The Three Stages of Dieting

by Dan Felix, CFT

Most of the dieting articles and information we read about sound like happy talk. Even the word dieting hides the truth. In order to lose body weight, preferably body fat, a person has to eat less than the body wants. Diet is more accurately described as controlled starvation. Harsh term, I know, but your body sees it that way.

Your body chemistry has thousands of years of history. It does not change casually. If body chemistry changed with every feast or famine then it would never have survived. In fact, your body chemistry has a rather pessimistic view of food. It is suspicious of any feast and will readily store excess food as fat before using it. Your body chemistry is also anxious that any drop in food intake means an imminent famine. At the first sign of any persistent food decrease the body will react.

So here we are, trying to lose some extra pounds. How do we do that and not trigger our body’s fear that a famine has set in? And, more importantly, what can we expect our body to do when we embark on a diet?

Our body has some very predictable responses to any persistent decrease in food intake. I use the word persistent because the casual missed meal is not enough to trigger a response. A drop of a couple hundred calories each day for a few weeks can usually cause the body to react. It now “thinks” that the food supply has decreased.

The first stage or reaction by the body is to try to eat more. We all know this as hunger. If we don’t eat enough, the body sends a signal causing us to “feel hungry.” By hungry, I do not mean “real” hungry. It simply means that you experience a state of modest hunger more often and at different times throughout the day then you felt when you were not on a diet. But we’re on a diet so even though we feel hungry, we refrain from eating. Now what?

Well our hunger response can last from three to ten days before the body moves to the second stage. The body uses food for energy. So, it’s logical to the body that if hunger will not bring more food, then it will slow the body down. You will feel tired, even sometimes sleepy. Your body has decreased your energy output to match the decreased food intake. So you will feel more tired than usual. This stage can also last from 5 to 7 days.

If we continue on our diet and normal activity through this second stage, then the body is faced with the third stage. And it does not like the third stage. This is where the body accepts that there is a persistent food shortage and that it cannot make the body slow down so it now taps into the energy reserves; body fat. Through an elaborate chemical process it sends a signal to the fat reserves to convert the stored body fat in to energy-usable fatty acid which will be used to make up for the food shortage. We begin the process of losing body fat.

Our body strongly resists this stage and will not casually trigger it. That is why we find it hard to lose weight if we break the diet in that crucial first three weeks. The body must be convinced that the shortage is persistent before it will permit itself to use stored fat for fuel. Once it starts to use the stored fat, an amazing thing happens. Our hunger begins to disappear and our energy returns, all without eating more food. Our body will get used to this new food level and adjust itself until it is once again balanced on food intake and energy output.

As much as we may want to avoid it, a diet involves some amount of hunger. If we can navigate through that then we can be rewarded with a leaner and more efficient body. The hunger will disappear but the new body will remain.

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