Should one ever diet?

It is a common assumption that if one is overweight and wants to improve their health they need to diet. Is this a correct assumption? Reports are that between 70% and 95% of dieters who lose weight will eventually regain it all back. Often they will gain back more.

Given these odds, a person concerned about their health that was overweight, might make the rational decision and decide to not diet and instead focus on just not getting heavier.

Remember that when a person loses weight their metabolic rate drops, so going back to the original weight doesn’t send them back to where they started, but they now are back at their old weight with a slower metabolism. Which often means additional weight gain will happen. This puts them in a spot where they are now less healthy than had they not dieted in the first place.

I knew these facts a few years ago when I got up to 222 (height 6′ 2.5), but I wanted to be leaner. Instead of focusing on “how to lose weight”, I became more interested in the regain problem. Why are so many people regaining the weight that they lost? Answering that question could fill an entire book, but I drilled down on the one cause that I felt explained it best. Satiety.

Simply cutting back or any form of restriction will be remembered by the brain. It prefers the higher weight and can detect whenever you cut your portions or walk away from the table not quite as full as before. Your metabolic rate drops and then the brain just waits for your willpower to run out.

The brain doesn’t know calories. It knows satiety. I’ve harped on this point before with the graphic below.

The key to successful dieting where the weight comes off and you keep it off is not moderation or restriction. It is consuming foods that are higher in satiety and lower in calories and then eating to fullness. You do not want to set off any alarms in the brain that you are dieting.

See my post Approach Fat Loss Like You Would Approach a Cat for an explanation.

Weighing food and counting calories are signals of restriction. Sure they will help you lose weight, but in too many cases, they are the wrong tools for keeping it off.

A bowl of boiled potatoes (chilled overnight and reheated) topped with a can of beans and some veggies will fill your belly. You will be full and it will be low in calories. The brain will be happy. The pounds will come off and I believe that metabolism will stay elevated. Elevated enough to make the fat loss permanent.

Today I weigh 180. I’ve been there for a long time now. It is effortless.

Back to the question in the title of this post. Should one ever diet? For most people, I would say no. They still want the tasty foods that made them heavy – but just less than before. That works to lose the weight but sets them up for easy regain. The high percentage of regainers is too large to ignore or dismiss as errors of the individual.

reverse indy

This scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark might be a good way to visualize successfully losing weight in a method that doesn’t send an alert to the brain. Swap out the foods you normally eat with the high-volume foods. Fill your belly. No hunger.

What do I eat? See What I Eat and What I Don’t Eat – 2020 Edition.


Add yours

  1. MAS, are you concerned about the anti-nutrients found in legumes and even potatoes such as Oxalates, Lectins etc? Does pressure cooking or even just boiling potatoes, for example, reduce Oxalates?
    Thank you for all you do MAS

  2. Great post MAS.
    Low calorie bulky foods obviously work for you.
    However, as you are aware, it’s thought that there are multiple inter-related systems causing weight gain. While bulk and fullness is probably a primary driver, calories, nutrients (macro/micro), emotions, stress, sleep, seasonal adaptations, social factors, and hormones all also likely play a role for many folks. I recall this being a reason given why bariatric surgeries don’t always work.

  3. @JonO – No. Back in my Paleo days they were a concern. But sources that I trust say that the health benefits from legumes far outweighs the Paleo concerns. It may vary from person to person.

    @Jim – Good point. Not everyone will have the same regain path. So figuring out what yours might be before deciding to diet or not would be wise.

  4. This thread reminds me of the current documentary movie “Beyond Weight Loss,” by Thomas C. Odar.

  5. Thank you for replying MAS

  6. is there any data on what physical cues the body is responding to when it lowers its metabolism in response to weight loss? i would have thought that body will respond to weight loss the same regardless of how it happened, ie a reduction in volume of food or a reduction in the calories but with the same volume. but thats just my hunch

  7. @Matthew – I don’t know for certain the metabolic angle that losing weight in a manner that shuts down or greatly limits hunger would preserve metabolism. But I suspect it is true. We know the opposite is true. If one eats a high amount of processed foods, they need more calories to hit satiety.

    I’ve lost and gained weight a few times. Nothing too much, but enough to know that using the high-volume low-calorie foods never caused even a partial regain. No cravings either, as this was a meal replacement strategy.

  8. a documentary on the BBC, if memory serves, claimed that the metabolic lowering in response to weight loss only occurs if the person has been at the previous weight for some time; they estimated 2 years or more. so it seems to be part of the process where the body has a memory of its typical condition and returns to it quickly if it significantly deviates from it, in the same way you can regain muscle lost much faster than it took to get it originally. as for your low calorie foods/peasant diet, yeah absolutely. if you only eat as much highly processed food by volume as the peasant diet (ignoring that processed food often leads to eating beyond satiety) then youll have consumed probably twice the calories…

  9. I wonder if prolonged fasting differs from caloric deficit dieting with regard to this? Fasting seems to turn on/off all types of gene pathways that don’t get triggered when just dieting.

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