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Baby Food Diet? Americans Are Spending $50 Billion a Year Dieting -- And We're Getting Crazier By the Minute

Why our extreme quest for weight loss isn't working.
 
 
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In the United States, 68.3 percent of adults above 20 years of age suffer from obesity or are overweight. Eighty percent of women are dissatisfied with their bodies, and 89 percent want to lose weight. Eight million have been diagnosed with eating disorders. Between the magic pills, supplements, weight-loss drinks, diet books and weight-loss magazines, Americans are spending $50 billion per year on dieting products.

And yet we seem more confused than ever.

As a new diet hits the market, hopeful people swarm to it like moths to a light bulb. The latest fad: the Baby Food Diet. I first became aware of it when I discovered that it was the cause of a lingering foul smell in the women's restroom at a luxury fashion company where I used to work. A number of 20-somethings were desperate to lose weight, and they would turn to anything that promised quick results. Created by celebrity personal trainer Tracy Anderson and reportedly taken up by Jennifer Aniston, the diet requires the consumption of 14 jars of baby food per day followed by a dinner of grilled fish and vegetables. 

“I wanted something where you can eliminate toxicity, break bad habits but still have your digestive system going,” says Anderson. “That is when the baby food cleanse was born."

According to the National Institutes of Health, a healthy functioning body requires the consumption of at least 1,200 calories per day, but the baby food diet offers only approximately 800 per day. When dieters are exercising on top of cutting calories, the results can be dangerous and short-lived.

The reason diets and calorie-cutting often do not work in the long term comes down to basic science. Weight loss can occur when you burn more calories than you consume. But your body always needs a certain amount of energy in order to perform daily functions and keep up a speedy metabolism. When a person cuts calories to below 1,200 per day, the metabolism goes into "starvation mode" and slows down, meaning that your body is no longer burning the calories it once did when you participated in daily tasks or exercise. This conservation of calories is a natural reaction from your body in order to maintain as much energy as possible until your next meal. During the first weeks of dieting, the dieter may notice a quick weight loss, but these types of results quickly slow down as the metabolism slows. After a diet like the baby food regimen, the dieter often consumes more calories on a slowed metabolism, causing the food to burn more slowly, resulting in eventual weight gain.

Non-carb diets are fraught with similar problems. Cutting out carbs for the long-term is difficult – and potentially dangerous. Carbs are the main resource for the body to burn energy -- you need a diet of approximately 60 percent carbs just to survive. Completely or greatly reducing your carb intake for a prolonged amount of time can lead to a large number of health issues such as kidney failure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, kidney stones, cancer, and an unhealthy metabolic state known as ketosis, in which the body burns fat instead of glucose, the sugar found in carbs. The short-term effects of non-carb diets are nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, bad breath, constipation and dehydration. After experiencing these side effects, dieters feel the need to reintroduce carbs. But now the body is no longer used to breaking down carbs, as it has been breaking down protein fats instead. So the body ignores the carbs at first, allowing them to turn to fat, causing weight gain. Yet another failed diet.

But are these the only reasons people are finding it so hard to lose weight? Research by Australian weight loss specialist Joseph Proietto showed that when putting 50 obese men and women on a weight loss regime for 10 weeks, with an average loss of 30 pounds, the composition of hormones in their bodies had changed. After one year the patients had regained an average of 11 pounds, despite eating healthy and exercising regularly. They even reported being more preoccupied by the thought of food than ever before!

Testing showed that these men and women’s bodies were fighting to put the pounds on again, and that they possessed 20 percent higher levels of grehlin (the "hunger hormone") than they had before the dieting process had begun. Hunger-suppressing hormone peptide YY was also surprisingly low, and a mixture of other hormone imbalances were found. People who have never tried to lose weight have a steady level of these hormones. Proietto says, “What we see here is a coordinated defense mechanism with multiple components all directed toward making us put on weight. This, I think, explains the high failure rate in obesity treatment.”

Once weight is lost, the muscles may begin to function in a less efficient manner, causing people who have lost weight to burn 20-25 percent less calories than those who have not dieted. This means that instead of burning 300 calories on a half hour jog, they are probably burning around 225-240 calories.

Another recent research study at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that losing weight may be particularly difficult for adults since the number of fat cells becomes stagnant in adulthood. Tests have shown that through childhood and adolescence, people are able to fluctuate in weight by gaining or losing fat cells. But once adulthood is reached, these fat cell fluctuations no longer appear. At this point losing or gaining weight is simply visible through an increase or decrease in the size of fat cells. This could be another potential reason why diets do not work, as your body has set a weight once adulthood is reached that is hard to change.

Parents are well-advised to encourage children's healthy eating habits and exercise, but genetics also plays a key role. Research led by Professor Jane Wardle on 5,000 pairs of identical and non-identical twins at the University College London has shown that there are certain genes that will cause people to be prone to weight gain, making it harder for them to lose weight. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that weight was attributable to genes by 77 percent. Wardle states, "It is wrong to place all the blame for a child's excessive weight gain on the parents -- it is more likely to be due to the child's genetic susceptibility. These results do not mean that a child with a high complement of susceptibility genes will inevitably become overweight, but that their genetic endowment gives them a stronger predisposition."

Preventative measures to weight gain in the first place are always the best way to start, especially in children. But what about the large percentage of the adult population that needs to lose weight? Is there no hope? The obesity epidemic is due to factors that are controllable as well as those that are not. Focusing on what you can control can make a significant difference in your health and life enjoyment. Most importantly, this means eating healthfully and exercising as much as you can, and not falling for those modern Tracy Andersons out there who claim eating baby food is going to save you.

Casey Lazonick is a food blogger and founder of the Adventures of Limited Eating blog.
 
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