Michael Hunter, MD on Medika Life

Avoid Weight Gain Without Dieting

Sleep and diet are intertwined, each influencing the other. With inadequate sleep, we tend to make poorer diet choices

I BELIEVE LESS AND LESS in the ability of restrictive diets to facilitate long-term weight loss. Caveman, low-fat, or Atkins. Alas, the diet de jour usually is not an effective strategy for weight management over the long term. Why am I not a fan of restrictive dieting for most of us?

First, diets don’t work as tools for weight loss. Yes, I know that some of you lost weight on a restrictive diet, but the reality is that 95 percent of us who lose weight by dieting regain it within one to five years. Deprive yourself, and you may then overeat in a diet-binge cycle.

Our bodies are designed for times when there wasn’t always abundant food. Restrict your diet too much, and your metabolism will slow, making it even harder to lose weight. I think of the brain as similar to a thermostat. Set the thermostat, and even if you open your home’s windows, the thermostat will drive your furnace to maintain a set temperature.

Restrictive dieting: Perils

Second, fad diets have associated peril. Many lack essential nutrients. Furthermore, we don’t learn how to eat healthily. How many people end up yo-yo dieting, a pattern that can cause illness.

As demonstrated in well-designed clinical trials, several fad diets can facilitate rapid weight loss. For example, the Atkins diet is the most popular low-carbohydrate diet. Proponents claim the approach leads to rapid weight loss without hunger.

The Atkins diet is at least as effective (and frequently more effective) at driving weight loss than other diets. The A TO Z study examined 311 overweight women who followed the Atkins diet, the LEARN diet, the low-fat Ornish diet, or the Zone diet for one year.

The winner? The Atkins group lost more weight than any other group. Healthline.com has some good information about the Atkins high-protein, high-fat diet.

I began by offering that many “fad” diets are unbalanced and don’t live up to their hype. Several diets do help with weight loss. Unfortunately, just because a fad diet works for weight reduction in the short term does not mean that it is sustainable over the long haul.

Restrictive dieting: Taking joy out of eating food

Enough said.

Photo by Henley Design Studio on Unsplash

Restrictive dieting and eating disorders

While dieting may not cause an individual’s eating disorder, it is often a precursor to the diagnosis. The National Eating Disorders Association reports these disturbing statistics:

Thirty-five percent of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting, and that 20 to 25 percent of those individuals develop eating disorders.

For those headed towards an eating disorder, elements of restrictive dieting can have appeal; for example, individuals may gain a sense of control by counting calories or fat grams, avoiding specific food types, and focusing on the weight scale.

So what is the approach that helps me dodge weight gain while not restricting diet? Let’s get to it.

Sleep, diet, and weight

Did you know that approximately 35 percent of Americans get less than the recommended minimum of seven hours of sleep each night? Or that upwards of 30 percent suffer from a sleep disorder such as insomnia or sleep apnea? Are you one of them?

Unfortunately, short sleep and other sleep disorders are associated with various illnesses, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Diet may be something we need to be more mindful of when it comes to sleep. A suboptimal diet can contribute to how well we sleep.

I recently came across the fascinating work of Marie-Pierre St-Onge. She has shown that consuming less saturated fat and less sugar results in less disturbed sleep. A Mediterranean-style diet rich in olive oil, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and fruits and vegetables may be particularly beneficial:

Those who followed a Mediterranean diet appeared 1.4-times more likely to have a good night’s sleep.

Here’s why. Protein-rich foods contain tryptophan, an amino acid from which the brain makes the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin. Other foods such as tomatoes, apples, bananas, nuts, vegetable oils, and animal products contain melatonin. It is not clear if consuming melatonin-rich foods boost your melatonin levels.

Photo by Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash

Based on her research, Marie-Pierre St-Onge believes that diet may affect sleep at least as much as mindfulness practices or melatonin-containing pills. She notes that melatonin supplements reduce falling asleep by four minutes on average. This improvement compares to 12 minutes for eating a healthy diet. The overall sleep quality is better with the diet approach, too.

Sleep and diet are reciprocal.

Sleep and diet are intertwined, with each influencing the other. With inadequate sleep, we tend to make poorer diet choices (which then results in lower quality sleep). Try interrupting the cycle by eating well throughout the day. Your more restful sleep may then influence you to make better food choices.

Finally, the strategy appears more easily achieved by early risers. Night owls tend to consume less plant protein, fruits, and vegetables.

The anti-diet diet

If we want to permanently achieve long-term and healthy weight loss, we probably should ditch the restrictive diet mindset. Find a healthy approach to eating that you can achieve and enjoy for life. Instead of restrictive dieting, aim for healthy and pleasurable eating combined with regular physical activity. And get some sleep!

Thank you for joining me today in exploring how sleep and diet appear intimately related.


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Michael Hunter, MD
Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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