On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

The Difficulty of Outsmarting Your Metabolism

DEAR DR. BLONZ: My attempts to lose weight continue to disappoint. I cut back significantly on food and calories and the numbers begin to decrease, but soon, the weight loss suddenly shuts down -- leveling off with no more drops. All this with no cheating! When I give up, the weight comes back and sometimes goes above my starting level. I continue to try, but am wondering if there is something I am not considering. -- F.S., Hayward, California

DEAR F.S.: Unfortunately, there is the risk that some of those who are repeatedly unsuccessful with drastic weight-loss regimens may end up disappointed -- and in some cases, in worse shape than if they hadn’t tried in the first place. Some get to the point that they no longer want to try.

Being slightly overweight is not necessarily a bad thing if you have a healthful diet and active lifestyle. But if weight is more of a serious issue, remaining obese means squaring off with increased risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and other issues.

Getting back to your question: Could there be a bug in your approach, or is this more an issue with the body’s software? What gives the body this apparent cruel streak?

Consider that we make a conscious choice to go on these weight-loss diets, but the basic metabolic processes in our bodies are not in the loop on that decision. To these systems, the body has entered a state of famine, and it shifts to the assumption that a scarcity of food is the new status quo.

As soon as a restrictive diet is begun, the body’s innate drive for survival gets activated. Similar to the way we would have to cut back on spending if we lost our jobs and had to survive on assistance, the body automatically shifts into its version of economy mode. Depending on the severity of the calorie cut, actions would start with a slowing of body metabolism and a lowering of body temperature, along with other cuts that leave you feeling drained of energy.

We maintain our normal lifestyle through this period by conscious deception. We know that it’s coming, why it’s here and how long it will last. Consistent with the purpose of the diet, we want to make the body call on its energy reserves, which we are attempting to pare down. But as your reserves begin to drain, the body has this perverse desire to leave an IOU. Similar to how we might have “learned a lesson” and focused more on savings if we were fortunate to gain that job back, once we are “off” that diet, the body becomes more attentive to the handling and putting away of its energy. If frequent dieting is the norm in your life, this would especially be the case. The net effect can be a body with a greater focus on efficiency and holding on to its caloric stores.

One possible remedy is to refrain from focusing solely on drastic dieting. It is best to look beyond what we eat. Changes in lifestyle, such as regular physical activity, could provide the energy drain to swing the balance. We could be talking about nothing more than brisk walks.

Why not discard the idea of a “diet” entirely? After consulting your health professional, decide upon a reasonable ideal weight, and set this as your goal. Come up with a combination of food and activity that a person similar to you would require to maintain that weight; then on Day 1, begin eating and acting as if you were that person. Such an approach would mean a longer path to your goal, but the payoff is that you would never have to make any changes once there. It might be a way of turning the system around in your favor.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.