Great Expectations
Margaret E. Woltjer, Ph.D. | September 2004

One of the hurdles we confront as we begin dieting is our own disappointment in the results. It is frequently the reason we give up on ourselves and the course of action we had intended to take. This is seen in several ways: Some people quit dieting after a few weeks; some stop and start repeatedly; some try to resume the diet with a crash diet, hoping to feel encouraged by immediate results. For many who move beyond these hurdles, there is disappointment in how we look when we attain our goal weight. These critical points in the dieting experience may seem somehow unrelated, but there is a common thread… we unintentionally undermine our efforts due to unrealistic expectations. Let’s take a closer look at how this happens.

Some of us are emotionally ready to begin dieting, but we don’t do a very thorough job of understanding what we need in order for that first phase to get a good start. A good diet plan begins with understanding something about how the body works and what it will need as we change what we put into it. Remember, it took a long time for that weight to go on and it happened without us hardly noticing. Ideally, that’s the way is should also come back off.

Let’s start with a refresher course in what fat is and how we collected more of it than we needed. When we eat a well-balanced meal, the body receives three types of nutrients from the process of metabolism: Glucose (derived from carbohydrates), amino acids (derived from proteins), and fats. As the body absorbs the food, more nutrients are taken in than the body immediately requires just then, so the excess is converted to glycogen and to fat which is then stored for later use. Excess fats are stored in adipose tissue (this is what we know as body fat). Excess glucose is converted to glycogen, but any more than can be stored in that form will be converted to fat and stored. Excess amino acids are also converted to fats and some gets stored in body fat. This body fat is like a storage bin containing molecules that can be broken down and used for energy in the future when we need it. The problem is, when we eat too much or don’t tap into all that stored up body fat as a source of energy, it keeps accumulating.

When we diet, the food we eat gives us energy we can use immediately, particularly if we eat a balanced diet that contains foods the body can break down quickly. Since the principal source of energy for all body tissue is glucose, the rest of the nutrients that we need while dieting will have to come from the “storage bin” of body fat we carry around. One fat molecule is made up of one glycerol molecule combined with three fatty acids and all of these fat molecules put together are stored in the form of triglycerides. Since the body cannot directly metabolize triglycerides, each fat molecule must first be broken down again into its component parts (glycerol + fatty acids) before they can be released into the bloodstream for use in our tissues. This is one reason why exercise is a critical part of a diet plan. Muscle tissue and organ tissue will use up the glycerol and fatty acids as they become available in the bloodstream. In other words, you can directly affect your rate of metabolism to some extent if you exercise.

So now let’s look at how we sabotage our best dieting efforts. First of all, the description of fat and its storage that I gave you is a simplistic explanation of a very complex process. If we choose a fad diet or a crash diet, the body is jolted into trying to accommodate what it perceives is an emergency situation. The energy needed for our brain and nervous system to work properly must come from somewhere, and because our central nervous system is essential to us, they get first dibs on available glucose. The rest will have to come from the breakdown of fatty acids, glycerol, amino acids, and glycogen. This takes a little longer, depending on what is getting broken down. The key is to have sufficient quantities of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in our daily intake of food for immediate use while giving the body enough time to break down some of our stored fat into fuel to give us the energy we need throughout the day. Remember, your muscles and internal organs also need glucose to function properly, so if you skip meals or don’t follow a balanced diet, you will feel uncomfortably hungry. Under extreme conditions of prolonged fasting, the body will break down its own muscle protein as a means of feeding itself.

What this says is that, in order to diet in a way that is healthier and more comfortable, you will need to take care of your body’s needs first. With a systematic, well-planned, nutritionally sound diet plan, the weight will come off gradually and safely. You should not expect pounds to fall off quickly, so stay off the bathroom scale. After awhile you will notice changes in how your clothing fits. Then, your energy level will improve. Dieters who stop and start repeatedly send confusing messages to their metabolic system. People who crash diet actually cause their metabolism to slow down because their body experiences famine and tries to conserve energy for later use.

One of the last hurdles is living with what you get. Sometimes we imagine ourselves looking like an athlete or movie star if we get down to our goal weight. Sometimes we expect people to like us better. Or, maybe our marriage will be better. It may be tempting to think our life will change dramatically…after all, look how much effort we put into taking off all those pounds. But the truth is, what you get is better health and a chance to improve some of the other parts of your life if that is what you need to do. You do not become an athlete or a movie star. You become a better version of you with a chance at a better life. That’s a lot to celebrate.
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