So-called “intermittent fasting”—alternating fast days with days of normal eating—may be the latest fad in the weight loss world. But recent studies linking your brain chemistry with your ability to attain and maintain a healthy weight suggest that fasting could actually sabotage your efforts.
The results of a 2011 study out of the University of Illinois suggest that beginning a diet with a fast can trigger the brain to counteract your weight loss attempts—perhaps by affecting mood and motivation.
“It’s hard to work against your own brain,” says study author Dr. Gregory Freund, noting that beginning a fast or a very low calorie diet may make your brain feel like it’s going into withdrawal.
So it’s not just a lack of will power that’s getting in your way. When you put yourself on a very low calorie diet, your body interprets that as a starvation state, explains registered dietitian Constance Brown-Riggs, national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Then your metabolism slows, as a protective measure.
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Here are some other tips to help get your brain on board when it comes to weight loss:
Take a dual-pronged approach. “Our research suggests that focusing on both physical activity and dietary habits and goals together can be a good thing,” says Dr. Abby C. King, director of the Healthy Aging Research & Technology Solutions laboratory at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. Her research team found that people who tried to eat better and exercise made slower progress, but were eventually the most successful at meeting the diet and exercise goals.
Set small, reasonable goals. Setting unrealistic goals can set you up for failure. It’s easy to get discouraged if you set a really challenging goal—and then fail. It’s also easy to just give up entirely. “Small changes are the building blocks, and they make a difference,” says Brown-Riggs. Additionally, if you’re making only small changes to your diet, you may even avoid the starvation state phenomenon.
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Be aware of negative thoughts. It can be very easy to talk yourself out of doing something that’s good for you because you’re feeling a little discouraged. “Every time you have a negative thought, you need to replace it with a positive thought,” says Brown-Riggs.
Acknowledge that life happens. “Set-backs will inevitably occur along the way,” King says. “How we plan for and handle the bumps in the road that life throws us can affect how successful we are in the long run.”
Find what works for you. Your best friend may have dropped 25 pounds on some popular diet, and your neighbor went from plodding slowly around the cul-de-sac to running half-marathons. But you need to figure out what your body needs. “It is more gradual changes that work best,” says Brown-Riggs. “And it is going to be different for everyone.”