Weight Re-gain and Toxin Sensitivity
One common thing I've heard from people is something like the following, "I did Atkins/Low-carb/etc. and felt-great, lost tons of weight, etc. but then I gained it all back—and then some—when I stopped." Often they'll add in, "I tried it again a second or third time and it never worked as well," or, "it didn't work at all."
This phenomenon seems to be something common to pretty much any diet. It's even earned a bit of a name: the magic bullet effect—the first time you diet it's like a magic bullet that works wonders, but if you try to do it again it's never nearly as effective. Usually, dieters blame the diet (which I find baffling)—this seems especially true of Atkins/Low-Carb.
Is it really the diet that is to blame? Maybe that depends on what you mean by "diet."
The original meaning of the word 'diet' was this: "the kinds of foods that a person, animal, or community habitually eats." However, the meaning of the word has picked up new meaning, and this meaning has become the default. Now "diet" refers to a special treatment or course of action—a departure from the norm via addition or subtraction—something that is limited in time or scope. It is, for all intents and purposes, a medical intervention which we think of not much differently than we do of, say, taking a round of antibiotics or some other prescription. These days we rarely say, "I'm changing my diet." Rather, we "go on a diet," the way we "go on" a trip—there's an unspoken understanding that eventually there will be a return to the "homeland."
Many folks wanting to make real, permanent changes in their life might fight against this temporary intervention perspective. I don't blame them; I can get a little annoyed myself when people ask how long I'm going to keep doing this "low carb thing." I've come to the realization, though, that the problem is not in viewing diets as a temporary departure from normal, but in correctly defining what the "normal" is that we are departing from.
When it comes to diet, I think most folks define "normal" as eating whatever we want. Unfortunately, the "whatever we want" part is instinctually based on two factors: cost/convenience and palatability. For most of human existence, the only food available was real and natural (meat, fruit, and vegetables). Nutrition wasn't a big concern; any food was likely to be about as good for you as the next. Better to pick the thing that you can get with the least amount of effort (more bang for your buck)—and the things that tasted really good were things that were really good for you.
In short, the general human condition regarding food has, by and large, always been this: "Where can I get it?"
Today, though, with all of our restaurants, agriculture, convenience stores, supermarkets, grocerery stores, food stands, and on and on, it seems like the question has changed from "where" to: "What should I eat?"
Our present environment is overflowing with food choices, and most of those choices have been engineered with one purpose in mind: to make you buy more. Food companies know that the very best way to do this is to appeal to the drives for cost/convenience and palatability. What you end up with is food that is so highly-processed, nutrient-stripped, and chemical-laden that it can hardly be called food any more by definition (food - noun. "any nutritions substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order maintain life and growth").
In fact, if most of the stuff saturating our environment labeled as food really isn't food by definition, then the question hasn't really changed: "Where can I get real food?"
In the "eat whatever we want to" paradigm, you almost have to arrive at the conclusion that the primary purpose of eating is to gain pleasure. The means become the ends. Considering that most of today's foods are loaded with sugar—which is an addictive substance on par with cocaine—I think that is exactly the case. People don't care what it's doing to their body, they just want the next hit. I'm not saying that eating isn't, can't, or shouldn't be pleasurable, but when pleasure is your sole measure it's hard for anything to compete with an addictive substance.
But let's not forget the true purpose of eating, though: to provide our body with the energy and nutrients necessary to "maintain life and growth." Here's the shift in perspective; instead of defining a normal diet as "eating whatever we want", what if we defined it as "eating the things that provide nourishment"? With this new perspective on normal, it is the eating of all the junk, processed, prepackaged, fast food that becomes the temporary departure from the "homeland" of eating foods with actual nutritive value.
And if the normal diet is the opposite of what we have been assuming, what if the body's normal state is the opposite, too? What if the body's norm is trim, fit, healthy, and energized? What if our bodies were supposed to grow old without getting fat, tired, achey, and sick—without "breaking down"? It is the special diet of refined, sugary junk food we have been on—the departure from the normal—that has been causing our bodies to depart from their normal state leading us to all sorts of chronic illness and deteriorating health.
As a kid, we lived in a neighborhood settled amidst a series of ravines leading into the American River. For a boy, this was a great place to go exploring—mapping out trails, spotting wild turkey, deer, and other animals, and generally just being a boy. It also led to me getting poison oak rashes just about every summer.
There are a couple of interesting things about poison oak/ivy. The rash it causes is not because of a poison, per se, but because of an oil that the body mounts an allergic reaction to. Here's the weird thing: no one is born with a sensitivy to poison ivy; it is with exposure that a sensitivity is developed and with which that sensitivity increases. I remember my bouts of rashes getting slightly worse every summer. This reached its apex my second year of college when I somehow (I still don't know how or where) got exposed to poison ivy. My entire body was a complete wreck for about a week and a half—itchy, weeping rash all over, red skin, eye swollen shut—I looked like I had been on the receiving end of a bar brawl.
I recently began to think of the yo-yo dieter's dilemma in relation to my experiences with poison oak/ivy. If we look at the Standard American Diet (SAD) as a toxic and inflammatory agent (albeit, on a much slower time scale than poison ivy), then perhaps the problems with weight return and the diminishing efficacy diets begin to make a lot more sense. Using our new definition of a normal diet we can see the typical modern diet for what it is: a toxic exposure. Just as a rash is the body's accute defense against poison ivy, weight gain, hypertension, insulin resistance, and a whole host of other responses are the body's accute defenses against our toxic diet.
The big problem comes with chronic and/or repeated exposure—when we don't remove and avoid the toxins.
When I, in my normal state of health, get exposed to poison oak, I develop a rash. If I get exposed again, the reaction is stronger and longer-lasting. The reaction keeps increasing in intensity and duration with each exposure.
Likewise, when I go back to a normal diet and remove the exposure to dietary toxins (by going on Atkins, for instance), then my body stops its response to those toxins (e.g., I return to a normal weight). On my next exposure (when the "dieting" stops), my body's response gets stronger (I gain all the weight back, and then some) and longer-lasting (I have a harder time losing it on the next round of "dieting").
To visualize this, map out the series of "standard" eating vs dieting on a timeline. What you would be looking at is not a series of deviations from standard that lose efficacy over time. Instead, you would be looking at a normal, healthy, nutritive diet that is interrupted by a series of toxic exposures, each of which increases in duration and intensity. In essence, we are growing and cultivating a toxin sensitivity.
Of course, these are just my own thoughts on my own theory, but I'd love for anyone to chime in with their own thoughts.
Hey, great blog!
There is a typo under "Redifining Normal:"
I'm not saying that eating isn't, can't, or shouldn't by pleasurable...
Should be "shouldn't BE pleasurable...
Nice catch. :)