It’s a physiological process. And it’s a process that (if we understand it), we can hack.
It all starts when we ‘go on a diet’ (just remember that It is Not You That is on a Diet. It is Everyone Else!). This usually means we begin consuming a lot less, resulting in reduced energy coming in to the body. Our body has grown to expect a certain amount of energy coming in, so when we suddenly reduce that, it starts to panic. You see, it thinks you’re about to go into a famine. It thinks this because, for you 1600x great grandparents, they probably were. Back then, some 40,000 years ago, our bodies were the same, but our environment was very different. You can read about our description of Paleolithic humans versus modern humans here.
Periods of feast and famine were common, so when food became scarce, our body slowed things down. Our metabolic activity decreased. This meant that we needed less energy to stay alive. We went into energy conservation mode to stay alive. Of course, these days, we have plenty of food, but our body doesn’t know that, and ancient 40,000 year old bodies haven’t caught up with our new calorie rich environment.
Maybe we drop some weight. Our metabolism slows, and our body cries out for more food. It fights your new diet by increasing your appetite. It makes you hungry. If you’re hungry, you’ll seek out food, fighting your (self imposed) famine and therefore fighting your new way of eating. You succomb to the urges of your hunger hormones. Either you reach your weight loss goal and return to normal eating, or you fall off the wagon and increase your food consumption.
You enter a perfect storm of weight gain. Your new slower metabolism combines with hunger hormones circulating the body and increased energy intake. Not only are you eating more, but your body needs less energy to keep it alive, so the energy entering your body is stored as fat. Your metablism may start to creep back up, but its slow progress can’t compete with the sudden increase in appetite and food. In many cases, as your weight increases, your metabolism actually stays lower than it was before you began your diet.
You regain the weight, often ending up more than you did in the beginning. So you think you’d better go on a diet…
And so the cycle goes, a crashing metabolism combined with a physiological craving for more food as your body desperately tries to keep you alive.
What’s the answer? Small, gradual changes to your nutrition. Tiny habits that allow your body to adapt at the same rate as your behaviour adapts. Changes that are sustainable for the long term. All this coupled with forms of exercise to increase (or at least maintain) lean muscle mass. Resistance based exercise (lifting weights) to increase your metabolically active tissue and fight the metabolism loss. Exercise at intensity to increase the benefits to your metabolism after the exercise is over (read: Burn energy while you sleep with EPOC).
In short, gradual lifestyle change. Permanent change. Sustainable change.
Break the cycle. Cut the yoyo string.