Fighting body fat Logic
What were you doing wrong?
Fighting body fat Logic
Whether it’s three, 13 or 30 kilos, slimming down is about much more than losing weight – it’s about seeking health, wellbeing and confidence. But if diets boycott this, how can we permanently achieve a healthy weight?
We strive to stand out in so many areas of life. But when it comes to weight, we want to fit the mould at all costs, and many of us are willing to put ourselves through the wringer to achieve it. The problem is that the long-term success rates of diets are abysmal, meaning most of us are struggling without success. Why?
DITCHING THE DIET LIES
The search for answers about why diets don’t work keeps leading scientists back to the brain. We make 35000 decisions a day, many of which affect what and how much we eat, and whether and how we exercise. ‘My studies have shown that diets often make people fatter and less healthy in the long term because they inhibit people’s ability to recognise real hunger as such,’ says US neuroscientist and diet objector Sandra Aamodt. ‘This makes people extremely prone to emotional eating and susceptible to the temptations of clever food marketing.’
False perceptions often also play tricks on us when it comes to our weight and diet. Behavioral therapist and German author Dr. Nadja Hermann knows this all too well. A few years ago, having spent half her life on diets and reaching her heaviest weight of 150kg, she asked herself: ‘Why do I always put on weight instead of losing it? Is it my destiny to be heavy or can I change something – and if so, how?’ She found the answers in several studies that revealed that most diets deceive us, and that often we’re too willing to believe their weight loss lies. Here, Dr. Hermann reveals how she lost 80kg and what she knows now.
What would you say to the older you?
I’d advise her to give up her beliefs in so-called ‘fat logic’. In hindsight, these false ideas and myths about excess weight, metabolism and diet ultimately prevented me from permanently achieving a healthy weight.
This was despite attending a school specializing in nutritional science and writing your dissertation on the topic of diets. Why did the turning point only come in 2013, and when exactly did it happen?
I long considered myself fat but healthy. I didn’t smoke or drink alcohol, and primarily ate vegetarian or fish [dishes]. For a long time, I wouldn’t accept that the extra kilos would cause more health problems. At 30, I weighed almost 150kg, at a height of 175cm. So after spending virtually half my life on a diet, I was no longer just fat; I was morbidly obese. The turning point came in November 2013: a knee injury left me in pain and unable to move for months. That was the first time I properly realized this is what the rest of my life could end up being like if I didn’t change something.
Was that enough to motivate you?
In my line of work, it’s said treatment will be successful only if you know which behavior needs to change – and if the patient also believes it will work and that they can do it. For me, however, losing weight was always an insurmountable hurdle – not just because of my previous failed attempts, but also because I assumed I was fat by nature. I now know that that was the first piece of fat logic I erroneously believed.
You had a rummage through all the studies that had been conducted in diet research. What was the next myth you disproved?
I initially focused on the most obvious thing: my eating habits. Like many overweight people, I had the ‘1 000 kilocalories (kcal) a day’ problem. My favorite thing to eat was a mixed salad with fish – so something healthy. I estimated a serving of about 500kcal and planned the rest of my food accordingly. But I wasn’t losing weight. Most people should lose a few kilos a month due to the difference between energy ingested and consumed when having ‘only’ 1500kcal a day. But not in my case.
What were you doing wrong?
It’s very simple: my calculations were off! When I finally weighed up all the ingredients like olive oil, tomatoes, etc., and calculated their calories, I ended up having three times my proposed amount on my plate. So every time I wanted to help myself by having a salad, I was off by 1000kcal. Doing that every day results in about 1kg extra fat on the body every week.
Is miscalculating calories a widespread problem?
Yes, there is evidence to suggest that many people have problems estimating portion sizes and calorie quantities. American researchers from Pennington Biomedical Research Center have even proven that dietary advisors themselves are off by 223kcal on average (by about a slice of bread). But the real extent of this is shown by a Finnish study on twins: every day, the obese twin would under-record 800kcal, but overestimate daily consumption by 450kcal because of exercise or sport. With a discrepancy like this, it’s no wonder someone doesn’t lose weight and sometimes even puts on weight. But because the participant felt their eating habits were normal, they believed their excess weight was caused by other reasons, such as thyroid disease.
And that’s wrong?
In most cases, yes. As harsh as it sounds, those who believe they that ‘don’t eat all that much’ but are still inexplicably overweight have, in my opinion, a perception problem, not a metabolism problem.
There’s an undisputed relationship between thyroid function and our metabolism. Where do you believe the error lies here?
Our metabolism can’t be adjusted up or down randomly – at a certain point the body’s energy consumption simply stagnates. For years I’ve been suffering from Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disease that causes an underactive thyroid. Sometimes I was just lethargic, weak and depressed – all typical severe symptoms. Yet a test showed that my metabolism was working only 10 to 15 percent worse than normal; in other words, I was consuming only 200 to 300kcal less a day. Over the course of a month, that adds up to a kilo, unless I also change my eating habits. Of much greater importance to energy consumption and the associated weight loss success is how many muscles I have and how active I am.
What if someone is unable to exercise?
If like me, you can’t work out properly from the start, the only way to lose weight is by drastically reducing calorie intake. Because then the body automatically has to draw on its energy reserves in the form of fat. In cases of extreme excess weight, like mine, it’s not very easy to exercise. Apart from swimming, it places a lot of strain on the heart and joints. And try finding a bike that can carry 110 kilos or more. In these instances, it’s easier to go walking for 20 minutes a day. Since I couldn’t do that because of my knee, I trained with a resistance band every day. It’s an easy way to build up muscle, as this is ultimately what consumes the most energy.
So you can’t go wrong with exercise – or did you come across another piece of false logic here?
I did, actually! Many complain that despite playing a sport, they don’t lose weight. Once again, the blame is shifted to a malfunctioning metabolism, but this logic is also based on an error of judgment: on the one hand, it’s been proven that after a workout, these athletes simply eat more than the energy they burnt. On the other hand, this intensified activity increases not only appetite in general, but an appetite for fatty foods.
Is the claim that excess weight is hereditary another piece of false logic?
Yes and no. While there are obesity genes, they don’t make you fat per se. They simply mean the carrier of this hereditary information automatically has a greater appetite for sweet and fatty foods, and thus eats about 125 to 280kcal more a day. But this ‘malpractice’ can be corrected: if these people follow a healthy diet, the brain changes the way in which it responds to certain foods. Brain scans have shown that the reward center reacts more intensely to a healthy, low-calorie food. So the question you need to ask is: do I want to settle for my current weight?
Is it really only about wanting?
Many fat people feel they have to justify themselves: they’re seen as being lazy and undisciplined. They compare themselves with friends and acquaintances – and fall into a trap: ‘My slim(mer) friend eats much more than me!’ This and other myths make it unnecessarily difficult for many would-be dieters to motivate themselves.
So losing weight is not that difficult after all if you know about these diet traps?
I’m the best example that anyone can do something about their excess weight: I more than halved my weight after being fat almost my whole life. I ate only 500kcal [a day] for the first six months, under medical supervision, doing away with carbohydrates almost entirely and eating more protein rich foods. But that was due to the fact that I wasn’t able to exercise. Today I have a normal diet again and I am able to maintain a normal weight of 65kg.
What else – apart from weight – has changed for you?
Not a lot, and yet also a lot. The excess weight never really stopped me from doing anything: I studied, did my Ph.D., got married and built a house. What is different is that I used to hate sport. Today, I have new, different body confidence. But what’s much more important to me is that I’m now healthy and able-bodied! No more wheezing after climbing 40 steps, no more breathlessness when sleeping, no more back pain or high blood pressure. The only thing I have to live with is my busted knee.
What advice do you give those wanting to lose weight?
Stop thinking it’s a decision between being skinny and depriving yourself, or being fat and enjoying yourself. Have a good look at where you sabotaged yourself in the past, or where you were misled by false logic.
Imagining how you’ll look after losing weight, combined with regular weighing, is the strongest motivating factor for weight loss, or so says a study by New York University.
Excess weight often isn’t caused by gluttony, but rather an error in judgement. Studies have shown that most people miscalculate their daily calorie intake by at least a slice of bread (220–250kcal). Multiply this by seven days and you end up with 1540–1750kcal extra a week – and over a month this amounts to up to 7000kcal extra, which equates to 1kg of body weight.