Pervasive conventional one-size-fits-all diets have tempted us women at least once in our lifetimes. You know the drill: calorie-restricted weight-loss approaches that make us feel like ATM machines that dispense with our unique, exquisitely intricate systems. These types of quick-fixes inevitably delude us, leading us to believe in the calories-in-calories-out weight loss method. Unfortunately, this grossly over-simplified model has appealed to and persuaded millions of us to try and buy into it. All too often, these diets have failed, and served no other purpose than to waste our precious time and money, and in the long-term, wreak havoc on our metabolisms. Poor eating habits also significantly contribute to the decline in restorative sleep, physical and emotional health, and our relationship with food.
The most devastating aspect of conventional diet stories and studies is that, in truth, two-thirds of dieters soon regain more weight than they ever lose (Blum, et al), and the more weight they initially lose, the greater their rebound weight (Braverman, et al). Any other model with such low success rates would be discounted immediately. As a result, we are disadvantaged, heavier, and more emotionally defeated. Unfortunately, the same women who fail time and again to lose weight also attempt an identical diet later on down the line, and become entangled in the “yo-yo effect” (Dulloo, et al).
Asking ourselves a couple of important questions will provide clarity:
(1)Why is it so much harder to lose weight after age 40 than when we are younger?
(2) How might “yo-yo dieting” affect our ability to lose fat now?
In considering these questions, we must keep in mind that years of weight-cycling can result in a host’s negative effects (Mehta, et al), just a few of which are listed below.
Chronic dieting — specifically where severe caloric restriction is required — depletes “feel-good” chemicals in the brain called “neurotransmitters.”
How does this occur? Restriction diets cause multiple forms of physiological stress. In the brain, acute stress “burns up” our natural chemicals that act as sedatives, stimulants and pain relievers (i.e., endorphins). When we experience chronic stress (as often occurs during our peri/menopausal years, when multiple aspects of our lives and bodies are changing), our production and storage of these “feel-good” chemicals wane with the bodies correspondingly high demand for them. As a result, they down-regulate and make it seemingly impossible to achieve a state of calmness and equilibrium. Furthermore, when stress is high and we fail to manage it with restorative practices, myriad other potentially appetite-related issues can surface (e.g., cravings, binge eating), adrenal dysfunction and thyroid disease.
Caloric restriction impacts hormones:
Women who chronically diet often avoid certain food groups, such as essential fats, in an effort to keep calories low; but essential fats from real food sources are vital to a healthy body, mind, and hormonal balance. For example, fats cover every cell in our bodies and brains. Note that fats allow us to feel satiated and full. When we do not eat enough essential fat sources, we are more likely to seek out sweets and starches, overeat, graze, and feel irritable, to name just a few related symptoms.
The brain is the fattest organ in the body, at 60% of its total makeup. Our brain on a very low-fat diet equates with mental instability and lack of concentration. Our nerves require fat to build their protective sheath that facilitates the transmission of signals between the brain and body. Diets that contain adequate amounts of fats keep the bowels lubricated and regular. Offsetting a common perimenopausal/menopausal complaint: constipation.
Fats are essential to the absorption and utilization of vitamins and minerals from our foods and from the sun.
In relation to peri/menopause, restricting certain foods, such as fats (and proteins that contain healthy essential fats) can cause nutrient deficiencies (e.g., zinc and vitamin B6). Together, they serve as precursors to our progesterone hormone production, which must be carefully watched and balanced, particularly during perimenopause.
Perimenopause often signals a decline in progesterone, rather than estrogen, in the system.
During perimenopause, women are more estrogen dominant. When we are deficient in progesterone and high in estrogen, our ability to lose fat dramatically decreases — especially when it comes to eliminating that muffin top. If our levels are too low, our bodies burn fifteen to twenty thousand fewer relative calories a year, and we experience increases of water retention, hence the bloated look and feelings.
Progesterone reductions also increase depression, anxiety, insomnia and the risk for osteoporosis (i.e., bone loss).
Conversely, if our progesterone levels are balanced in relation to estrogen, it will trigger the brain’s hypothalamus to increase core body temperature, thereby elevating our resting metabolic rate. This means that we will use more calories, even when we are less active!
Such are the weight-gain factors that women endure when entering or in perimenopause, beginning as early as age thirty eight and lasting one to ten years.
Restricting Calories Slows Metabolism
When we chronically restrict calories, we push our bodies into a more catabolic state, thereby breaking down our precious fat-burning, lean muscle mass. This can be devastating to our resting metabolic rates —and fertility prospects —because maintaining muscle as we age (i.e., from thirty-five on) becomes more difficult due to the natural loss of lean muscle tissue due to aging, known as sarcopenia. For example, a woman with a higher ratio of lean muscle to fat, as compared with those of similar weight and height with a lower lean-muscle-to-fat ratio, will burn more calories from fat throughout the day, regardless of activity levels or habits.
Ideally, a decade before perimenopause, clients should maintain as much muscle mass as possible by eating enough protein and through regular moderate exercise, so as to maintain a slimmer, healthier body through the change-of-life period.
Calorie-restriction Disrupts Thyroid Function
You may be surprised to learn, that T3 levels (T3 is the thyroid hormone responsible for raising metabolism), begins to drop within hours of calorie deprivation and continues to fall until we consume enough calories. This persistent “sense of starvation” can cause a permanent thyroid problem. As we enter our mid 30’s and 40’s, decreased T3 triggers what I call a “menopausal thyroid slump.” For most women, more than one factor causes the condition (e.g., genetics, unmanaged psychological stress, nutrient deficiencies from low-calorie dieting, eating disorders, poor gut health, and soy products). Although the most common cause is genetics, calorie-restricted and nutrient-deficient diets are also primary causes.
Early on during restricted dieting, the thyroid slows down to help the body hold on to nutritional resources until the famine ends; but chronic dieting further depresses the thyroid, which then creates an unending decline in multiple metabolic functions. The result of this permanent decrease/slowing of calorie utilization creates adrenal disturbance (i.e. stress regulation gland) and the familiar post-diet rebound weight gain. Until the thyroid begins to function properly again, energy, weight and general health cannot be optimal.
Be vigilant with your body and take action. If you believe you have a thyroid- related issue, you may have to request a full thyroid panel from your medical practitioner. At minimum, test the following: TSH, Free T4 and T3, Reverse T3, Thyroid Antibody Test, Vitamin D levels, and Ferritin levels (if you are experiencing hair loss).
Improving your health after years of yo-yo dieting may seem daunting, and in fact, it will not be a breeze; but in the long-term, when you repair your body and metabolism with a balanced, sustainable approach, you will begin to lose unwanted weight, without being attached to the strings of yo-yo dieting.
Stay Strong, Be Well! xoxo – Amber
Kenneth Blum, PhD, et al., “Clinical Evidence for the Effectiveness of PhenCal in Maintaining Weight Loss in an Open Label, Controlled, 2 year Study”, Current Therapeutic Research 58, no 10 (Oct. 1997): 745-63.
Eric Braverman, MD, et al., The Healing Nutrients Within (Laguna Beach, Ca: Basic Health Publications, 2003): 240.
Dulloo, et al., Pathways from dieting to weight regain, to obesity and to the metabolic syndrome: an overview, Obesity Reviews 16, S1 (2015): 1-6
Chris Kresser MS, LAc, Thyroid Disorders E Book.
Mehta, et al., Impact of Weight Cycling on Risk of Morbidity and Mortality. Obesity Reviews 15, no 11 (2004): 870-881