If there is one prevailing myth in the health industry, it’s the cookie-cutter theory that reducing your calorie intake will not only help you to slim down – it will also improve your health. While there might be a few exceptions, and there’s no question that fitness and bodybuilding competitors must cut calories to get in what they call “peak form” for shows, for the general public this simply isn’t the case. When your average person takes a simple and “straightforward” approach to dieting by cutting back on calorie intake, the short-term result is weight loss, followed by eventual weight gain.
Obesity scholar Robert Pool, author of Fat: Fighting the Obesity Epidemic writes:
“There was just one problem with this straightforward approach to weight loss: it didn’t work. When put on a diet, some patients would take off some weight – ten, twenty, perhaps even fifty or more pounds – but it wouldn’t stay off. Almost inevitably the pounds would come back, often bringing some friends with them.”
With simply cutting back calories without any other changes, this is the rule not the exception. But there are also many indications that this new, post-diet weight is distributed differently. Your body, after calorie restriction, typically holds less lean body mass and a lot more fat. And this isn’t just ordinary fat, but visceral or the dreaded “belly fat.”
Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health
summed it up best in the following passage:
“…certain aspects of the medical literature are suggestive, in particular studies that indicate weight cycling (a.k.a. yo-yo dieting) is a major factor in the development of clogged arteries, congestive heart failure, hypertension, and other serious health problems. Indeed, dieters as a group run up to double the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes when compared to ‘overweight’ people who do not diet. This may be a result of the fact that dieting often leads to bingeing, which is extremely unhealthy, since it is driven by cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods (indeed, the more often a person diets, the stronger these cravings become). These foods, when consumed by people who have been depriving themselves of adequate caloric intake, are quickly metabolized into visceral body fat, which is far more dangerous to health than subcutaneous fat. (Large people who do not diet tend to have high percentages of subcutaneous fat, but low percentages of visceral fat. Also, physical activity burns visceral fat very quickly, which helps explain why, as we shall see, activity levels are far more important to health than weight.)”
To get an even clearer portrait of what changes the human body undergoes after you return to normal eating after a prolonged low-calorie diet, there’s no better example out there than the most thorough study ever conducted on calorie restriction. This study was done back in the 1940’s at the University of Minnesota by the famous doctor Ancel Keys. 32 men endured a low calorie intake of just 1,700 calories per day for 24 weeks. During the 24 weeks they of course lost tons of weight, both body fat and a considerable amount of lean body mass.
When the low calorie phase finally ended the men, who had become depressed, lethargic, neurotic, and otherwise destroyed by this insufficient amount of food (that is ironically more calories than many modern-day diet authors recommend), ate like ravenous beasts! In the unrestricted group, daily calorie intakes were frequently seen well above the 5,000 calorie mark, with pronounced cravings for “ice cream and pastries” just as Campos points out in the quote mentioned earlier.
Even more interesting than that is what Keys revealed by carefully monitoring body composition and anthropometric measurements as the men regained all that lost weight and then some.
“…subjects…became concerned about their increasing sluggishness, general flabbiness, and the tendency of fat to accumulate in the abdomen and buttocks.”
That pretty much says it all, but the actual data is specific and quite telling. At 12-weeks post diet, the upper arm, calf, and thigh had only recouped 45,46, and 54 percent of their lost size respectively. The waist measurement, however, was already more than 100% restored!
By week 33 of refeeding the waist measurement was far higher than it was at the start of the study in all 32 subjects, and the average man in the study was 40% fatter than he was at the beginning of the experiment. In other words, men who had no prior weight problem developed a weight problem from doing a torturous low-calorie diet, and then falling off of it, as anyone who doesn’t develop and eating disorder (exponentially more dangerous than being obese) in the process of dieting will almost invariably do.
This all takes place due to the increase in the activity of an enzyme in the cells surrounding the liver and abdomen called 11-Beta HSD. When you try to starve yourself, it upregulates its activity, and what it does is suck up inactive cortisone in your bloodstream and convert it to cortisol in the fat cells themselves. This leads to excess cortisol production in this specific target area, and the manufacture of body fat out of every extra calorie you consume – which you most likely will because this all coincides with ravenous hunger and astronomical increases in food cravings.
The moral of the story is simple. If you have belly fat you’d like to get rid of, the first step is to stop panicking about it. The more irrational you become about your little potbelly, the more likely you will be to do something irrational and counterproductive to get rid of it – like do a severe bout of calorie restriction against your better judgment and despite the fact that you failed with that approach a dozen times already.
Instead, a smart approach in which you focus far more on the QUALITY of your food instead of the quantity, while engaging in some fun, very vigorous activity that engages large groups of muscles together (many sports, dance, Olympic-style weightlifting moves, plyometrics, circuit training, etc.) on a regular basis, is a much better strategy.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that never denying yourself food when you are hungry, and staying as far away from a treadmill as possible, is an almost foolproof long-term strategy for better health and better body composition. Eating a sane and not overly restricted nutritious whole foods diet to appetite, doing hard but short sessions of exercise that you enjoy and don’t have to motivate yourself to do against your will, and keeping it up for years in a sustainable way makes belly fat quite scarce in the vast majority of people.
Matt Stone is an independent health researcher and author of six books including 180 Degree Metabolism: The Smart Strategy for Fat Loss. Find out more about Stone’s pioneering and breakthrough research now at www.180metabolism.com