It wasn’t that long ago scientists tried to tell us that exercise is a myth, and not the best way to burn stomach fat (editors note: we didn't totally agree with them). If exercise isn't the answer… then the obvious replacement when exploring how to reduce fat from belly, or body, is dieting I suppose. Restricting oneself to certain amounts of special types of foods in order to lose weight.
As if trying to get your body back into the desired shape wasn't hard enough… now it seems diets are also on the chopping block. Many researchers are now claiming diets don’t work either in the battle of the bulge. In fact, some even suggest dieting is more likely to encourage weight gain than losing excess fat. A 2012 study into 4,000 identical twins found dieting increased weight gain even when modifying for genetic background.
What? Yes, this is shocking news I know. Particularly when you consider the 45 million Americans planning to go on a diet this year.
But we've seen so many examples of wonderful weight loss achieved through dieting? This is true. We seem to be inundated with eye catching images from the $61 billion dollar weight loss industry that demonstrate heart warming success stories. After all, the industry does rely on creating the hope achieving long lasting weight loss is possible.
Diets are a dime a dozen
There are countless diets or eating regimes popularised throughout the market today. Each seems to have a distinctly different focus - from macronutrient restriction (such as low fat or low carb), to stringent calorie restriction or dubious food choices.
Examples include the ‘anti-carbs’ Atkins diet, which focuses on lean proteins via animal meats and low starch veggies, the extremely popular Paleo diet whom encourages foods consumed by early humans - at the expense of dairy, cereal and processed foods. There are diets based on blood type, glycemic index, eating frequency (such as the three hour diet), and even those that focus on eating a single food type over a short period to expedite weight loss - a couple of examples include the Grapefruit and Cabbage Soup Diets.
Many of the diets that have flooded the market promote outlandish claims, and simply do not work - often encouraging fluid loss at best. Others however may be beneficial in short term fat reduction.
Dieting promotes short term weight loss
Let’s back track for a second. While an increasing body of research points to evidence dieting doesn't work… these findings generally reference long term weight maintenance. Several studies have have demonstrated effective weight loss in the immediate term. According to Traci Mann, UCLA associate professor of psychology“You can initially lose 5 to 10 percent of your weight on any number of diets”.
Diets have been shown to improve fat profile, as well as other health markers such as cholesterol and blood sugar over a short period. Some of these gains may be attributed to increased vegetable consumption or exercise… but the impacts of short term dieting seem beneficial when considering how to reduce fat from belly and throughout the rest of the body.
A study in the American Journal of Clinical nutrition compared participants on a high protein, low fat diet against others consuming high carbs and low fat throughout a 12 week dietary intervention. Both groups were energy restricted and the researchers assessed weight loss, changes to body composition and cardiovascular health. Interestingly, the weight loss was 7.3kg for both diet groups, suggesting the energy restriction was more important than the type of diet undertaken
A 2007 study by Dr. Pamela Dyson took 26 individuals and placed them on a low carb diet. Participants lost 15.21 pounds over a three month period, compared to only 4.63 pounds for those on a ‘healthy eating diet’
And finally, 200 obese adults were part of a recent Australian nutritional study. The aim was for participants to lose 12.5% of their body weight in a relatively short 12 week period (most weight loss recommendations suggest you should lose no more than 1-2 pounds per week). A second group were allowed 36 weeks to achieve the same goal. Those in the ‘crash diet’ weight loss group achieved their weight loss goal at an 80% success rate. The longer intervention including 'steady' dieters achieved only a 50% success rate.
Like me, you would have probably guessed the first group, while achieving a higher success rate initially, would be more likely to regain weight since they lost it so quickly. This is a common thought process. In fact the proportion that regained weight were identical across both groups.
Ok, those dieting results seems promising right? For the most part people are losing weight.
Short term gain... long term pain
The problem is a lot of weight loss or obesity research ignores or fails to investigate what happens at the other end of the spectrum. What happens beyond the first 18 months to two years of any weight loss intervention?
In the Australian trial referenced above… we omitted the detail that after three years 71 percent had regained all of their lost weight. Although, in the scheme of things this is probably considered a pretty good result.
According to this article by Harriet Brown - 97% of dieters regain everything they lose and some within 3 years.
Despite her admission that you can lose 10% of your body weight on diets, Traci Mann suggests the bulk of those that drop weight put it right back on over the following 5 years. Her research team evaluated 31 long term diet studies. They suggested that not only do diets ‘not lead to sustained weight loss of health benefits for the majority’, then can in fact make people gain weight.
A Professor of Medicine at the University of Melbourne, Joseph Proietto, supports Manns claims following his 2011 study.
Proietto took 100 overweight men and women and placed them on a severe calorie restricted diet of 550 calories for eight weeks. Following the initial eight week period, progress was monitored for 12 months, during which time healthy eating counselling was administered.
As the scientists expected, the overweight participants lost weight during the initial 8 week intervention. Unfortunately, the majority regained a substantial amount during the following year.
Why? Proietto suggested a release of the brain's hunger inducing hormones was to blame. That’s probably no surprise - a 550 calories diet is far lower than recommended daily intakes - even when attempting to lose weight. The body reacts in a similar way when experiencing starvation. Participants also reported becoming more food obsessed than prior to the diet and slower metabolisms were evident post treatment.
Do dieters just lack self control?
A common belief directed at overweight individuals from their ‘normal’ weight counterparts is that dieters are lazy or lack self control. Is this really the case?
Actually many scientists believe self control has nothing to do with it. Dieters are wired to fail. Post diet weight gain can be due to a number of compensatory mechanisms.
You possibly haven't heard of the hormones ghrelin and leptin. However, they play a vital role in hunger control. Leptin promotes the feeling of fullness, inhibiting food intake, whereas ghrelin stimulates hunger and food preoccupation.
Diets prompt your body to alter the prevalence of these and other hormones in the body. Your body produces more of the hunger inducing ghrelin to try to encourage you to eat, and leptin, and other hormones that promote fullness (such as peptide YY and amylin) are reduced.
It that didn't make weight maintenance hard enough, a strong link between weight reduction and a preference for high calorie foods containing high sugar and fat has been reported.
When you lose weight, your metabolism invariably slows down. The brain declares a state of emergency - starvation. The body is extremely resourceful and will attempt to utilise its calories more efficiently, operating on fewer calories. This can result in any leftover calories being stored as fat, as well as your body trying to do everything in its power to get your weight back to ‘normal’
The hypothalamus shows decreased activity in people who have lost weight - encouraging you to eat more and regain weight.
Lower metabolic rates after diet-induced weight loss and a resultant reduction in total energy expenditure have been identified. One study into 22 men and 69 women by Camps et al. administered a very low energy diet to participants. The scientists showed that weight loss resulting from dieting is associated with adaptive thermogenesis. What does that mean? Basically that you will generate a reduction in your resting metabolic rate that is greater than anticipated.
Other biological changes
A bunch of other biological changes occur following diet specific weight loss. One such change is an increase in insulin sensitivity. This can result in cells using glucose more readily… and fat, otherwise used as a fuel source, makes its way back to storage instead.
In fact researchers have also shown that insulin sensitivity following dieting or weight reduction can actually predict the amount of weight a person will regain.
While insulin sensitivity alone is not a strong driver of weight gain… when coupled with the other changes we have already outlined it certainly contributes.
There are a number of other diet related side effects that can disrupt your best weight loss endeavours.
A key one is an increase in stress and anxiety. Diets are stressful and anxiety is a powerful trigger for weight gain. According to Pameral Peeke, Author of Body For Life For Women, "Even if you usually eat well and exercise, chronic high stress can prevent you from losing weight - or even add pounds,”
Stress results in a surge in the hormone cortisol. This encourages binging or overeating - and increased abdominal fat. If continue to follow a stressful eating regime, your body will continue to pump out cortisol - countering your best weight loss efforts.
If dieting doesn’t work, what should we do instead?
Should we give up all hope? No. Not Yet!
Yes, when considering how to reduce fat from your belly it seems there is a need to avoid stressful eating regimes… like so many diets are. Try to focus your efforts on more sustainable and (if possible) enjoyable eating approaches. Weight loss requires a lifestyle change.
According to holistic health practitioner Deepak Chopra “Dieting involves the wrong kind of motivation, which is why it rarely leads to the desired goal,” He suggests that if you mindset is continually on a diet you deprive yourself, set false expectations and overly ambitious plans.
Instead you should opt for lifestyle change that takes into account all factors of successful weight loss and weight maintenance - includes exercise, stress management, sleep cycles, hydration and healthy nutrition choices - which some refer to as mindful eating?
What is mindful eating? It can be a lot of things I suppose. Eating when you are hungry, stopping eating when full. Being more aware of what you’re eating. Replacing poor food choices with healthier alternatives. Preparing portion sizes to help limit consumption or minimise overconsumption. Working out your bad eating triggers... it might be when you are drinking, or going out with friends. Whatever it is - try to plan in advance, for example try to eat first to fill up on healthy options.
We all want to live a fulfilled life… don’t spent all your time and attention on severe calorie restrictive diets. Addressing lifestyle change on an ongoing basis will probably provide you with a better long term result… and a more enjoy existence.
Have you been on a diet before? How did it work out for you? Share you tips on how to reduce belly fat below.