How Most Fad Diets Can Lead to Long-Term Weight Gain
Scientists recently conducted a study with mice, depriving them of food in ways intended to replicate many fad short-term diets, cleanses or fasts. They discovered that strict limitations on the food they received increased their stress levels. What did they look for to lower their stress? Sweets! That’s right—the study showed that imposing short-term diets on lab mice led to a craving for sugar products. The same is true for humans.
In a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers wondered why so many people who intentionally lost weight ended up gaining it back or adding even more pounds. They saw that most research on weight loss considered only the impact of appetite control. They decided, instead, to assess the extent to which stress plays in weight loss, maintenance and gain.
What scientists already knew about stress was that it caused a release of cortisol into the body. Cortisol is a hormone that gives the body a form of sugar as fuel, allowing us to have the energy to flee or fight back in situations of danger. If we experience high levels of stress on a consistent basis, the persistently elevated levels of cortisol cause an increase in appetite, particularly for things with a lot of sugar. Because sugar is harder for our bodies to process, excess sugar stays in the body (typically converted to fat).
In the study with the mice, researchers found that mice who had been subjected to the simulated fad diets had significantly elevated levels of the protein in their blood that releases cortisol. Accordingly, they were determined to have experienced a higher level of stress. They responded to those higher stress levels with craving for high-fat, high-calorie foods. This behavior remained long after the mice returned to a normal diet.
What Does This Mean for Humans?
The study suggests that, when humans engage in “starvation” or dramatically low calorie diets, it increases their stress level. When their stress levels go up, they’ll likely develop cravings for high-fat, high-calorie foods. Such cravings may persist long after an individual has reached a desired weight, making it harder to maintain weight loss.
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