How Low Calorie Dieting Leads to Fat Shaming

The vested interests in keeping the world obese

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Obesity is a complex, multi-factorial disease. Despite a lack of clinical success, low-calorie dieting has traditionally been promoted as the best way to manage body weight. Following short-term dieting success, the failure to keep weight off is largely attributed to a lack of willpower and returning to a lifestyle of calorie excess. However, the body has evolved to resist weight loss and promote weight regain.

I find it incredibly striking that in the current social climate, which is trending towards a more systemic understanding of how our upbringing and surrounding environment can influence personal health and success, we have adopted such a reductive view on weight loss failure and obesity. It’s no secret that being in shape is highly prized by our society. In fact, most people would probably agree it shows, at best, that you care about your health, and, at worst, that you care about your aesthetic appeal. Unfortunately, however, for those who are looking to get in shape, there is so much information available out there that it’s practically impossible to know what really works.

The reality is that we don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. Under clinical conditions, most people who undertake weight loss intervention programs regain the weight that they lose in the long run, while an estimated one third to two thirds of dieters end up weighing more than they did prior to the intervention. These numbers alone paint a clear picture that while low-calorie dieting may help a small number of people, it’s not an effective strategy at the population level.

Despite what many would consider overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the dieting industry perpetuates that weight loss is only a matter of calories — it’s a numbers game that focuses on having fewer calories coming in than calories going out. The problem is that a calorie excess or a calorie deficit is just an endpoint measurement. It doesn’t actually factor in the physiological and psychological elements that regulate long-term energy balance. It’s as if we’re telling everybody that all you need to do to become a good student is get A’s. But we’re not actually helping you get there by empowering you to change the way you study or by giving you all the facts.

To make matters worse, low-calorie dieting sells itself as a health movement. The words “calorie-free” and “low calorie” have gradually become more synonymous with “healthy” when the terms are not even truly related. For some reason, we have failed to appreciate that the dieting industry thrives when there is a high prevalence of obesity. While there isn’t a grand conspiracy to trick us into yoyo dieting, there are certainly some vested interests in keeping the world fatter.

The most appealing feature of low-calorie diets is their potential for immediate results. And while a quick change on the scale may make you feel great, it could actually be the reason why you find it difficult to keep the weight off in the long run. For the majority of dieters who fail to maintain their new body weight, we automatically jump to the simplest conclusion — that they failed because of a lack of discipline to do what’s best for themselves. However, given that people make a conscious decision to try and lose weight, be it for their health or for their appearance, it’s hard to believe that they would go through such a challenge, receive praise for their effort, and then willingly give it all up to become overweight again. It’s far more probable that after losing weight, all dieters experience similar physiological and psychological changes that make it difficult to maintain their body weight. When people carry out acts of fat shaming, all it proves is that we are failing to educate society about how our body works and that public health measures are failing in an increasingly obesogenic environment.

So what actually happens as you lose weight through low-calorie dieting? By evolutionary design, your body is far better at storing fat than losing it. The reason being that throughout evolutionary history calories were at a premium. It’s only now, in the modern world, that calories have become so readily available. When you force yourself into living in a prolonged state of calorie deficit, your brain and body can’t distinguish your weight loss goals from biological starvation. In fact, your body actually begins to resist weight loss and promote weight regain — it’s not because some people are genetically fatter than others, it’s because we share a common survival response to starvation.

First, the rate at which your cells burn through fuel sources begins to slow down. This process is known as adaptive thermogenesis and it’s the way your body preserves energy to keep you alive for longer. This alone makes weight loss continually more difficult as you shed the pounds. The other problem is that we don’t have control over where we lose the weight from. It’s physiologically impossible to only lose body fat without losing lean mass. So, not only does dieting slow down your cellular metabolism, you also lose muscle mass, which is perhaps the one aspect of our body that gives us control over our energy expenditure. While the way down on the scale can be daunting, the more difficult part is keeping the weight off. The loss of both muscle mass and stored body fat are not readily accepted by your body. Together, they amount to substantial changes in hormonal signalling for increased appetite and hunger. It’s not a case of resisting the temptation to eat, it’s about silencing millions of years of evolutionary history.

Can we realistically expect people to fight against the biological mechanisms that regulate energy balance? At some point, you have to come off a diet. The problem is that after following a low-calorie diet, your body is primed to put the weight back on. Your body maintains its lower metabolic rate and preferentially uses extra energy for replenishing fat depots. And the hormonal signalling for increased appetite and hunger persist until you not only recover all the fat mass you lost, but also all the lean mass, which returns at a much slower speed. The long-term physiological outcome is a fat overshoot — regaining all the body weight that was originally lost plus extra fat stores.

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If we really wanted to combat rising global obesity rates, we would be wise to acknowledge that there is a lack of clinical evidence for the effectiveness of long-term dieting. It is, however, an incredibly powerful marketing tool. The calorie myth makes us feel like we have complete control over our body weight. But what about the majority of dieters who “fail” with their weight loss endeavours? Do they deserve to be fat shamed or are we choosing to ignore the well-established biological and socioeconomic factors that drive obesity?

Low-calorie dieting breeds the idea that individuals are entirely responsible for their body weight. I’m not suggesting that people don’t have any responsibility for their own health — they do. I’m saying that by turning to relentless fat shaming, we are ignoring the environmental and socioeconomic determinants of health. The dieting industry can only exist in a world stricken with obesity. And pushing the “calories in, calories out” mentality does not actually treat the causes of obesity, but rather, sustains a generation of yoyo dieters, a growing list of return customers that can share tales about their short-lived dieting success.

At what point do we educate the masses about how the food industry exploits our evolutionary tendency to seek out calorie-dense products, how the food reward systems function physiologically in our brain and body, and how we regulate energy balance? It’s not enough to just tell people to get A’s. If we are to become better students, we need to be aware of the underlying causes of obesity, rather than following a dogma. We need better-informed educators, a more supportive system, and access to the right resources. Above all, we need to see that the world hasn’t given everybody a fighting chance to be healthy. As such, fat shaming is not only prejudicial but also scientifically unjustified.


Global, regional and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults 1980–2013: A systematic analysis

The Epidemiology of Obesity: A Big Picture

Medicare’s Search for Effective Obesity Treatments: Diets Are Not the Answer

Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift

Collateral fattening in body composition autoregulation: its determinants and significance for obesity predisposition

Comparison of Weight Loss Among Named Diet Programs in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Meta-analysis

Using my experience in research and science communication, I aim to help people make better informed health decisions.

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