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It’s Not Your Fault You're Overweight


Why Most “Diets” Don’t Work & Other Keys to Healthy Weight Loss

By Mark Hyman, MD

This article was originally published in UltraMetabolism.

We’ve all heard the fiendishly simple and completely untrue colloquialisms that abound in our culture that “teach” people what they need to do to lose weight: “Just eat less and exercise more,” “Just stop eating so much,” “It’s all about willpower,” “Everyone knows that people who are overweight are lazy, undisciplined and self-indulgent.”

Most of you trying to lose weight have internalized a cultural message that it’s your fault you’re fat.

When I first started my medical practice I believed the formula for weight loss was simple:  Eat less + Exercise more = Weight Loss. I thought the only reasons people couldn’t lose weight were because:

    1. They overate.
    2. They were lazy and didn’t exercise enough.
    3. They ate too much and didn’t exercise enough.

Now I know better. For many overweight and obese individuals, these explanations are overly simplistic. After almost two decades in practice I know relying on this myth for weight loss is terribly unfortunate. Not only is it completely unsupported by the scientific literature, it develops a blame-the-victim mentality that tells people who are struggling with their weight in a not-so-subtle way that if they only tried harder they would lose weight. There is only one problem with this point of view: It’s not true.

Nobody Wants to Be Fat

The truth is that nobody wants to be fat. It isn’t your fault that you have problems with weight. It isn’t as though you chose to face this struggle. Even if you had enough willpower to keep yourself from eating when your body tells you to, you may still not be able to lose weight. This is because our bodies are genetically wired to make us gain weight and keep weight on. You cannot get away from this basic biological, evolutionary truth, but you can do something about your weight.

The trick is learning how to tune up your metabolism and use your body’s natural calorie-burning capabilities to help you lose weight and get healthy. But believing the common oversimplifications about your weight that our culture promotes won’t help you to sustain long term weight loss and health. You need to understand that the human body is much more complex than this.

What makes us thin, fat, or somewhere in between does indeed have something to do with how much we eat and exercise. But the oversimplification stops there. Complex forces that govern our survival control our weight and metabolism. In fact, there is no one simple reason why an individual may have trouble with his or her weight.

Over the last 10 years, medical research has revealed that weight loss is much more sophisticated than our outdated preconceived notions about eating less and exercising more. We have found there are seven basic principles involved in metabolism that affect weight regulation to one degree or another.

This new science of metabolism and weight loss carries us far beyond the old idea that losing weight is simply a matter of eating less and exercising more.

This analogy makes the obvious even clearer:  “Telling someone who’s overweight that all he/she has to do is eat less and exercise more is like telling someone who’s poor that all he/she has to do is make more and spend less.”  These kinds of simple equations ignore many factors.

One of the factors left out in such simple equations is what I call the starvation syndrome. When you buy into the idea that eating less will make you lose weight, you convince yourself that you need to restrict calories from your diet. In fact, most of the popular diets on the market recommend that you do just that. The problem is that calorie restriction almost always backfires. The reason? Your body thinks it’s starving to death and sets off chemical processes inside of you that force you to eat more. This, in essence, is how the starvation syndrome works. Let’s look at it in more detail.

The Starvation Syndrome: The Real Problem with the Old Way of Looking at Weight Loss

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies a diet containing less than 2,100 calories a day for the average man and 1,800 calories for the average woman a starvation diet.

The average woman dieting in America is trying to eat less than 1,500 calories a day. That means she is constantly in a state of starvation. Our culture praises starvation and excessive weight loss. We live everyday with the starvation syndrome.

Models today are 25% thinner than models 40 years ago. To achieve this, many binge, purge, use laxatives, smoke, drink diet sodas, and over-exercise. These activities trigger a cascade of molecules in the blood designed to make them rebound from their severe diets and overeat. Thus they binge, purge, and diet even more rigorously. This turns into a very ugly cycle that works in opposition to their body’s natural chemical construction.

This molecular cascade is the body’s way of saving itself from starvation. Human beings are genetically coded to do this. The most fundamental parts of who we are as biological creatures are designed to keep us from starving ourselves. It is a very basic survival mechanism. These models are receiving commands from their bodies to eat more and gain back the weight they have lost for their own good. Their body thinks it is in danger and it is sending them signals to eat so they can save themselves. Ignoring these signals makes their body grow old before its time. This is not a good pattern.

You may have fallen into this trap yourself. If you have tried dieting and restricted your eating below the calories you need to make your body function properly, you have been setting off the same molecular cascade inside yourself. As a consequence you receive hunger signals that are too strong to ignore. You rebound and gain back the weight you have lost. In most cases, you gain back more than you initially lost. You end up on the classical dieting weight yo-yo. Welcome to the starvation syndrome.

Your Lizard Brain: The Reason You Are Wired to Get Fat

But this all seems backwards doesn’t it? If it is true that we are genetically engineered to gain weight, then it would seem that we are wired incorrectly. Why would we be designed to overeat and grow fat?

It all comes down to the oldest and most primitive part of our brain, our limbic, or “lizard,” brain. This is the part of your brain that evolved first and it’s the same as a reptile’s brain. It governs your survival behaviors, creating certain chemical responses that you have no conscious control over.

There are three basic survival behaviors controlled by our primitive brains. They are 1) our fight or flight response, 2) our feeding behavior, and 3) our reproductive behavior. The first is the fight or flight response. It is a set of chemical, physical, and psychological responses that allow us to cope with dangerous or life-threatening circumstances. In man’s early history this response was developed so that we could escape attacks from ravenous, wild beasts.

I recently experienced this first-hand while on a walking safari in Africa when we tracked a black rhinoceros. They are nearly extinct and can’t be shot if they charge—and they frequently charge. Our guide was experienced, found the rhino easily, and then it charged us. My heart began to race and my breath quickened. I felt the blood rush through my veins with a surge of anxiety and fear that fortified me with the strength of a lion and the ability to run like the wind. Thankfully at the last moment the rhino spun away (with much shouting and waving of arms).

During that experience, I had absolutely no conscious control over the chemical reactions that governed my fight-or-flight response. Why? They were hardwired survival responses. I was in danger, and my body was doing what it was born to do—save my life.

The same thing happens to us around food. The same part of your brain that controls the fight or flight response controls your feeding behavior. While you might think you are in complete control of your mind, the truth is that your have very little control over the unconscious choices you make when you are surrounded by food.

The key to a healthy metabolism is learning what those responses are, how they are triggered and how you can stop them. You don’t want to put yourself in the position of being chased by a bagel. Your drive to eat it will overwhelm any willpower you might have about losing weight. It is a life or death experience and the bagel will always win.

So one of the most important principles to weight loss is never to starve yourself. The question is whether or not you are eating enough calories, not whether or not you are eating too many. What you need is a baseline for how much you have to eat to keep your body from going into starvation mode.

The Reason Most Diets Fail

The reason diets backfire almost all the time is because people restrict too much. That is to say, they allow the calories they consume to drop below their resting metabolic rate. This is the basic amount of energy or calories needed to run your metabolism for the day.

For the average person it is about 10 times your weight in pounds (I am 180 pounds so my resting metabolic rate is 1800 calories). This is the bottom line for your body every day without ever getting out of bed or expending any energy.

If you eat less than that amount your body will instantly perceive danger and turn on the alarm system that protects you from starvation and slows your metabolism. As a consequence they go right into starvation mode and just start eating and eating once they inevitably stop the diet – the classic rebound weight gain.

Just think of what happens when you skip breakfast, work through lunch, and finally return home in the evening. You eat everything in sight. You feel stuffed, sick, guilty, and regret ever entering the kitchen in the first place.

Why would you possibly want to overeat and make yourself sick?  Most of us are reasonable people and know that we shouldn’t overeat. We have done it before, wished we hadn’t, and have vowed to never do it again. Nonetheless, time after time, we repeat the same mistakes. Are we weak willed, morally corrupt, and self-destructive? Do we need years of therapy?  No, the answer is none of the above.

The answer is in our genetic programming. This stuff is just too deep inside us to get away from. We are built to put on weight and our bodies don’t like it very much when we don’t let them eat the calories they need to.

To make matters worse, when you lose weight, only about half of it is actual fat loss, the rest is valuable, metabolically active muscle!  Yet, when weight is regained, it is nearly all fat. Remember, muscle cells burn seventy times more calories than fat cells.

Therefore you lose a big part of your metabolic engine from yo-yo dieting. If you follow all the steps of The Daniel Plan you will minimize the loss of muscle and keep your metabolic fire going even while you lose weight.

We all know overweight people who say, “I don’t really eat that much, and I still can’t lose weight”. They aren’t lying.

When the average person goes on a diet they generally work to make themselves fatter. Each time they diet, they lose muscle. The diet usually fails, and when they do fail the weight that is regained is fat. If you have been through a number of diets that have failed, then your body has been through this process a number of times. In short, dieting makes you fat.

Luckily The Daniel Plan isn’t so much a diet as a way of eating. This means that you aren’t in danger of falling into this trap if you follow the program.