Losing weight is one of the most commonly sought-after goals in our society. Oftentimes, when we think of improving health, the first thing that comes to mind is weight loss. Research shows that roughly half of Americans are trying to lose weight, with the majority of this group employing dietary changes as a means of doing so .
Yet, when they are first confronted with the puzzle of how to lose weight, most people don’t step back and analyze their approach to eating as a whole. Instead, they explore which fad diets promise the best results – whether that’s the quickest weight loss or greatest number of pounds lost. This is the first mistakemany people make on their journey towards sustainable weight loss – and overall health.
A recent statistic shows that 98% of dieters gain at least some, all, or even more weight than they lost while dieting . This has been a well-known trend for quite some time, and yet, more extreme diets continue to emerge and gain popularity. How can this be? What societal constructs have led us to believe that strict restriction and near happiness are the key criteria needed for success in health? Here, we dive into the reasons why people turn to fad diets, and how to not only avoid falling into this common trap, but also how to lose weight the right way and keep it off for good.
Why Am I Gaining Weight? Psychology of Weight Gain
According to research, there are a few key reasons why people gain weight. However, these reasons can vary significantly from one person to the next. In order for healthy, sustainable weight loss to take effect, one must first assess and understand the drivers that led to weight gain in the first place. Below are some of the most common factors why people gain weight.
Stress is indeed a factor in gaining weight, but it is not the stress itself that causes weight gain; rather, it is how stress is managed. For most individuals, stress is a natural aspect of daily life. In fact, stress is normal and, to some degree, even healthy. It keeps us alert and helps us avoid danger. For an upcoming event such as an important work presentation, your body may elevate its heart rate through an increase in catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine).
This increase in heart rate increases blood distribution to your brain, thereby enabling you to become hyper-focused and perform the task at hand successfully. This only occurs successfully, however, if you’re able to control that stress and use it for its true purpose: to become productive and overcome obstacles. Problems begin to arise with prolonged, elevated stress and lack of control. This leads to a fluctuation in hormone levels – specifically, cortisol.
How Does Cortisol Relate to Appetite?
The body’s immediate response to stress is to produce adrenaline. On a short-term basis, adrenaline suppresses appetite. As the blood flows away from your internal organs and to your muscles to prepare for “fight or flight” mode, you begin to feel less hungry. Once that adrenaline subsides, however, it leaves cortisol in its wake. On an occasional basis, spikes in cortisol aren’t bad. Yet, chronic stress can lead to frequent, severe increases in cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone.”
Cortisol doesn’t wear off as quickly as adrenaline; instead, it lingers and signals the body to replenish its food supply. After all, in the wild, fighting off predators would require an immense expenditure of energy. Yet, modern humans that are exposed to consistent stress without control are aggressively conserving fuel – without having a real need to do so.
Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, which means “breakdown.” However, in addition to regulating metabolism, controlling blood sugar levels, and performing other key functions needed for survival, it can also increase fat storage over time. In other words, our neuroendocrine system is still designed to function as it did for our ancestors and does not take into consideration that most modern individuals lead sedentary lifestyles. Thus, cortisol will still prompt you to reach for extra food when you’re unable to control elevated stress, even though your body doesn’t need it.
Stress Induced “Pleasure” Food Cravings
Another factor that plays a role in weight gain is pleasure. While consistent stress spikes cortisol levels, it can also increase appetite through a release of ghrelin. This hormone is released as the body anticipates a need for more fuel to prepare for the impending “danger.” To satisfy our appetite, we understandably reach for food. Yet, the problem lies in the fact that it is not healthy foods we seek. Instead, we crave the foods that provide immediate pleasure.
Foods that are easy to eat, highly processed, and high in sugar or unhealthy fats tend to quell appetites driven by stress-related factors. They release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that aids in controlling the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. The dopamine momentarily relieves our stress, almost allowing us to forget that it’s there. Yet, it isn’t long before the cravings come back – often even stronger than they were in the first place. This cycle sets the foundation for poor behaviors, which comprise the third reason behind weight gain.
Influence on Individual Behavior
Behavior should be the first point of focus for anyone pursuing weight loss. Yet, behavior is influenced in so many ways that it often becomes dependent on external factors. From magazines to TV shows, movies and the people around us, there are a number of outside sources which influence our actions. The behaviors we implement to combat weight gain are often a product of someone or something else – the latest fad diet recommended by a coworker, an ad for a weight loss supplement, and so forth – but are rarely spurred by intrinsic motivators. This is a major reason why even individuals who do lose weight successfully tend to gain it back.
In an article published in Obesity Reviews,  numerous aspects of human personality were examined in relation to weight loss and failure to maintain weight loss. These components included:
- Physical activity
- Eating patterns
- Weight loss goals
- Life events and social support
- Self-efficacy, among others
What most of these components have in common is that, when they are changed intrinsically, they yield better results. More often than not, if the decision to change came from an external source, quick results were achieved. However, once that external factor was no longer relevant, the weight was gained back rapidly. This sheds light on one of the chief components of weight loss and weight management which is also, quite frankly, the hardest one to master: self-accountability.
Thus, in order to enact lasting change, individuals must start by identifying their true purpose for pursuing their goals. Fad diets do not cater to these goals, but there are other shortcomings beyond that which we’ll discuss next.