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With quotes from Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon…

“… extensive evidence documents that attempts at dieting typically result in weight cycling, not maintained weight loss.  Weight fluctuation is strongly associated with increased risk for diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, independent of body weight.  In other words, the recommendation to diet may be causing the very diseases it is purported to prevent!” 

It’s a topic I’ve written about before in posts on Hypertension and How Calorie Restriction Causes Weight Gain, but I figured it was a good time to revisit the general concept. 

I have been thinking a lot about sustainability lately.  Not sustainability in the “pee three times before you flush” or the “let’s build a compost toilet” kind of way, but the importance of sustainability in your health practices.  What I mean by sustainability is truly doing something realistic that you can stick with for really long periods of time.  Put another way, not creating wagons to fall off of. 

In my post on The Causes of Obesity I talked briefly about how exercise causes weight gain.  If you get on some big exercise kick for your health, do too much or get injured because the exercise load you took on was too strenuous, time-consuming, or dangerous, you typically gain back all the weight you lost doing it and sometimes quite a bit extra – all of it centered around the waist.  And while this mistake is very frequently made in exercise, it’s even more commonly made with unrealistic and unsustainable diets – and that’s partly how dieting causes metabolic syndrome. 

What’s interesting and misleading for researchers, public health officials, and diet gurus alike is that cutting calories or carbs or animal products or some other major thing out of your diet consistently results in improvement in all the markers of metabolic syndrome.  Thus, many diets and eating ideologies that you have come across all make the claim, and have many personal testimonials to back it up, that their diet helps in the following ways…

  • It reduces visceral fat (belly fat)
  • It lowers blood pressure
  • It lowers triglycerides
  • It lowers cholesterol
  • It lowers blood glucose

To the best of my knowledge, a large percentage of people that do the Paleo Diet, the Atkins diet or similar, a vegan diet, a low-fat diet, a food-combining diet, and a calorie-restricted diet – or do some fasting (or exercise a lot) will see major improvements in each of those areas, particularly in the first 6 months. 

Great!  The solution to metabolic syndrome is easy!  You just pick the one that sounds the best and stick with it!  

The problem is that very few studies on any diet or lifestyle intervention last for more than 6 months when many of these biomarkers start to creep back in the other direction, including the person’s weight. 

“On a short-term basis, weight loss is very effective at improving control of blood glucose.  However, this doesn’t mean that the diabetes is being cured; even skipping one meal will similarly lower blood glucose.  A 1995 review of all the controlled weight loss studies for type 2 diabetics showed that the initial improvements were followed by a deterioration back to starting values six to eighteen months after treatment, even when the weight loss was maintained.”

And there lies the problem with much of the way medical science is conducted in the modern era – simple research done in any one of these areas ignores a person’s powerful compensatory reaction to any diet and lifestyle intervention.  Or as Scott Abel says, “For every diet there is an equal and opposite binge.” 

That statement is mostly true, but it goes well beyond that, as studies of people who stuck with the diet that caused weight loss and some improvements in the markers of metabolic syndrome in the first six months, actually showed that the people ended up completely regaining all weight lost by the end of 2 years, with weight still trending up at the end of that period.  In fact, in the last few months more than one person has mentioned experiencing rapid weight gain on a diet of ONLY non-starchy vegetables and lean meat with very low calories – one up to 70 pounds of weight gain in a single year. 

“Commentators often attribute weight regain to people’s inability to maintain their diets over the long run: the old ‘no willpower’ problem.  Yet this study was well controlled to support the women in maintaining their diets.  Weight regain occurred despite maintaining their reduced-calorie diet!  And lest you think these results are particular to low-fat dieting, check out the data from this study to other popular diets.  After twelve months, Atkins dieters were eating 289 fewer calories compared to when they started the diet, Zone dieters were eating 381 fewer calories, LEARN dieters were eating 271 fewer calories, and Ornish dieters were eating 345 fewer calories.  Yet all were steadily regaining weight over the last six months of the first year.  And this despite an accompanying increase in exercise!” 

This is one reason why I don’t rely too much on places like Pubmed to guide my beliefs about health matters.  I could easily find 10 studies that show that some form of undernutrition lowers all of the facets of metabolic syndrome – like this one, that “suggests that IF combined with CR and liquid meals is an effective strategy to help obese women lose weight and lower CHD risk.”

Sadly, scientists like to completely ignore reality and look at a human being as if it was a slime mold.  In this place called reality, dieting in general increases the risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, diabetes, excess belly fat, hypertension, and more.  But no one seems to understand this.  Even a guy I consulted with was basically unable to follow my instructions because he was on medical leave from work due to his obesity-related health problems, and failure to see quick improvements that a “medically-supervised, low-calorie protein shake diet” would have instantly delivered might have threatened his ability to claim medical leave.  He was actually pressured to do an extreme diet with well-known hazards and only a temporary, fleeting improvement! 

Dieting causes metabolic syndrome due to the grueling aftermath, which involves visceral weight gain and the negative biomarkers that often come with it.  Hey, these diets would work great if the body didn’t react to them.  But, alas, our bodies are not stupid and metabolic rate slows and hunger typically rages. 

While I don’t have all the answers, to those feeling desperate about their weight or some lab tests showing high triglycerides, blood pressure, glucose, triglycerides, cholesterol… Don’t fall prey to these happily-ever after diet fantasies.  I know you have before.  I have too.  But that doesn’t mean we have to keep doing it again and again, making irrational decisions because we’re scared or don’t like how we look.  Because they not only don’t work, they actually cause the problems they are advertised to cure. 

What science really shows is that living a fulfilling life, eating good meals with lots of fresh foods, getting good sleep, and spending more time on your feet moving around is a much better bet.  This method might not be able to compete with magazine covers claiming you can lose 584 pounds in 5 seconds, but it’s a hell of a lot better than restricting your diet in an unsustainable and neurotic way only to end up worse off over time.   

Or, more directly, dieting makes you fatter long-term so stop f$%#ing doing it!