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Intermittent Fasting: No Evidence of Enhanced Weight Loss

I recently wrote about why—theoretically—intermittent fasting (or alternate day fasting) actually has little likelihood of enhancing weight loss, over other forms of calorie restriction. (See: Alternate Day & Intermittent Fasting: Magic for Weight Loss or Just Another Fad?)

Today’s blog assesses the research that has specifically compared any kind of fasting regime (intermittent-calorie-restriction) to the typical dieting approach (constant-calorie-restriction) on weight loss.

While there are multiple studies of intermittent fasting in the literature most have not looked at weight loss as an outcome (most are studying biomarkers of cardiovascular disease or longevity), and many have no control or comparison group. So, we have only three studies in the published literature that have actually compared weight loss between constant-calorie-restriction and intermittent-calorie-restriction groups.[i],[ii],[iii]

In all three studies the outcome was the same: No significant differences in weight loss, or changes in body composition.

The Bottom Line: Intermittent Fasting isn’t a magic bullet for weight loss. Granted (as long as overall calorie-restriction is equal), it is just as effective as other approaches to calorie restriction. Fair enough, however, there’s no data on anyone using Intermittent Fasting for weight maintenance.

If you are considering trying intermittent fasting, I suggest the following questions:

  1. Will Intermittent Fasting be easier to follow than other forms of calorie restriction for me, and why?
  2. Can I see myself using this as permanent lifestyle change?
  3. If not, how do I propose to maintain my weight loss?

There's an endless number of wackadoodle diets out there, and they mostly work—for as long as you are able to follow them. In the long run however, permanent lifestyle changes are needed in order to maintain one's weight loss. That's why I advocate beginning with the end in mind. If you approach weight loss as a lifestyle change you will essentially be practicing the same behaviors (needed for weight maintenance) during the period you are losing weight. It's boring, it's not new, but it is realistic.

All the Best!

PS--if you like this blog you may also like my book: The NEW Healthy Eating & Weight Management Guide.

i] Harvie MN, et al. The effects of intermittent or continuous energy restriction on weight loss and metabolic disease risk markers: a randomized trial in young overweight women. Int J Obes 2011;35(5):714-727.

[ii] Hill JO, et al. Evaluation of an alternating-calorie diet with and without exercise in the treatment of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr 1989;50:248-254.

[iii] Arguin H, Dionne IJ, et al. Short- and long-term effects of continuous versus intermittent restrictive diet approaches on body composition and the metabolic profile in overweight and obese postmenopausal women: a pilot study. Menopause. 2012 Aug;19(8):870-6.



When NOT to Trust a Food Label?

The FDA recently shut down Clifton N.J.-based Butterfly Bakery “for unlawfully distributing mislabeled food products, such as muffins and snack cakes.” The action was based on findings that samples of Butterfly Bakery products labeled as “sugar free” contained sugar. Additionally the fat content of the samples was also significantly higher than what the label claimed. The bakery had been previously warned by FDA about problems with mislabeled products in May of 2011.

Federal law requires that the Nutrition Facts label accurately reflects the nutritional profile of the food product. The bakery has to fix its mislabeling problems before the FDA will lift the injunction. In order to comply the company can either change the label, reformulate the food-items, or both.

You may have never thought about questioning the accuracy of a Nutrition Facts label. The truth is however, that we all depend on the honesty of businesses to accurately label their food products. Why? Because according to Federal regulations, “There is no required oversight of Nutrition Fact information for packaged food BEFORE [emphasis added] distribution for sale.” [i]

What’s more, it’s FDA’s Food Safety division that is tasked with nutrition label oversight, a division that has long been under-funded and must prioritize its resources based public health risk. Mislabeling issues that pose risk include foods that fail to label known allergens (i.e. peanuts, eggs, shellfish, etc.), or certainly if they claim to be sugar-free (and therefor appealing to diabetics). Mislabeling that makes products appear to have less calories, fat, carbs etc. (errors that don’t pose a health risk), are unlikely to get FDA attention.

It should be no surprise then that more often than not it’s a consumer, or consumer watchdog investigation, that brings a potentially mislabeled product to the attention of the FDA.

You’ll notice that Butterfly Bakery had a detailed warning from FDA almost two years ago--time enough one would think to get things right. I saw a similar situation in 2001 with a cookie company is Bellingham WA (Baker’s Breakfast Cookie; Erin Baker's). Several independent laboratory analyses showed that their cookies were mislabeled and actually had 100- to 200-calories more (per cookie) than the labels said. Needless to say the cookies were flying off shelves and the company could barely keep up with demand. The problem with Baker’s labels was twofold: the cookies weighed a half ounce more than they were supposed to (3.5 instead of 3 ounces), and the calories-per-serving (3 ounce cookie) was also understated by around one third. Two years after Baker's was first informed of their mislabeling problems (and after reformulating and relabeling their cookies) their labels were found to still be significantly off in analyses the Seattle Times had done (the two types of cookies analyized still had 40% more calories than the label claimed). Today Erin Baker’s cookie’s labels have the lowest calories by weight (per gram/ounce) of the dozens of cookies I checked on [See Calories of Baking Ingredients for more insight on calories in baked goods.]

Over the past 20 years only a handful of studies have looked at the accuracy of food labeling.  While most labeling is accurate, it's not too hard to find problems.

Most recently (2010) researchers reviewed 29 restaurant entrees/side-dishes and 10 grocery store frozen foods. The study focused on items labeled as low-calorie. “The measured energy [calorie] values of the restaurant foods averaged 18% more than their stated values. So a 500-calorie entrée would actually ring in at 590-calories. However, some individual restaurant items contained up to 200% of stated values and, in addition, free side dishes increased provided energy to an average of 245% of stated values for the entrée they accompanied.” The measured calorie content of the supermarket-purchased meals was greater than stated values, but only by 8%.[i]

Understated item weights—automatically lead to understated calories for single serving baked goods (cookies, muffins and brownies). This may well be the most common mislabeling issue. “Nearly one third (6 of 19) of the sampled packages weighed at least 1 ounce more than was stated on the label” in a small 1995 study of single-serving baked products.[ii]

Since these kinds of items run between 100 and 150-calories per ounce the error introduced when you’re trying to accurately track your calorie intake is frustrating—especially if it’s an item that you are eating regularly.

Federal law allows a food item’s actual weight to exceed what’s stated on the food label by 20% (allowable range: 99% to 120%). Legislators believed that companies would naturally stick closely to the stated weight (as a matter of cost savings).  

In another small study researchers analyzed 20 national brand foods, 12 regional brands and 8 locally produced products. The national brands averaged just 2.18% more calories than stated in their labels. Regionally distributed foods averaged 25.2% more energy than labeled and the locally produced items averaged 85.4% more energy than stated.[iii]

Based on this limited data it seems likely that you can generally trust the nutrition information on national brands—their actual content tends to be very close to what the labels say. This makes sense in that big operations, with quality controls (that carefully watch expenses) produce these items.

On the flip side, inaccuracy is higher in regionally produced and labeled brands and worse still in locally labeled foods likely because their production operations (like restaurants) are more human-labor and less mechanized.

So what’s a consumer interested in accurate calorie counts to do?

  1. Be skeptical—if the calorie count on a food item seems too good to be true it very well may be! Compare it to other similar foods (

  2. If you buy single serving baked goods weigh them (using a digital kitchen scale) to see if the actual weight matches the label. If it’s over the labeled weight than it’s more than one serving. Next check to see if the calories per serving are plausible: divide the stated calorie amount by the serving size (usually this is in grams). Muffins and cake should be about 3.5 calories per gram (so about 100 calories per ounce). Cookies or brownies should be about 4.9 calories per gram (so about 140 calories per ounce). [1 ounce = 28.35grams]

  3. In restaurants make sure you account for all extra sides, beverages, bread etc. in addition to the calories of the entrée.

  4. Practice makes you a better estimator when you need to be. The more you weigh, measure and track your intake the better you will be at accurately estimating portion sizes. Most of the error in tracking calorie intake comes from underestimating the portion size, or forgetting things (sides, snacks or beverages, etc.).

Your questions or comments are welcome!

Of Further Interest: Some Media reports of mislabeling

2013 – How Accurate are chain restaurant calorie counts? [added 27APR13]

2013 – Potato chips mislabeled Gluten Free…

2013 – Mislabeled fish a national problem

2011 – With Faulty Food Labeling, Who's Minding the Store?

2010 – Nutrition Label Accuracy

2008 – Nutrition Bars (Energy Bars, Fiber Bars, Protein Bars, Meal Replacement Bars, Snack Bars and Whole Food Bars).

2005 – Reports on Nutrition Bars: Highlights Major Differences, Inaccuracies, and Urges Consumers to "Know Your Bar".

2003 – Seattle Times – Cookies’ true calories may dismay diligent dieters.

2003 – Heart Associatioin Praised for 'Laura's Lean Beef' Crackdown

2002 – Woman Seeks $50 Million in Damages Caused by Mislabeled Fat Content.

2002 – Can you judge a bar by its wrapper? J Am Diet Assoc. 2002;102(2):180.

2002 – Low-Carb Bars Aren’t What You think They Are

2001 – Sixty percent of nutrition bars fail to meet claims in tests—“Low Carb” Bars Often Loaded with Carbohydrates; excess sodium and Saturated Fat also found.

2001 – I Scream, You Scream… Our Position: It’s Too Bad That The Ice Cream Was Too Good To Be True. Orlando Sentinel; June 20, 2001.

1996 – The Case of the Missing Calories. Vegetarian Times. 1996 Oct. pg. 32-34.

1996 – FDA found food labels mostly accurate

1992 Consumer Reports – Lowfat frozen desserts: better for you than ice cream? 1992;57(8):483-487.

1992 CBS This Morning – Special segment: Study of soft-serve frozen dessert. Diaz A. CBS September 19, 1992.

1989 New York Times – Soft-serve desserts: how low in calories? Burros M. NYTs August 9, 1989:C-1.


[i] Urbain LE, et al. The Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Reduced-Energy, Commercially Prepared Foods. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110:116-123.

[ii] Young LR, et al. Food labels consistently underestimate the actual weights of single-serving baked products. J Am Diet Assoc. 1995;95(10):1150-51.

[iii] Allison DB, et al. Counting Calories—Caveat Emptor. JAMA 1993;(270):1454-56.


Alternate Day & Intermittent Fasting—Magic for Weight Loss or Just Another Fad?

There has been an explosion of diet books (The Fast Diet, The 5:2 Diet, The 8-Hour Diet, etc.) suggesting that manipulating the time frames you (allow yourself to) eat within can create metabolic-magic leading to easier and/or greater success with weight loss.

There are multiple possible time frame variances among these protocols, including:
a) limiting eating to the same 8-hours daily,
b) an alternating pattern of under- and over-eating days,
c) having two fasting days per week and eating normally the other 5 days,
d) having regular splurge days (in the middle of stretches of calorie restriction), and on and on.

Some authors even suggest you can splurge and eat as much as you want of whatever you want, on the non-fasting days and still lose weight. That’s the kind of promise that causes diet books to fly off shelves!

Traditionally, fasting has been considered primarily the act of willingly abstaining from all food, drink, or both, for a period of time. Alternately—and what is recommended by most these diets—is eating only sparingly (just 500 to 600 calories) on “fasting” days, and sometimes eating only certain kinds of foods on “fasting” days.

History - Fasting of course has been around for centuries, and is commonly used at different times of the year in religious observances. Various kinds of fasting regimes (i.e. "juice fasts," etc.) are sometimes advocated in alternative medicine. Within the field of weight management very-low-calorie “liquid diets” are often referred to as “fasting” as well.

The roots of this new genre of "fasting" diet seem to spring from longevity research showing that long-term calorie restriction (eating only about 75% of normal) improves health and lengthens lifespan. While it’s true that long-term calorie restriction does wonders for worms, flies, yeast and mice, in fact there’s almost no research on humans in this area.

Many of these diet book authors tout a magical metabolic shift to “burning fat” as a result of these plans. Such a shift however is the natural result of calorie restriction in general, and not the method of under-eating used to create a calorie deficit.

Your body is an energy burning machine. Carbohydrate, fat and protein (and alcohol) are fuel sources to your body, which is always burning BOTH carbohydrate and fat (and even a small amount of protein). The ratio of carb:fat oxidation varies depending on multiple factors, including: a) when your last meal was, b) what you ate (balance of carbs/fat/protein), c) have you been sitting on the couch, or did you just finish a 5K, d) whether you’re currently in energy “deficit” or “overage,” and myriad other biological-based nuances.

How does your body decide what fuel to burn? Upon ingestion it preferentially increases the oxidation of fuel(s) it has the least ability to save/store for later use. The first two of those fuels are alcohol and protein. Next is carbohydrate; although you are able to store some carbohydrate (as glycogen) in your muscles and liver, your body still increases oxidation of carbohydrate as it becomes available.

So in the end, upon ingestion/digestion, your body preferentially burns fuel in this order: Alcohol>Protein>Carbohydrate>Fat

Note that we are also burning a small smount of protein (relative to CHO and FAT) all the time. The protein which is being oxidized is believed to be the quantity available--over and above--that currently needed for other physiological requirements. The greater the percentage of energy from protein (or total protein) we ingest, the more protein gets oxidized this way.[viii]

Remember however, that you’re also always burning a ratio of carb:fat. Fat oxidation simply reduces when the oxidation of other fuels increases. So by default your highest level of fat oxidation occurs on an empty stomach (when you’re relaxed on the couch or sleeping) after the other fuels have been cleared.

Ultimately the only way to reduce your fat stores (excess body fat) is to sustain a long-term energy deficit which forces your body to continue to draw on stored fat for energy. It doesn’t matter what type of calorie-restriction scheme is employed to get there (at least not from an energy metabolism perspective; overall health is another important conversation). [For a more thorough discussion of human energy metabolism see: When is a Calorie Not a Calorie?]

Another claim the authors of these regimes make is that their methods prevent your metabolic rate from having the usual (normal) drop associated with sustained energy restriction. The notion they present is that by alternating calories on different days you trick/confuse your body so that it doesn’t notice the ongoing/overall calorie-restriction. It’s a great claim, but there’s NO data supporting it. In fact the only studies in the medical literature that have actually looked at rotating calories between various levels found neither an enhanced weight loss effect, or any beneficial effect on metabolic rate.[i],[ii],[iii]

The suppression in metabolic rate related to calorie restriction is strongly tied to the magnitude of (sustained) calorie restriction. Inexplicably, suppression of metabolic rate doesn’t happen to everybody.[iii] So these studies [i, iii] finding no difference (in RMR changes) between groups eating the same total weekly calories, but one group alternating between high and low days, suggests that it’s harder than we think to outsmart Mother Nature!

What should be obvious is that the real challenge people have with diets is that they’re hard to follow for very long! Any (reduced calorie) diet will lead to weight loss IF you stick to it. The question we should be asking is, “are these intermittent/alternate day fasting regimes easier to follow than other diets?” I don’t find any evidence, or hypothetical reason, to suggest that that might be the case.

Of six published human trials on intermittent fasting and alternating calorie diets in the medical literature only one tracked hunger[ii], three tracked resting metabolic rate (RMR)[i, ii, iii], and two tracked fuel oxidation[i, ii]. A couple studies only looked at markers of cardiovascular health (in addition to weight loss).[iv],[v],[vi]

In the trial that tracked hunger [ii], the authors wrote: “Hunger increased on the first day of fasting and remained elevated” (for the 3 week study). This study had two “fasting” days a week, and 5 normal eating days (no overeating). That arrangement set participants up for a weekly weight loss of a bit more than a pound, which overeating days would quickly have eroded. I think it’s fair to say that if you’re hungry ALL the time, the diet won’t be easy to stick to.

In the same study, “RQ did not change significantly from baseline to day 21.” RQ (respiratory quotient) measures the balance of carb:fat oxidation. Fat oxidation in the study did finally increase on day 22 by 15g/d. As I said earlier however, that shift is the natural result of calorie restriction in general, and not the method of under-eating used to create a calorie deficit. In the study by Hill (which included a comparison group), there was no difference in weight or body fat losses between the constant or intermittent calorie-restriction groups.

Ignoring the elephant in the room?

Despite lots of misinformation and mythology to the contrary weight loss comes down to “calories-in/calories-out” as noted in the first sentence of the recent position paper from the American Society for Nutrition, “Human physiology complies with the first law of thermodynamics…”[vii]

Nevertheless, it's also true that there is always somebody that does well on a particular diet. That’s what leads to the well known “results not typical” advertising disclaimer required by the FTC on the inspiring testimonials that are the backbone of weight loss advertising.

Things worth thinking about:

One of the concerns professionals voice about some of these regimes is that they may actually encourage binging and/or disordered eating by over selling the notion of overeating days.

Another concern is that some of these regimes seem to encourage an unhealthy (anything goes) diet on non-fasting days. It should be obvious that the quality of what you eat becomes MORE (not less) important if/when you’re consuming less total calories. Furthermore, such eating would probably obliterate any calorie deficit created on fasting days. That might explain why I saw more than a few (book) reviewers complaining of no weight loss after several weeks.

Having worked with patients in medically-based fasting programs I know that many people initially do very well. Compliance to any diet however is generally short-lived (because our environment and busy lives don't naturally support restricted eating plans). Non-compliance (cheating) usually starts early and continues to escalate until people throw in the towel. Unfortunately they usually blame themselves instead of the silly diet they were trying to follow.

The Bottom Line: If you want success with your weight and health the tried and true approach is to learn how to eat in a healthy way and in healthy amounts. My best advise is to start where you are at, and look for "easy changes" to improve the quality of your diet. Forget "going-on-a-diet," instead approach it as a lifestyle change. It would also help a lot to understand more about how your body works. Here are some links that can help you get started:

All the Best!

PS--if you like this blog you may also like my book: The NEW Healthy Eating & Weight Management Guide.

[i] de Groot LC, et al. Adaptation of energy metabolism of overweight women to alternating and continuous low-energy intake. Am J Clin Nutr 1989;50(6):1314-23.

[ii] Heilbronn LK, et al. Alternate-day fasting in nonobese subjects: effects on body weight, body composition and energy metabolism. Am J Clin Nutr 2005:81:69-73. 

[iii] Hill JO, et al. Evaluation of an alternating-calorie diet with and without exercise in the treatment of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr 1989;50:248-254.

[iv] Varady KA, et al. Short-term modified alternate-day fasting: a novel dietary strategy for weight loss and cardioprotection in obese adults. Am J Clin Nutr 2009;90:1138-1143.

[v] Klempel MC, et al. Intermittent fasting combined with calorie restriction is effective for weight loss and cardio-protection in obese women. Nutriton Journal 2012;11:98.

[vi] Harvie MN, et al. The effects of intermittent or continuous energy restriction on weight loss and metabolic disease risk markers: a randomized trial in young overweight women. Int J Obes 2011;35(5):714-727.

[vii] Hall KD, et al. Energy balance and its components: implications for body weight regulation. Am J Clin Nutr 2012;95:989-94.

[viii] Stubbs JR, et al. Carbohydrates and Energy Balance. Annals New York Academy of Sciences. 1997;819:44-69.

Related blog added 11-APR-13 - Diet Book Review: The Fast Diet


Weight Loss Plateaus: How to reignite your weight loss

A common development after a few weeks of losing weight is that your weight loss stalls, or stops. The scale isn’t budging. This situation—a weight loss plateau—has all kinds of mythology attributed to it.

When you start a diet, you reduce your intake of calories and a big part of that reduction is from carbohydrates. The reduction in carbohydrates leads to the depletion of glycogen (how your body stores sugar) from both your muscles and liver. Each gram of stored glycogen normally holds 3- to 4-grams of water with it.[i],[ii]

This is the mechanism behind most of the early weight loss at the beginning of any diet—anywhere from 50 to 75% of the scale loss is water! Low-carbohydrate (high-protein) diets especially accentuate early (excess) water losses because it takes as little as 3-days on a low carbohydrate meal plan to deplete two-thirds of muscle glycogen.[iii]  That means when you start a diet, the first week or so it looks like you're losing way more weight than you actually are.

Fad diets are based on this trick, because initial calorie reductions produce the illusion of more weight loss than you've actually earned.[iv] This illusion leads to highly unrealistic expectations about ongoing weight loss. You essentially "owe" those illusionary unearned pounds back to the scale. And that "debt" will be paid with another illusion—the illusion of slowed weight loss in the upcoming weeks!

Furthermore, it's also important to understand that when your glycogen stores are depleted—from following that low carbohydrate diet, or other reduced-calorie diet—a carbohydrate binge will lead to excessive glycogen repletion (up to two times normal levels). And along with the glycogen, one heck of a water-weight-gain!

The fact is that as long as you are creating an energy deficit, you are losing the weight associated with that deficit. So when your weight loss seems to slow or stall (around the 3rd or 4th week of dieting) just keep following your healthy eating and exercise plan and (assuming extra calories aren't creeping in) the scale will start dropping again. During this time you're still losing fat, which is the goal. It's just that the excess water loss from when you started is temporarily masking your current fat loss.

The illusion of hitting a plateau can also happen later in the weight loss process. In previous post I addressed “understanding energy balance” for weight loss. What most people usually don't understand is that your success at weight loss actually reduces your energy needs. So your rate of weight loss slows as you lose weight—because smaller bodies have smaller energy needs.  That's normal, but it means to continue to lose weight you will have to adjust your intake target lower and/or exercise more to maintain the calorie deficit needed for the rate of weight loss you prefer. At lower body weights it's very effective to utilize more physical activity to maximize your weekly weight loss.

In problem-solving plateaus later in the weight loss process, you'll need to make an assessment of where you're at. Start by reassessing the numbers. Be forewarned however, that the reality is that adherence to lowered calorie intake typically starts sliding very early in the process and continues to escalate to the point where you are simply in energy balance (not creating an energy deficit).[iv] So, follow these steps:

  • Reassess your minimum calorie needs: here's a quick thumbnail estimate [Enlarged graphic with more details]. First find your BMI here. If you can, have your metabolism (resting metabolic rate) measured rather than use the estimate. Then just decrease that number by 200- to 300-hundred calories (but don’t go below 1,200-calories for women, or 1,400 calories for men) and bump up your exercise (see the end of my article on fat-burning workouts, you should be burning a minimum of 2,000 calories a week).
  • Find your food scale, measuring cups and spoons. If you thought you were already within the above values, but not losing weight, then it's time to assess how accurately you're tracking your intake. Are you weighing and measuring? Are you writing in your food log within 15-minutes of eating? Are you over estimating your physical activity expenditure? It's not unusual to underestimate your intake by 20- to 50%, as well as overestimate your activity expenditure.[vi],[vii] You can't fool Mother Nature! Choose to put in the time and effort needed for accuracy, and the scale will respond.
  • If the scale still seems stuck you may want to have your thyroid checked. If you have untreated (or undercorrected) hypothroidism your basal metabolic rate can be off enough that you—in fact—are not creating a negative energy balance.

These are complicated subjects that are hard to cover in a short format. Let me know what remaining questions you might have!


If you like this blog, you may also like my book:  The NEW Healthy Eating & Weight Management Guide.

[i] Stubbs RJ. Carbohydrates and Energy Balance. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1997;819:44-69.

[ii] Olsson DE, et al. Variation in Total Body Water with Muscle Glycogen Changes in Man. Acta Physiol Scand. 1970;80:11-18.

[iii] Bergstrom J, et al. Diet, Muscle Glycogen and Physical Performance. Acta Physiol Scand. 1967;71:140-150.

[iv] Hall, KD, et al. Quantification of the effect of energy imbalance on body weight. Lancet 2011;378:826-37.

[v ] Kreitzman SN, et al. Glycogen storage: illusion of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition. Am J Clin Nutr 1992;56:292S-293S.

[vi] Kretsch MJ, et al. Behavioral and body size correlates of energy intake underreporting by obese and normal-weight women. J Am Diet Assoc. 1999;99:300-306.

[vii] Lichtman SW, et al. Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects. NEJM 1992;327:1893-1898.


Want Success With Your Weight? Fix Your Thinking

The biggest obstacle between you and success with weight management probably isn’t eating better or even exercising—it’s very likely negative thinking and sabotaging self-talk. It may never have occurred to you that your most problematic habit might be faulty thinking, or that long term success with weight management ultimately hinges on fixing your thinking.

“We all talk to ourselves. We may not want to admit it, but all thinking human beings have a constant stream-of-consciousness chatter going on,” says psychologist Stephen Gullo PhD. That stream-of-chatter essentially programs you for either success or failure.

The good news is that you can take control of your internal dialog so that it is programming you for success. Changing your thinking so that it supports you instead of sabotages you is called cognitive restructuring.

Cognitive Restructuring is a proven behavioral strategy for successful weight control based on the premise that distorted or dysfunctional thinking strongly influences a person’s behavior. It involves identifying distorted thinking (self-defeating, false, and irrational beliefs) and replacing them with more rational, constructive thoughts and beliefs.

Examples of Negative and Sabotaging Self-Talk:

False Beliefs: The interesting thing about false beliefs is that they provide convenient excuses for failure.

  • “I’ve ruined my metabolism with yo-yo dieting—my body is broken.” Unless you have severe undiagnosed hypothyroidism, your metabolism does fall in the normal range for your gender, age and weight. If you doubt this have your RMR measured so you can stop doubting it.
  • “I’m destined to be heavy due to family genetics.” Genetics do play a role in a variety of areas that can affect your weight, including the tendency to overeat, and be physically inactive. But biology is not destiny. If fact, your choices about what you eat and how much you move ultimately determine your weight. You are still in control.
  • “I haven’t found the right doctor/pill/nutritionist/diet—nothing works for me.” The underlying error is that responsibility for changing is put outside of yourself rather than being owned by you. By the same token when you’ve had success you’ve also given the credit to the (fad) diet instead of to your own hard work. In reality all the diet did was trick you into eating fewer calories—YOU did all the work! When you own responsibility for your weight you also—correctly—give yourself the CREDIT for your success.
  • “I can’t wait for this diet to be over—I’m tired of watching what I eat.” The underlying error is thinking that temporary changes might have permanent results. Additionally, you may be telling yourself how unfair things are, and how deprived you feel.
  • “Food is my friend.” Food—and especially problem trigger foods—are not friends, treats, rewards nor comfort. What have these foods really done for you? In fact they have cost you happiness, quality of life, and self esteem by creating a never ending struggle with your weight. Trigger foods are more like enemies. Any food that you can’t control is controlling you, and needs to be dealt with accordingly.

Unrealistic Expectations:

  • “I want to lose 40 pounds for my class reunion (wedding, anniversary, before summer, etc.).” You didn’t put the weight on overnight and it comes off even slower than you put it on. Expecting otherwise is unrealistic and a set-up for disappointment and failure. The smartest approach is small—and therefor achievable—goals. That way you have more frequent celebrations of success, and you know you CAN lose the next 5 pounds.

Self-Critical & Defeatist Thinking:

  • “It’s too hard, I have no self-control, I will never lose weight.” You are simply programming yourself for failure. Your mind will dutifully find all kinds of evidence to support what you tell it—so if you keep saying, “I have no self-control,” you’ll never have any self-control.
  • “Poor me, I’m deprived, it’s not fair!” The truth is that you CAN have anything you want whenever you want. You can’t however do that AND be trim (and that truth applies to everyone). This kind of self-pitying, self-indulgent, self talk keeps you stuck. Worse, the end point of this type of thinking can be highly destructive—leading to a binge cycle that spirals you out of control.
           Turn deprivation thinking on its head—the reality is that by over-indulging in certain foods you have deprived yourself of a healthy weight and appearance, self-regard, peace of mind, and ultimately left you feeling unhappy and out of control. How many years have your handful of trigger foods tricked you into perpetually feeling frustrated and miserable?
           Finally, add in some perspective: real deprivation is a child going to bed hungry because he/she literally doesn’t have enough food to eat.

Basically, any change efforts are bound to fail if you don’t also change the internal conversation that you sabotage yourself with. You can continue with a negative, pessimistic, defeatist and often self-demeaning internal dialog (and keep spinning your wheels)—or you can take control with an upbeat, winning attitude that supports success.

Examples of Supportive and Constructive Self-Talk. Change your thinking and weight loss will naturally follow:

  • “Losing and maintaining weight, or gaining weight, is under my control.”
  • “It’s not a treat if it keeps me fat.”
  • “Avoiding trigger foods is not deprivation, it’s liberation!”
  • “Managing my home environment makes a winning day easy!”
  • “Planning trumps willpower!”
  • “I CAN have everything I need; and what I don’t need I don’t want.”
  • “I am mastering the skills necessary for success.”
  • “I’m in charge now—food no longer controls me.”
  • “A craving is just a feeling that passes quickly when I ignore it.”
  • “I CAN have everything I need; and what I don’t need I don’t want.”
  • “I can master the skills necessary for success. I just need to take it one step—and one day or hour—at a time.”
  • “Weight management depends on skills that I am mastering.”
  • “Every time I say, 'no, thank you,' I say 'yes' to my health and happiness.”
  • “I CAN have that, but I CHOOSE not to.”
  • “Good food is body fuel, body nourishment, but not entertainment. Treats are for special occasions, not every day.”
  • “A real treat is buying smaller clothes.”
  • “Eating doesn’t solve my problems, it adds to them!”
  • “With each ‘no, thank you’ I gain more control, self-reliance, and self esteem.”

How to Replace Sabotaging Self-Talk with Constructive Self-Talk:

  1. Start by tuning in and listening to your internal dialog so that you can begin to identify your “flawed thinking” and in each case write a constructive/supportive statement—or belief—that counters it.
         Don't worry if this seems difficult or awkward at first—after all you're in  the habit of not fully tuning into it consciously. Like most new habits, it will take a little practice.
  2. Create a personal set of 3 x 5 cards with your constructive statements and read them a minimum of twice each day. The more often the better! Keep adding to your collection of supportive statements—every time you catch your internal dialog going negative, write a new supportive counter statement.
  3. It’s also helpful to listen to yourself speak each of your new constructive beliefs and statements. An easy way to do that is to leave yourself a message on your cell phone (or voice recorder) that you can listen to several times a day.
  4. Immediately read or listen to your cards whenever you find yourself tempted to slip. Make sure you memorize some supportive one-liners too. The more you read—and listen to—your new constructive beliefs and statements, the faster your “new thinking” will be internalized. Essentially, what you are doing is waging an internal PR campaign that reprograms you for success!

It’s Up to You. Of course this all depends on your really wanting to change. If deep down you are not actually ready to give up being pessimistic, defeatist, and self-critical you’ll make excuses for not identifying and fixing your sabotaging self-talk. That’s okay—it just means you’re not yet ready to leave this self-defeating (crazy as it sounds) comfort zone. There are always costs as well as benefits to changing. Know, however, that serious success with your weight—the kind that lasts—will require dealing with any unsupportive self-talk that holds you back. You can and will be successful as soon as YOU decide to be!


PS--This blog is excerpted from a new section of the latest edition of my book, The NEW Healthy Eating & Weight Management Guide.