Michelle Underwood knows only too well the agony of failed diets. The 36-year-old mother-of-three from Woking, Surrey, has seen her weight yo-yo from 11st to 19st repeatedly over the past decade, as a succession of diets initially worked, then failed spectacularly — leaving her heavier and more desperate than ever.
Michelle blames herself for her serial dieting failures, saying she lacks willpower and has an appetite for the wrong food.
Last week saw a high-profile example of this common problem, when broadcaster Jenni Murray revealed in the Mail how she has piled back on the 5st she lost last year on the controversial Dukan diet.
She had dropped from 19st to 14st, with the intention of losing another two. But all the hard work came undone in a matter of five weeks on an extended holiday, she said, followed by a diet-free Christmas.
Murray has now joined WeightWatchers and believes she has finally found a diet that works for her.
One must admire her optimism and wish her luck. But scientific evidence increasingly points to a far deeper problem that confronts dieters: cutting out calories changes your metabolism and brain, so your body hoards fat and your mind magnifies food cravings into an obsession.
Slimmers have often feared this was somehow true, but now science confirms this cruel fact of nature. New research shows dieting raises levels of hormones that stimulate appetite — and lowers levels of hormones that suppress it.
Meanwhile, brain scans reveal that weight loss makes it harder for us to exercise self-control and resist tempting food. Worse still, the more people diet, the stronger these effects can become, leaving some almost doomed to being overweight as a result of their attempts to become slim.
And as research lays bare the dangers of yo-yoing weight, some experts argue it would be better not to diet at all.
Michelle’s story epitomises these problems. Until she was 25 she weighed around 10st, a normal weight for someone 5ft?8in tall. She stayed slim even after the birth of her two sons — now in their teens — but when she and her partner, Paul, 37, moved in together in 2001, the weight piled on.
‘I have increasingly developed an appetite for the wrong foods,’ she says. ‘I go all day without eating, then Paul comes home late from his job as an NHS estates officer and we get a takeaway. That’s despite having gone to the supermarket to buy food to cook.’
Within a year she weighed 15st, going from a size 12 to a size 18. After the birth of her daughter in September 2003, she weighed 16st. And so began a depressing cycle of diets, weight loss then gain.
Over the next nine years she tried a variety of diets, including homespun regimens and hypnotherapy. She lost up to 6st a time, only to regain it within less than a year. ‘Holidays are my downfall,’ she says. ‘Especially package holidays where all the food is included.’
At one point, in 2008, with the help of WeightWatchers and Lighter Life, she lost 6st in less than five months. She was thrilled. ‘When I’m eating healthily, I feel better and sleep better. I also feel more confident,’ she says.
But Michelle’s diet foundered again in 2009 while on holiday. ‘I got fed up feeling weak and light-headed. It affected me psychologically; I felt obsessed with food.’
Michelle now weighs 19st — the heaviest she’s been — and is desperate to lose the weight once and for all. ‘When I’m overweight, I don’t want to go anywhere or meet new people. I won’t even take my daughter swimming, even though she wants to go, and the leisure centre is right by our house.’
Michelle’s story is an extreme example of a problem that seasoned dieters know only too well — the heartbreaking curse of the ‘rebound pounds’.
Now a swathe of scientific evidence points to a disheartening fact for the 25 per cent of Britons trying to lose weight at any one time: our basic human biology is the greatest enemy of committed slimmers.
Researchers, including Joseph Proietto, a professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne, have uncovered one of the main possible reasons. Two years ago, his team recruited 50 obese men and women, and coached them through eight weeks of an extreme 500-to-550-calories-a-day diet (a quarter of the normal intake for women).
At the end, the dieters lost an average of 30lb. Proietto’s team then spent a year giving them counselling support to stick to healthy eating habits. But during this time, the dieters regained an average of 11lb. They also reported feeling far hungrier and more preoccupied with food than before losing weight.
As the researchers reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, the volunteers’ hormones were working overtime, making them react as though they were starving and in need of weight-gain. Their levels of an appetite-stimulating hormone, ghrelin, were about 20 per cent higher than at the start of the study. Meanwhile their levels of an appetite suppressing hormone, peptide YY, were unusually low.
Furthermore, levels of leptin, a hormone that suppresses hunger and raises the metabolic rate, also remained lower than expected.
Proietto describes this effect as ‘a co-ordinated defence mechanism with multiple components all directed toward making us put on weight’. In other words, the body had launched a backlash against dieting.
The team’s landmark study reinforces a belief among biologists that the human body has been shaped by millennia of evolution to survive long periods of starvation.
The human frame contains around ten times more fat-storing cells in relation to its body weight than most animals (polar bears, which have to endure long stretches when prey is unavailable, are similarly fat-rich).
Our calorie-hoarding frames have strong mechanisms to stop weight loss, but weak systems for preventing weight gain. If you manage to lose ten per cent of your weight, your body thinks there’s an emergency. So it burns less fuel by slowing your metabolism.
The body learns to function on fewer calories, resetting your metabolism. The problem is if you then stop dieting and start eating more again, those extra calories are stored as fat.
This effect kicks in after around eight weeks of dieting — and can last for years. Studies by Columbia University show this metabolic slowdown can mean that just to maintain a stable weight, people must eat around 400 fewer calories a day post-diet than before dieting.
Why would this be so? Muscle samples taken before and after weight loss show that once a person drops weight, the fibres may change to become more fuel-efficient — burning up to a quarter fewer calories during exercise than those of a person at the same weight naturally.
How long this state lasts isn’t known, though some research suggests it might be up to six years.
It’s also thought the brain changes in the way it reacts to food. This wilts our willpower, according to Michael Rosenbaum, a researcher at Columbia University Medical Centre who studies the body’s response to weight loss.
‘After you’ve lost weight, there’s an increase in the emotional response to food,’ he says, adding that there is also ‘a decrease in the activity of brain systems that might be more involved in restraint’.