diary that includes emotional responses
If you do, at this point after reading my thoughts on dieting still want to follow a diet of some kind. Pick a diet that fits with your likes and dislikes and anything that you’ve learnt from previous dieting experiences and begin your diet. If you don’t plan on following a diet, then a food diary might still be a good idea.
Building an awareness of the food you eat and how it affects you physically and emotionally is a good idea for most people. I wouldn’t get too bogged down with the grams and calories of it all though. Just make a few notes for what you ate but moreover record how it makes you feel. If you just want a quick and easy journal to begin with just jot down the food and then annotate that list with emojis.
A food diary, is just one of the ways you can become more self aware about your food. Like I said at the top of the post, I tend to be quite a black and white kind of person. As I learnt more about food I created ‘food rules’ for myself. Now that I understand the bigger picture a bit more, they are guidelines that I mostly adhere to but not religiously. I’ve thought about what I eat and how it affects me over a period of years and I used that to help guide what I eat.
In summary, I recommend engaging with what your body wants and needs and taking some time to learn what works for you.
Big scientific studies that carve up diets into what does this and what does that are great and they give us a lot of information but they confuse things for most individuals. You should always care a lot less about what works for some people (5% of people) and care much more about what works for you.
The most important sample size is one. You!
• Recap what you learnt from old diets
• Have a look at your emotional response to food (positive and negative)
• Think about your body image (be kind to yourself)
• Make notes
• Build a way to eat that works for you
In the second instalment of this blog post I’m going to outline what my guidelines for eating are and explain why. I also want to talk a bit about intuitive eating as I think it’s a strategy that incorporates everything I have discussed in this post and is a really good solution for a lot of people.
1. Change in Body Mass Index Associated With Lowest Mortality in Denmark, 1976-2013
Shoaib Afzal, MD, PhD1,2,3,4; Anne Tybjærg-Hansen, MD, DMSc1,2,3,4,5; Gorm B. Jensen, MD, DMSc5; et al
2. Alternate-day fasting in nonobese subjects: effects on body weight, body composition, and energy metabolism. Leonie K Heilbronn et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jan.