We have all heard the same old story again and again: decrease calories, increase exercise and you’ll lose that unwanted fat; calories in versus calories out. So we often go on these diets that make us feel like we are eating nothing at all and jump on the treadmill to do countless hours of cardio. In the first two to three weeks you start to lose weight, so the plan is working right?
But then what happens? All of a sudden you plateau, your weight loss stumbles, it falters and you can’t lose anymore. So what exactly is happening? You must be eating too much and not training enough, right? So you cut more calories and run further and further every week.
Unfortunately that weight still doesn’t budge! By now you are starving and you start believing there is no hope; you’re destined to never lose fat and you should just go back to your normal eating. You then gain the initial weight you lost plus five kilograms more which makes you feel worse than ever. You think to yourself that you must have that dreaded ‘fat gene’ and it’s not your fault. Well it isn’t your fault directly, it’s the fault of all the marketing companies telling you to cut calories and train harder. But don’t worry, there really is a reason all of this happens.
Why dieting can make you fat.
I am now going to discuss what happens to your body when you eat too few calories.
The biggest culprit that causes fat gain from cutting calories is the hormone leptin. This hormone is basically our fat set-point.
Leptin lives in your fat stores and goes up and down depending on the amount of food you eat. If you naturally have a higher body fat percentage or eat adequate amounts of food you will naturally have high levels of leptin, which will keep your metabolism up and allow you to burn fat. So you might think to yourself, ‘I have higher body fat so that means my leptin levels should be high, right?’ Well they were before you started trying to diet over and over again!
When you continually go on and off calorie-restricted diets it leads to a condition called leptin resistance. This isn’t a good place to be in. If you are leptin resistant it makes communication between your fat stores and your brain shut down, leading your brain to believe there are no excess fat stores. So the next time you restrict calories, instead of your leptin levels being high they drop due to the lack of communication.
What’s wrong with low leptin levels?
Low leptin levels try to put your body in a fat storage mode because it doesn’t know when it’s going to eat again. When this happens the body slows down your metabolism, making you burn fewer calories each and every day. It also increases a hormone called ghrelin which is your hunger hormone, making you ravenous and wanting to eat all the time. If that isn’t bad enough, it creates a stress on the system and the body releases a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol promotes the storage of body fat, particularly belly fat.
The last hormone released is Neuropeptide Y (NPY), which is a hunger signal and makes you feel like you just want to eat carbohydrates, which cause blood sugar spikes. It’s a vicious cycle that never seems to end!
So let’s back track for a second.
We cut calories too low which puts us in a fat storage mode and slows down our metabolism. We become constantly hungry for carbohydrates which is then stored as energy and promotes belly fat we can’t get rid of.
Sounds like a pretty bad chain of events, so what should you do?
The guidelines to keep leptin levels high and not play hormonal havoc in your body to promote fat loss are:
1. Keep your protein intake in your meals to a minimum three times per day to ensure you’re getting plenty of amino acids.
2. Each meal should contain a portion of healthy fats.
3. Eat plenty of cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy and kale.
4. If you are training consistently on a weekly basis, carbohydrates are essential. Sweet potato and oats are great options.
Remember; never restrict calories for weight loss too low. Instead, make a lifestyle change with correct foods and listen to your body.
McGinnis, J and Nestle, M 1989, The Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health: Policy Implications and Implementation Stategies,
Scarpace, PJ and Tumer N 2001, Peripheral and hypothalamic leptin resistance with age-related obesity Physiol Behav, Nov-Dec;74(4-5):721,
Himms-Hagen, J 1999, Physiological roles of the leptin endocrine system: Differences between mice and humans, Critical Reviews in Clinical and Laboratory Science, Dec 36(6): 575-655,
Travis Jones, or TJ, has always been passionate about fitness. As a teenager he played elite level Rugby League, travelling all over the world representing Australia.
His experience as a fitness professional began at a gym in Perth and it wasn’t long before he was running his own franchises, managing over 70 personal trainers and overseeing 46 boot camp locations Australia-wide. From 2004 onward, TJ moved around Australia, managing Fitness First gyms in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. In 2010 he moved overseas to Toronto, Canada, where he trained under elite coaches while working at Good Life gym, discovering the most effective and sustainable techniques to create rapid fat loss and body transformations.
In 2011, after extensive fitness and nutrition training, TJ returned to Australia with the skills and knowledge to open his own specialist body transformation gym. With over 10 years industry experience, TJ is dedicated to helping people achieve their health and wellbeing goals.