Is Dieting Making You Fat?

If you’ve ever been on an overly restrictive or fad diet, you’ll know how insanely hard they can be to follow. They require iron-clad willpower and are hugely taxing on both your mind and body. Willpower eventually runs as your body fights against you tooth and nail. One day, you wake up surrounded by empty pizza boxes, half-eaten doughnuts, and bags of chips. In what seemed like an instant, you’ve regained all the weight you lost plus some. And you thought the diet was bad. All that effort for nothing. Your dieting attempt just made you fatter!

My First Crack at Dieting

At about 171 lb, I decided I wanted to lose some weight to get a ‘washboard’ stomach. I was aiming to lose around 15 lb. Not a huge amount, but still a decent slog. I tracked everything meticulously so I could see what worked. Here are the stats:

  • Starting weight - 171 lb at 18% body fat (measured by DXA full body scan – the gold standard for body composition measurements).
  • Final weight - 158 lb at 11% body fat (also measured by DXA).
  • The diet lasted for 2 months and total weight loss was 13 lb.
  • Average weight loss per week was about 1.6 lb.
  • To lose weight, I took a standard approach and dropped my calories by 20%.
  • I regained all the weight back in 5 weeks after ending the diet. That’s around 2.3 lb gained a week!

Monitoring Blood Work Changes

I got some basic blood work done which looked at testosterone and thyroid function. Some of the results that were out of normal lab reference ranges (which will look at in more detail in the next section) are in bold below:

  • Testosterone dropped from 23.7 nmol/L to 3 nmol/L.
  • Free thyroxin (T4) hormone dropped to 10.2 pmol/L then increased to 16.5 pmol/L after ending the diet.
  • Free triiodothyronine (T3) hormone dropped to 2.5 pmol/L then increased to 4.8 pmol/L after ending the diet.
  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) dropped from 0.80 mU/L to 0.66 mU/L. While TSH dropped during the diet, it remained in a normal lab reference range.

Decreased Thyroid Hormones – a Quick Primer

If your thyroid becomes underactive many of your vital functions like metabolism, body temperature, and heart rate will be affected. So, fairly serious stuff. Not something you want to mess up because of a diet.

The thyroid gland is located at the base of the neck. The gland releases important hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxin (T4). T3 is the most active thyroid hormone. These hormones control the rate of energy use in the body. They’re the equivalent of your metabolic engine. An underactive thyroid is like having a car idling at a low, rough speed.

My Epic Diet Fail!

So clearly my first attempt at dieting turned pear shaped. I managed to do a good job of messing up my hormones. What went wrong? I overtrained and reduced my food (specifically carbs) too much. The results were some very serious side effects. Some of these took over a year to fix after ending my diet. Among some of the pleasurable experiences were:

  • I ended up with euthyroid sick syndrome, which is why I had low free T4 and T3 results.
  • I was constantly fatigued and tired.
  • I became very irritable and struggled to focus on simple tasks.
  • I was cold all the time.
  • I was barely able to drag my ass to the gym.
  • My testosterone took an extreme nosedive. To put it into perspective, my level dropped from a slightly above average 34-year-old male to an 80-year-old male’s level within a couple of months!
  • I developed chronic constipation, and my digestion slowed to a crawl.
  • I lost a lot of muscle mass.
  • My sleep was completely messed up. I’d wake up at 4 or 5 am because of low blood sugar levels.
  • I developed insatiable sugar cravings. But did not have a sweet tooth before my diet (give me pizza and chips over cake any day!).

So, if you take only one thing from this post, it should be to NEVER go on a fad or overly restrictive diet. Take your time and enjoy the process of working toward your goal. Listen to your body and don’t think you can outsmart it.

Let’s take a more detailed look at how your body responds to dieting, so you can avoid crashing your system like I did.

Guaranteed Failure

Diets have an 80-95% failure rate (depending on which study you read). Re-read that last sentence. Is there anything in life that you would do with such shitty chances of success? If I take my car to the mechanic, and he tells me he’ll fix the engine, but there’s an 80% chance it’ll blow in a year, I’d be looking elsewhere!

How Your Hormones Sabotage Your Efforts

When you reduce your food intake, your hormones are changed. Ghrelin is a hormone that makes you hungry and levels are raised when you start dieting. On the flip side, leptin is a hormone that tells you when to stop eating. Leptin signals are weakened when you diet. Yes, that’s how you can eat a whole bag of cookies in one sitting despite feeling full. The signals are messed up. Your body’s telling you there’s a famine and you need to eat as much as possible to survive. The result is the all too common rebound - you regain all the weight plus some.

Bad News for Low Carb Dieters

Leptin and ghrelin are not the only key hormonal players in this drama. As I mentioned above, the thyroid gland releases important hormones primarily responsible for regulating metabolism. T3 is the most active hormone and is significantly lowered during both low carb and severe caloric restrictions. We all know the low carb craze is in full swing. But most of us don’t realise that dropping carbs too low could cause very serious hormonal issues. This will bring your weight loss efforts to a grinding halt. And can result in an underactive thyroid. Symptoms of an underactive thyroid include:

  • Exhaustion.
  • Weakness.
  • Constipation.
  • Weight gain or difficulty losing weight.
  • Increased sensitivity to cold.
  • Frequent colds and illnesses.
  • Depression.
  • Decreased libido.
  • Dry hair and skin.
  • Hair loss.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Changes in the menstrual cycle.

If you’ve got an underactive thyroid, you’ll know about it. Life will be shit and exercise will be extremely challenging. You’ll hit a plateau and won’t be able to lose weight. You could also have issues with weight gain. If you suspect you have an underactive thyroid, have your doctor take a blood test. They MUST look at free T3 and T4 as well as TSH. TSH can be within a normal range while T3 is low. Often, doctors will only test for TSH and tell you things are fine. Insist on the complete thyroid panel.

Metabolism Comes to a Grinding Halt

You burn a certain number of calories every day for vital functions like breathing, keeping the heart beating, and movement. The number of calories you need to keep the body functioning in a state of rest is known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR). When you diet, your body reduces your BMR by becoming more fuel efficient. Your metabolic engine goes from a V8 to a 4 cylinder. But the real kicker is that this can continue after ending your diet. Studies have shown that our caloric needs can drop by up to 15%! This means that if you needed 2,000 calories to maintain your weight before your diet, you may now need 1,700 calories (assuming a 15% drop) after your diet. That’s 300 calories less per day (about a doughnut's worth) you can eat!

Willpower Runs Out

When you’re dieting, it’s not a matter of if, but when your willpower breaks. Food cravings go through the roof. And willpower is a limited resource. You’re tapping into it daily to get your work done, exercise, and do all those things that have been on your to-do list forever. So, you can grit through it and turn down the pastries for a while, but eventually you’ll cave. When you do, your body is primed for weight gain. With a lowered metabolism and the threat of famine, it’ll do everything it can to restore body fat quickly.

The Mental Battlefield of Dieting

Anyone who’s been on a diet can relate to the psychological pain. Fighting the urge to grab a doughnut, heading out for dinner, and making it through the day without constantly thinking about food are all emotional battles. The end result: dieters are more likely to mess up their relationship with food. This topic could be an article on its own. But think about this; if I tell you that you can never eat your favourite food for the rest of your life what happens? You’ll constantly crave that food and think about it. You’ll feel like you’re in a state of deprivation all the time. This can lead to binge eating and other disorders that create a problem much bigger than weight loss. Ultimately, it can turn into yo-yo dieting and more weight gain.

A Real-World Example

Let’s close out by looking at an example of an extreme diet gone wrong. This experiment clearly shows how dieting affects hormones, metabolism, willpower, and the brain. As you’ll see, the men in the study ended up fatter after their diet!

In Gary Taubes’ book Good Calories, Bad Calories, he describes an overly restrictive diet experiment conducted in 1944. Male subjects were put on a semi-starvation diet for 24 weeks. Calories were cut by 50% to 1,570 per day. As you can imagine, it didn’t end well for the male subjects:

Food quickly became the subject of conversations and daydreams. The men compulsively collected recipes and studied cookbooks. They chewed gum and drank coffee and water to excess; they watered down their soups to make them last.

By the end of the experiment when the men were allowed to eat as much as they wanted:

Their food intake rose to the prodigious level of 8,000 calories a day. But many subjects insisted that they were still hungry, though incapable of ingesting more food. And, once again, the men regained weight and body fat with remarkable rapidity. By the end of the rehabilitation period, the subjects had added an average of ten pounds of fat to their pre-experiment levels. They weighed 5 percent more than they had when they arrived in Minneapolis the year before; they had 50 percent more body fat.

While this is an extreme case, people who go on fad diets (especially liquid or juice cleanses) can easily put themselves in a significant caloric deficit. Usually, willpower runs out before any real damage is done. But that’s not to say that some people don’t push it too far.

So, How the Hell Do I Lose Weight?

Yes, your body hates change and will fight tooth and nail to maintain your weight. But it’s not all bad news. You can successfully lose weight and keep it off with some simple strategies. These aren’t sexy or magic bullet approaches. It boils down to this: you’ve learned how to eat a diet that puts on extra pounds, so now we need to develop habits that get rid of the weight slowly and sustainably. We need to coax your body and mind into losing weight, without feeling overly deprived. So how do we do this? It depends. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. But there are some core habits that will apply to most. The first one is by far the most important:

  • Eat whole foods 80% of the time. Don’t restrict any foods (unless you have an intolerance), but don’t go overboard on the junk food. It’s actually hard to put weight on when your diet consists mostly of unprocessed complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats.
  • Eat at least five servings of colourful vegetables each day.
  • Don’t drink your calories (stick to sugar-free tea, black coffee, water, etc.).
  • Mindful eating.
  • Getting your macronutrient ratios right for YOUR body. This means eating the right blend of protein, carbs, and fat. This will vary from person to person.
  • Eat lean protein at each meal.
  • Eat to 80% full.
  • Do some form of strength training that will build muscle (ideally weights, but can be other activities).
  • Bonus points: do some type of cardio that you find fun in addition to strength training.

Those are the key strategies that will get you the most bang for your buck. If you’re just starting out, forget exercise and focus on diet initially. This will have the biggest impact.

How to Test the Weight Loss Strategies

I write to share my own experiences and knowledge with you. But my ultimate goal is to give you information that’ll help you eat, move, and live optimally. Get these right, and you’ll transform your body and change your life. So, I like to end each post with some actionable steps you can take immediately.

To get the most out of this post, complete Step 1 below before the opportunity passes. If you really can’t drop everything right now, write a reminder on a post-it note and stick it to your forehead for later. Decision creates action. Action creates results.

  1. Pick ONE and only one of the above strategies to lose weight that you think will work best for you. Commit right now to starting within 3 days from today.
  2. Test the strategy for two weeks and see if it makes a difference to your weight, energy levels, mood, or general health. DON’T try to do more than one strategy at a time.
  3. If the strategy got you results, keep it up. If it didn’t work, get rid of it.
  4. Start and test a new habit every two weeks. By layering on new habits, you give yourself time to practice one before moving on.

Add a comment below and let me know which of these have worked for you in the past, or which you’re going to try.

Finally, if you want help in putting all of this into a completely customised online weight loss coaching program, you can book a free consultation with me here. More details on the program can be found here.

P.S. If you liked this blog post, I’d owe you one if you could get it out there by emailing it to a friend or sharing it on social media. You might also be interested in my free e-book: The Battle Tested Body Transformation Guide.