Why Calorie Restriction Doesn’t Work for Long Term Weight Loss

By: Tara Johnson, CF-L2


Calories in and calories out is a true mathematical statement when it comes to weight gain and loss. That said, restricting calories will work, but for long-term weight loss, an individual with obesity following a calorie-restriction diet only may not have long term success. Google the study of all The Biggest Loser® participants- yes, that weight came right back. Think about the fight you saw unfold on TV – they worked their asses off – literally. They wanted it bad enough, and the most successful of them stayed successful... but only to a degree and only for a little while. Why didn’t it stick????

There are a few reasons, and most importantly, with a little help, you can outsmart and outwork them!

Weight Set Point

Enter weight set point. Everyone has a weight set point, the point at which the body considers itself to be at homeostasis. Think of this as your internal thermostat - this is a somewhat fixed number that the brain has been conditioned to. Based on that number, your brain will increase or decrease appetite and satiety in order to achieve it. Overeat, and the thermostat turns that appetite down (think of that “I can’t eat another bite” feeling). 

Chronic overeating ratchets that weight set point number up over time leading you to having 4 different sizes of pants hiding in the closet. So, just drop your calories for awhile and drop that 10 pounds you gained over the pandemic and you’ll be fine right?! Well, calorie restriction will cause weight to decrease for sure – science and math say so. The yin to that yang is that the body will fight to get weight back up to a prior set point using some pretty shady methods that unchecked leads you right back to the diet roller coaster line.

A Tale of Two Brains

You have a “metabolic brain”- you know the one that tells you four slices of birthday cake is more than you need (and a terrible idea), and you have an “emotional brain” that works through your Cortico-Limbic System that logs data about a foods taste, texture and smell making you like what you eat. That emotional brain sends dopamine signals (happy feelings) which can override your metabolic, or biological brain signals when you’re truly full to trigger you to keep eating, because like doing crack – it feels good, even though it’s not helping your body functions and more likely causing lots of long term harm.

Hormones are More than a Woman’s Problem

Your body releases hormones; ghrelin for hunger, leptin and insulin for satiety. These affect your body’s response to eating. These hormones cause you to feel pleasure and reward from eating, and on the flip side, also cause you unrest and even panic from feeling hungry.

 These little buggers can cause you to want to overeat by overriding the “full” signals from the brain, causing you to feel hungry when you’re biologically not hungry. They can also give you that false warm cozy feeling from eating a tub of ice cream.

Your Genes Can Affect your Jeans

Genes influence every part of our physiology, development and adaptation to our environment. Some genes may affect that reward signal we get from the brain while others may affect the signals from the brain that tell us we are full. Which means that genes do influence our predisposition to obesity, and perhaps the more we understand it, the better we can help combat it. Don’t get it twisted, the amount of gene-based causes aren’t enough to overpower a lifestyle that promotes health. Just like having genetic markers for disease, doesn’t mean a life sentence with one.

There's Always a Way! 

Your biological, hormonal and genetic makeup, coupled with your environment can work for you, and against you. Working one on one with your coach and your physician can help you create a fat loss plan that is long term and realistic, not fad focused. After all, the plan that will bring you to your goals is the plan that you’ll actually follow, and the Pinterest diet of the month won’t work for everybody, you’re just too wonderfully unique.

You don’t have to be a world class athlete to take advantage of getting the help that coaching can provide. You simply need the will to take a first step.

Tara Johnson is a CrossFit® Level 2 Instructor and Owner of Jordan’s Barbell Club – Personal and Group Training. She specializes in 1:1 Nutrition and Fitness Coaching, and Lifestyle Rearrangement



·        https://www.howitworksdaily.com/the-biology-of-hunger/

·        After 'The Biggest Loser,' Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight - NY Times Article (optional read, may require subscription)

·        The Hypothalamus at Work: How Hormones Make Us Feel Hungry and Full

·        The Science of Successfully Maintaining Weight Loss


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