Maintaining a Body Balance - Why Dieting Doesn't Work

If the body has a purpose, it is to maintain itself as efficiently as possible so that we can go about the business of life. The body's goal is equilibrium, or balance, so it maintains a set point.

Set point

Set point is the weight range that your body has pro­grammed for you; it is based on your genetic and chemical makeup, and it works very hard to main­tain that weight. Set points vary from person to per­son. For example, two women who are the same height and who have the same frame may think they should weigh the same, but if their set points differ, their bodies will fight to maintain different weights.

The body's metabolism slows down when weight drops below its set point so that any weight loss is slow; likewise, the metabolic process increases when weight rises above the set point. The body tries to fight against the increase in weight by speeding up metabolism and raising its temperature to burn off the unwanted calories.

Apparently, set point also is regulated by body chemistry. The hypothalamus, a center in the brain that regulates the amount of fatty tissue stored by the body, may also determine set point. When this region of the brain detects sufficient amounts of leptin, a chemical that is produced by fat cells and that travels via the blood until it reaches the brain, it tells the body to stop storing fat. When the hypothalamus is cut out of an animal, that animal does not know that it is already "fat enough" and will continue to gain weight—even on a restricted diet!

Off balance

Dieting throws our delicate chemical balance out of whack; consequently, the body works hard to regain and maintain its balance. Human and animal stud­ies reveal that the amount of weight lost during a diet is much less than one might expect, based solely on the reduction of calories. This is because the metabolic rate rises dramatically as caloric intake decreases. In other words, as less food is eaten, the body compensates—in fact, it overcompensates— and becomes more efficient by burning less food. People who are genetically programmed to be heavy maintain increasingly larger fat reserves by eating the same amount, or fewer calories, than people who weigh less naturally.

In the first few weeks of dieting, weight is usually lost. However, it is almost always gained back. After a few weeks of dieting, weight loss usually stops even though food intake is restricted. This is a sign that the body is fighting to retain its natural weight. When dieting continues, the body senses semi-starvation and tries to conserve energy even more dramatically. Dieters may start to sleep more, and body temperature may drop. The urge to binge may be triggered by the body's attempt to restore its metabolic balance.

More chemical matters

Chemical imbalances mean more than the success or failure of diets. Research on the neuroendocrine system has found that these regulatory mechanisms, which are linked to mood and depression, are seri­ously disturbed in many people who have eating dis­orders. Mood disorders run in families, so further study is being done to explore the links between depression and eating disorders.

Similar chemical imbalances have been found in people who have eating disorders and those who have other conditions, such as addiction and obsessive/compulsive disorder. Although no conclu­sive evidence exists, it is just as likely that inadequate chemical intake due to disordered eating patterns causes emotional problems.

While many eating disorder specialists have great hopes for the effectiveness of biochemical treatments, research is still in the beginning stages. Other than using antidepressants, most specialists still consider it better to normalize eating patterns without introducing external chemicals.

But the results of biochemical research could lead to enhanced treatments for eating disorders. Beyond that, these findings demonstrate that eat­ing disorders truly are disorders, not just willful misbehavior.

Still, even when chemical therapy helps relieve the symptoms of eating disorders, most professionals—as well as the patients who are in recovery—feel that psychological, educational, and emotional support are just as important for a full recovery from eating disorders.

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