The third biological adaptation to dieting may be subtle, but not so mysterious when you think about it. Preoccupation with food and eating sounds like a psychological phenomenon, doesn’t it? It sure does, but it isn’t. Research with food-restricted normal-weight volunteers showed that they experienced significant preoccupation with food, as well as many of the other symptoms that dieters experience. Threats to survival put the body on high alert. If food intake is maintained below survival levels, as it is in a typical weight-loss diet, the body quickly focuses on food and eating.
This adaptive response is frustrating to dieters who are on a limited food regimen. They strive to distract themselves from it and do so by many means. They work out because intense physical exercise can depress the appetite. They drink—coffee, tea, sodas, water, shakes, smoothies and energy drinks. Sometimes, they drink alcoholic beverages. They prefer drinks that do not contain calories because calories are the enemy. Unfortunately for them, no-calorie drinks, especially the ones with caffeine, often leave dieters weak and nervous. Shakes and smoothies are better because they contain calories, but they often serve as substitutes for meals. The trouble there is that liquid “meals” do not last very long in keeping hunger at bay, especially with exercise. So, hunger and preoccupation with food typically return within a short time.
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Here’s a review of how bodies fight dieters:
1. Drop in metabolic rate—15-30%
2. Low energy and reluctance for physical activity
3. Increased appetite
4. Cravings for sweets and fatty foods
5. Preoccupation with food and eating
So when dieters go on an eat-less, exercise-more diet, they unknowingly trigger their bodies to adapt in these five ways. Taken together, these five adaptations protect the fat already there and may eventually promote even more fat accumulation. These changes do not seem to occur at first, of course. The rewarding weight loss comes first. But these adaptations, transmitted by biochemical changes, lie in wait, eventually causing the dieter to lose control of her eating. And when they take over, the frustration and weight gain begin.
Remember, bodies cannot distinguish between famines that are “real” and famines that are selfimposed. Bodies don’t know that food isn’t available because of an accident or the season, or because you weighed yourself that morning and vowed to eat only celery and apples. Accidental famines happen to everyone. We all get stuck in situations where we get hungry and there is no food. (Solving this problem is crucial to recovery and will be addressed later.) But the vast majority of famines happen because we deeply believe that too much food, by itself, makes us fat.