Nutrition Articles

How Quick Fix Diets Could Lead You to Crash and Burn

A Case for Opting for Long-Term Healthy Habits

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These days, instant gratification is the name of the game. It's not uncommon to crave a quick and easy fix for a complicated task. And, when weight loss and maintenance are the goals that many people strive for, the idea of a crash diet may seem all too appealing. But when severe energy restriction works against the body's natural biological adaptations, it can be bad news for successful weight loss.
 
A crash diet is motivated by tomorrow's number on the scale—not the lifelong effect it can have on the body. It's a world away from mindful energy restriction with a focus on good-for-you nutrients. While it may seem like a small tradeoff for a period of weight loss, repeatedly crash dieting can do a real number on your health. Whether you're stuck in a cycle of crash diets or have considered diving into one, take some time to learn about the damaging aftermath—it may be just what you need to get yourself back on a healthy track.

Crash Diets 101


A crash diet is exactly what it sounds like: a sudden restriction of food that shocks your body. It is often characterized by severe limitation through the elimination of certain food groups (such as carbohydrates) or an emphasis on just a few types of food (such as the "grapefruit diet") in order to quickly lose weight. But when your body depends on a balanced diet of vitamins and nutrients, dieting restrictions such as these are a fool-proof summons for a weight loss disaster. 

"It's the exact opposite of a balanced, healthy lifestyle," explains Dr. Caroline Cederquist, M.D., creator of bistroMD. Extreme food restriction can send your body into a panic since it doesn't understand the difference between diet and starvation. Your body will think you're experiencing the latter, thereby stimulating its protection mode to save fuel reserves. It is your system's natural way of making sure that your body keeps moving and grooving.
 
Within 24 hours of starting a crash diet, your carbohydrate reserve is the first to go, according to "Biochemistry." Low blood sugar levels will leave you feeling groggy and irritated. Water loss will disguise itself as shedding pounds. Eventually, your body targets your protein stores, increasing the risk for heart, liver and kidney complications. Once it gets to the fat reserves, adipocytes, or fat cells, become stressed, impacting neurotransmitters that control satiety. This culminates in a greater appetite as your body tries to work with the perceived starvation.

Sarah Koniarski, R.D., L.D. and a physician assistant student at Pace University, shares that your body attempts to conserve energy by adjusting your metabolism. Brain pathways begin to zero in on mechanisms that regulate energy balance. Basically, your body has a way of doing things—and crash dieting is not part of the plan.

Ultimately, the more you don't eat, the more energy your body actually needs. It's a tricky concept that many crash dieters may not know when they start. At the end of the day, your body won't know that you are purposely depriving it from essential nutrients. Instead, it tries to protect you by meddling with the usual ebb and flow of your metabolism.

Your Body When It Crashes


When the body repeatedly experiences a stressful situation, the impacts accumulate over time. As a result, the repercussions of a crash diet can last longer than you think. "The loss of muscle is an important physical aftermath of crash diets," notes Cederquist. And when that muscle is responsible for most of our body's metabolic rate, metabolism inevitably slows down after a crash diet.
 
When metabolism is negatively influenced, it becomes more difficult to lose weight, which is the goal of the crash diet in the first place, right? In fact, weight gain is actually more likely once the diet stops. The Obesity Action Coalition specifies that 40 percent of crash dieters rebound after diet cessation. Obesity Reviews attributes this to the disruption of the metabolism's homeostasis, something that could lead to overeating down the line.
SparkPeople member GOOZLEBEAR has experienced this cycle first hand. "I think I've tried every crash diet ever invented," she recalls. "And while I had a lot of short-term weight loss, the pounds never stayed off."
 
Repeated crash dieting can also amplify your risk for chronic conditions. The "International Journal of Obesity" links extreme protein degradation to cardiovascular stress, increasing the risk for irregular heartbeat and stroke. The strain on fat reserves can also aggravate fat tissues and contribute to diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Moreover, a study featured in the "American Journal of Physiology" mentions that continuous crash dieting can disrupt gut bacterial balance, negatively impacting digestion and immunity. Digestion problems may even linger in between periods of crash dieting.

"The risk for gallstones also intensifies," adds Koniaraski, who specifies that this is a result of fat breakdown and cholesterol secretion into the bile. Chronic crash diets can also lead to osteoporosis as the body taps into the bone's calcium stores. Clearly, a crash diet can impact more than just the number on the scale.

Even your mental health can take a hit. "When [caloric or nutrient] intake doesn't meet the needs of daily function, you're more likely to lose your mental edge," states Koniarski. Consequently, it may be difficult to perform daily activities without feeling distracted or irritable. This also escalates the risk of making mistakes at work and lashing out at loved ones. There's a reason why the word "hangry" exists, after all.

Aside from hindering your A-game, a crash diet can also disrupt emotional stability. According to Koniarski, the complexity of crash diets can make people lose confidence in their ability to drop weight. "It's common to feel a sense of failure from lack of goal achievements," she says.

It can also mess with your perception of healthy weight loss from the get-go. Koniarski notes that repeatedly following strict, rigid diets can lead to a disruption of normal eating habits. This can, in turn, lead to food preoccupation and overeating—two major factors in the development of eating disorders. Ultimately, crash diets place unhealthy stress on the act of eating, taking away from the enjoyment and nourishment that food can—and should—provide.   

The Lowdown on Long-Term Weight Loss


This is where gradual, long-term weight loss comes into play. While it won't offer an instant solution, it is the safest option for your body and brain. It's also a crucial ingredient in the recipe for success. A study from the American Journal of Physiology reports that regular strategies maintained over time can prevent biological adaptations that lean toward rebound and weight gain.

Plus, habits are more likely to stick when they're developed over time. According to research, it's said that it takes 66 days to form a new habit, considerably more time than most people invest in a crash diet. When you are willing to put in the time, you're rewarded with consistent habits that won't waver over time.
 
Cederquist also stresses the importance of the relationship between muscle and metabolism. "When you have more muscle, you burn calories faster," she explains. This emphasizes how crucial regular strength training is for long-term weight loss. Simultaneously, as you gain muscle, adipocytes become smaller without the stress, according to a study in "Obesity Reviews." It's a win-win all around.

Tips for Breaking the Crash Diet Cycle for Good


If you're struggling with a crash diet, don't fret—hope is not lost. It's possible to get out of the cycle with hard work and dedication. Need some guidance? With these six tips, you can break the unhealthy cycle, once and for all.
  1. Understand the Basics: The simple practice of learning how metabolism works can totally shift your outlook. It comes down to comprehending the different types of weight (muscle versus fat) and how they can contribute to overall health. It will also arm you with the tools you need to work with your body. As SparkPeople user ETHELMERZ declares, "There is more afoot than just what you eat."
  2. Give Yourself Time: Achieving a healthy weight and breaking out of a crash diet have one thing in common: They take time. Remember, a crash diet is a surprise to the body; reversing it overnight can be just as shocking. Make it a point to implement changes over time.
  3. Start Small: On a similar note, Koniarski suggests beginning with small, feasible goals. It can be something as simple as eating one to two more fruits a day. Eventually, you can build these actions into habits that stick.
  4. Find an Accountability Partner: Tell someone about your goals and plans. The basic act of having someone hold you responsible can be a major game changer; it can also provide much-needed mental and emotional support. An accountability partner can be anyone from a significant other, close friend or a fellow SparkPeople member.
  5. Use SparkPeople's Nutrition Tracker: Paired with a deeper understanding of metabolism, learning about your body's needs is vital. You'll be able to comprehend how nutrients help your body function (and lose weight) properly. This is where the Nutrition Tracker comes in handy. SparkPeople member GOOZLEBEAR shares that logging food in the tracker helps her maintain a healthy plan by omitting sugar and processed foods.
  6. Know the Difference Between a Diet and Lifestyle: Ending a crash diet starts with recognizing that it is only a short-term solution. A lifestyle, on the other hand, shifts your entire perception. It's also the key to long-term success.
The hunger pains and mental stress of a crash diet aren't worth that fleeting moment on the scale. Successful weight loss and maintenance isn't about a one-time program or a quick fix; it's about the life-long changes that become a part of who you are. Remember, there is no end date for a healthy lifestyle. It's up to you to make sure of that fact.

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Member Comments

  • Healthy eating and exercise is the way to go.
  • Quick fix diets don't work, as we all know. Balanced eating and exercise are the successful ways. We have to change our eating habits permanently to lose and keep the weight off.
  • find a plan that works for you....one you can live with FOREVER...
  • Very important to find a healthy plan you can stick to. Be it moderation, low carb, paleo, ketogenic, vegan..just aim for something healthy that YOU can sustain.
  • 97MONTY
    Great information
  • Excellent article. Very informative.
  • Good article with great links for backup data.
  • Excellent article, there are far to many people that still relay on crash diets. I watched my niece and nephew go on that crazy high protein, no carbs diet multiple times and then go to regaining all the weight back in less time that it took to shed it. My nephew told me recently after he saw me lose 70 lbs slowly that when ever they dieted he felt week and like his muscles wouldn't work right, duh, they were losing muscle not fat. There are so many people here on sparkpeople not getting the message that diet fads and cutting out food groups are not the way to go.
  • As one who has struggled with weight issues my entire adult life I can relate to a lot of points made in this article. It wasn't until I got serious and a nutritionist who explain that in order to be successful I would need to make a lifestyle change and not diet that I began to understand and see long term results.

About The Author

Kirsten Nunez Kirsten Nunez
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle writer, editor and author. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition and is currently based in New York. Kirsten spends her days writing articles and dreaming up healthy recipes.