Diets are hard: why losing weight gets harder over time

Anyone who diets regularly knows that the first few kilos just fall off. But then comes the frustration. In spite of constant starvation the pointer of the scale does not go further down. What is the reason for that??

All weight loss enthusiasts fear it: the plateau. The first few weeks diet were so nice. You eat less and every morning you are rewarded for it on the scale: a few hundred grams less again. Still runs!

But sooner or later it will end. One starves diligently further, but the pointer of the balance seems absolutely unimpressed by it. The body weight simply does not want to go down further. That is the time when many throw their diet, because "it brings anyway nothing". The frustration is simply too great. What exactly happens in the body?

Water loss instead of fat loss

At the beginning of a diet, the pounds fall off so quickly mainly because you break down glycogen instead of fat, says Martijn Katan, professor emeritus of nutritional sciences at the Free University in Amsterdam. "Glycogen contains a lot of water. As a result, body weight decreases very quickly in the first days of a diet."

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Glycogen is a carbon store in the liver, muscles and kidneys, which the body can quickly use up or build up when there is a shortage or surplus of food. Since the starch-like substance is hydrophilic, the body always stores a lot of water together with glycogen. Spanish scientists have measured on test subjects that for every gram of glycogen in human muscle, 3 grams of water or more are also stored. If these carbon stores are emptied during a diet, the water is also lost – and this is reflected positively on the scales, to the delight of the person losing weight.

"Breaking down fat is slower because its energy content is much higher", says Katan. The body only starts to do this several days after the start of a diet.

The controversial economy mode

But if the body has finally started to burn fat, it should continue to do so? Or does the body learn to deal with less energy, and goes into an economy mode, as it is often said??

Even scientists disagree about this. Martijn Katan is one of those who think that the saving mode is a myth: "The body does not learn anything at all, it simply follows the laws of physics." After all, it takes more fuel to make a truck go 100 kilometers per hour than it does a passenger car. "When you lose weight, you become less truck and more car." In other words, "If you lose 10 kilos, you have 10 kilos less to carry around."

In 1995, U.S. researchers already showed that fat people consume more energy than thin people. The energy requirement sinks thus in the course of a Diat. That is according to Katan the only reason, why one does not decrease further sometime with the same Diatplan.

Kevin Hall of the U.S. National Institutes of Health disagrees: "It’s a little more complicated than that, he says. Hall studies what happens in the metabolism and brain during dieting for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease. Together with his colleagues, he accompanied the winners of the U.S. television show "The Biggest Loser," among others scientifically. On the show, overweight contestants compete to lose the most weight. It is not uncommon for participants to lose more than 50 kilos during this period. Meanwhile, there is also a German version of the show.

Metabolism slows down

"It’s very clear: if you eat fewer calories, your metabolic rate slows down", says Kevin Hall to DW. The body begins to burn fewer calories during the course of a diet. That happens approximately six to eight months after beginning of a Diat. The observed effect clearly goes beyond what a loss of kilograms alone would achieve.

Hall and his team measured how much the Biggest Losers weighed over 30 weeks of the show-Participants weigh and how fast their resting metabolism is. The latter determined how much oxygen the test subjects breathed during a resting phase and how much carbon dioxide they exhaled.

"There’s a lot of discussion about why metabolism slows down when dieting", says Hall. Hormones are probably the reason. Fat cells secrete the hormone leptin; so during dieting, it becomes less. "Experiments have shown that metabolism increases again when leptin is supplied from the outside", says Hall.

The question of whether the metabolism remains at a low level for a long time or rises again when more is eaten is controversial. Kevin Hall studied 14 Biggest Loser contestants six years after the show ended and found that most still had low metabolism – even though they had gained an average of 40 kilograms back in the meantime. "Metabolic slowdown may be permanent", Hall concludes. But he admits that the data on this is still quite uncertain.

Eat, eat!

So it is true? The body shuts down the metabolism in the course of a diet, and therefore the person who wants to lose weight eventually reaches the dreaded plateau? And this is also the reason for the yoyo effect, so why you quickly gain weight again after the end of a diet?

No, says Kevin Hall. Although the metabolism slows down during a diet, this has nothing to do with whether one loses weight or not. That’s what the study with the Biggest Loser participants showed: "Those with the lowest metabolic rate were most likely to maintain their low weight after the show ended.", says Hall. One should expect exactly the opposite: that those gain again fast, whose metabolism is most strongly down-shot.

It’s not just people who get too fat: Diet for fat hedgehogs

The reason for the dreaded plateau is quite different, says Hall: "When people lose weight, their appetite increases. This can happen unconsciously." Without realizing it, they take in more calories again.

Working with researchers from the pharmaceutical company Janssen and the University of Michigan, Hall showed that weight loss automatically leads to increased appetite: The researchers gave 153 subjects a drug that made them excrete more glucose, so they lost weight without noticing it. For every kilogram the test subjects lost, they consumed an average of 100 kilocalories extra per day.

Dieting Successfully

So what’s the best way to lose weight? Kevin Hall has a simple answer to this: "With a diet that you enjoy, you’ll gain weight again," says Hall." You can only really lose weight successfully if you change your lifestyle to a healthier one – and do so permanently: eat more vegetables, eat fewer calories and, above all, exercise more. "Our studies have shown that after dieting, the people most likely to maintain their weight are those who are most active."

Apart from that: It doesn’t always have to be the jerk diet where the pounds just tumble off. "It’s not about fitting back into the clothes you wore in school days." Even if you only lose a few kilograms, you are already doing a lot of good for your health.

Of superfoods and superpowers

Acai comes from South America. Very slowly it has spread around the world as an insider tip, because it makes – so they say – slim. In addition, it is said to be a fountain of youth and prevent wrinkles because of its abundant antioxidants. Athletes promise themselves an extra energy boost from the small, blue power fruit – for example in such an acai bowl.

Of superfoods and superpowers


The avocado is one of the fattiest fruits in the world, but that does not make it a fattening food. Because its fat is valuable unsaturated fatty acids, which have a positive effect on cholesterol levels and the cardiovascular system. In addition, the pear-shaped fruit contains many vitamins that are good for the skin and hair, for the immune system – and the nerves.

Of superfoods and superpowers

Chia seeds

The small seeds are advertised as real all-rounders: They have a high protein content and are rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The Mayas and Aztecs are said to have appreciated this already 5000 years ago. However, the small seeds are not really tasty, but rather tasteless. Chia fans eat them as pudding, gel or pure – simply sprinkled over food.

Of superfoods and superpowers

Goji berries

Superlatives can hardly be avoided with superfoods, so here’s the next one: The goji berry is supposedly one of the healthiest fruits in the world. It is said to strengthen the immune system and heart, help with high blood pressure, provide energy – and keep us young, for example, it is good for the eyes and skin.

Of superfoods and superpowers


Very slowly, kale is maturing from an outsider to a trendy vegetable in our country as well. In the U.S., kale has long had a good reputation. There are kale smoothies, kale salads, kale-everything. Kale is a vitamin bomb: 100 grams are enough to cover our daily requirement of vitamin C. In addition, there is plenty of vitamin A and minerals such as iron and calcium.

Superfoods and superpowers


The season of the dark blue berries begins in this country in July. Blueberries are considered anti-inflammatory vitamin bombs. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans are said to have used them against intestinal diseases. In contrast to the South American Acai fruit they have only few calories and hardly fat. But: they are said to have the same anti-aging effect.

Superfoods and superpowers


In gastrointestinal disorders, ginger is effective mainly due to its warming effect. This is said to improve blood circulation in the intestines. Inflammations can heal, the intestinal mucosa recovers. The warming effect of ginger is more effective when dried. When it is fresh, its pungency comes into its own, which is particularly important for strengthening the immune system, for example.

Superfoods and superpowers


Turmeric has been one of the most important Indian spices for thousands of years, and is an ingredient in curry powder, among other things. The ginger-like plant is considered sacred and belongs to almost every meal, because it makes the food more digestible and promotes digestion. But turmeric is said to be able to do even more: lower cholesterol, have antioxidant effects and be good against inflammation.

Of superfoods and superpowers


If you want to do something good for your health, you should nibble a few almonds every day. It’s said to prevent hunger pangs, have a positive effect on the heart, and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, the fat of the almond is just like that of the avocado: of the good kind!

Superfoods and superpowers


Quinoa (pronounced "kienwah"), which comes from South America, is also known as Inca grain, Andean millet or Peru rice. It is considered to be one of the best sources of vegetable protein in the world. The small grains contain all nine essential amino acids, disease-fighting antioxidants, are gluten-free and rich in minerals.

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