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Just read that again—dieting too hard? Dieting might be stopping you from losing weight? It might sound strange but it’s entirely true, and it’s a problem that comes up time and time again among people looking to lose weight and change their lifestyles: depending on your training schedule, if you’re trying to lose weight then counting those calories too strictly might be doing you more harm than good and slowing, if not stopping, your progress. So how does that happen?

Often when people take on a new fitness routine, they look to cut down on the calories in their diet and massively increase the amount of exercise they do per day. On paper at least, there’s nothing wrong with that. Fewer calories in + more calories burned = weight loss overall, right? Well, only up to a point…

Where does the dieting problem start?

Problems start to appear when people go too far too soon. It’s tempting to go into a new fitness routine with all guns blazing—dieting by slashing calories, replacing your milky lattes and sugary drinks with low-cal slimming shakes, and trying to run a marathon around the block every day of the week. With a routine like that of course you’ll soon find yourself shedding some pounds and toning up. But before long—and nowhere near where your goals are—you might find your progress grinding to a halt.

Those next few pounds just won’t shift, no matter how hard you train. Your weight loss plateaus, and you stay the same weight for weeks on end. After another week or so, you might find yourself quitting your training schedule and new dieting habits, dejected and annoyed, and go back to your old ways again.

You won’t be alone if that sounds all too familiar. But in most cases like this, your progress won’t have slowed or stopped because you weren’t training hard enough—if anything, you might have been too hard on yourself.


What’s the solution?

Think of your body like a car’s engine. To get the car to drive, you need to put fuel in it. And to get the car to drive any kind of distance, you need to put quite a lot of fuel in it; try running the car on empty, and you’ll soon find yourself grinding to a halt. Your body works in almost the same way.

Food is the body’s fuel, and if you don’t put enough in the tank then you’ll not be able to work to the best of your ability. That alone might be enough to slow your progress: if you haven’t given yourself enough calories to make it all the way around the block on your run, you’ll soon tire out, find yourself having to walk the rest of the way home, and end up not burning as many calories as you’d like to.


What’s actually happening?

But there’s more going on here than just putting fuel in the tank. If you regularly undersupply your body—starving it of the calories that it’s used to and that it needs every day—then it will soon go into what is known “conservation”, or “starvation” mode. Your brain realises that it’s not getting the same amount of fuel that it’s used to, and so starts telling your body to hold on to every scrap of nutriment that it can—including, you guessed it, all that body fat.

Put another way, suddenly going from a 3,000 calorie day with a diet rich in fatty and sugary foods to two bowls of cabbage soup and half an almond per day just isn’t healthy: your brain doesn’t know where all that fuel has gone, and so tells your body to hold on everything that it can while it waits for its next energy-rich meal.


So what’s the solution? How can you make sure you avoid the starvation trap?

Well, there’s two things to remember here. First of all, food is still fuel no matter what your dieting goals are. You need to make sure you’re putting enough in to your body to operate effectively every day, while still controlling those calories overall to ensure that you’re not going too far, and that you’re sourcing those calories from the right kinds of foods. This is where having a good talk with a PT or nutritional expert will come in handy: they’ll be able to take a look at your diet as it is at the moment, and recommend what foods to cut and what foods to add.

Secondly, remember this entire process overall takes time. If you are going to cut down on your calories, your brain needs time to ease into that new routine, and rewire your system so that you start burning calories from your fat reserves to make up the drop in calories in your diet. Going too hard too quickly will throw your brain into a quandary, making it worry about where its next meal is coming from—and convincing it to hold on to those energy-rich and much-needed fat reserves a lot longer than you’d like.

So moderation is the key. Try cutting those calories bit by bit, week by week, and try sourcing your calories overall from low fat, low refined sugar foods. Don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t expect results straight away—and don’t get too disheartened if you don’t reach your goal immediately. Stick to a healthy plan, keep your diet tidy, and you’ll soon start seeing results.


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