Bottom Line/Health: All right, all you dieters, guess what? Those diets you’re on. They may not be working. And here’s the sad fact: you may actually be doing physical harm to your body by following those diets. Scary, right? Let’s find out.

I’m Sarah Hiner, president of Bottom Line Publications, and this is our Conversations With the Experts, where we get the answers to your tough questions from our leading experts.

Today I’m talking to Dr. Brooke Kalanick, a leading naturopathic physician in private practice in New York City specializing in women’s hormonal and weight issues. Welcome, Brooke. It’s so great to see you.

Dr. Brooke Kalanick, ND: Thank you.

Bottom Line: To say that diets don’t work and are causing damage flies in the face of every piece of weight loss literature out there. Why do you break that mold and go against the counterculture?

Dr. Kalanick: When we’re talking about diets, what we’re talking about is the “eat less, exercise more” model. Attempting to create a caloric deficit either by burning more off or taking less in. Your body doesn’t exactly work this way. We like to think that it’s as simple as your calculator or a bank account, and we just stop putting as much in, and that will change your equation.

It’s more complicated than that. We have hormones involved—and that gets a little bit tricky too because it’s not just that. We can’t just go after “it’s this hormone that’s making you fat,” although everyone’s read that book or that blog, “this is the secret.” It’s all of those things.

Bottom Line: When you say that “eat less and exercise more”—because that’s the classic. I mean, there’s the grapefruit diet and there’s the ice cream diet and the chili diet or whatever, they’re all those funny, funky diets. But what you’re really saying is that even just the basic premise of “eat less, exercise more” is flawed.

Dr. Kalanick: It is flawed.

Bottom Line: Now, is that flawed across the board, like eat 20% less and exercise 20% more? Or are you talking about significant caloric reductions?

Dr. Kalanick: What happens when we create that deficit, so we’ve made a change and we’re aiming to take in less or burn more, your body doesn’t say, “Okay, I know you want to lose weight. We’ll just sit back and let this happen.” We are so hardwired to store.

If you think of your metabolism almost more like a rubber band, if you pull on it enough, it’s going to rebound back. The key with the diet is just to pull on it just enough to get results, but that’s not what we do. We take ourselves from 2000 calories to 1200 calories. That’s a big pull. We start logging hours and hours on the treadmill at the gym. That’s another big pull.

What most people see is 7 to 10 days, maybe even 30 days in, things are going okay. There’s also a difference between what did you lose? Did you just drop some water? Did you truly lose fat, or did you just lose weight? But either way, if you put enough stress on that rubber band, in a certain amount of time it’s going to spring back.

What our body does, it’s very adaptive to stress, and it doesn’t really know the stress of the diet versus any other type of stress. So it will compensate by down-regulating your metabolism. You’ll burn less, you’ll burn off muscle, and you’ll lower your thyroid hormone. You’ll do these things to slow this loss down.

Bottom Line: So the body adapts to whatever the change is. You said 7 to 10; you’re doing okay. Will it lose weight initially, and is it that you have to then vary?

Dr. Kalanick: Think of it this way: if your metabolism is fairly healthy and you go on some sort of restriction diet, you’re going to burn a little bit. The first week or two, you’re going to see things look a little bit better. It might’ve been water, but you’ll see the scale move a little bit. So that can happen, and then you go into this adaptable place where you’re not getting as many results.

Some people have done this cycle so many times that they cut those calories out and not only do they not lose, but they may even gain. That doesn’t make any sense to people. “I’m doing better than ever, I’ve been to the gym every day this week, and I’ve put on 4 pounds.” That’s a metabolism that’s—I hate to use the word broken, but it’s sort of broken. It’s hard for it to adapt.

And that’s the problem; nothing really changes in someone’s psyche or habits. Not to mention the stuff that we do with dieting that is just counterproductive to what your metabolism is trying to do.

Bottom Line: What’s the risk? I talked about that there’s actually a danger in dieting. What’s happening to your body on the risky side?

Dr. Kalanick: I think two things are dangerous. First, from a hormonal standpoint, the more you do this—and what woman hasn’t been on more than one diet? Most of the women in my practice have been dieting since high school or middle school, so this is a chronic ongoing thing that we do. And over time, your metabolism, your hormones, get more and more dysregulated.

We start to see things like your cycle will change, your thyroid will get lower, your adrenals get sad—all of these things will start to happen. But I think as important as that, psychologically you’ve had one more failure. You’ve had one more time where you think, “I’m just never going to be happy with my body.”

That’s why we start the next diet. We’re unhappy. It always starts from a place of not feeling good enough, not being happy with yourself. So it’s a very negative psychological place that women are in, and then we just do more and more damage with the constant yo-yo diets.

Bottom Line: All right, what’s the silver bullet? What’s the secret to doing it right?

Dr. Kalanick: Of course, you have to burn more calories than you take in. We can’t ignore the fact that that is how you start to burn fat. We have to take into account your hormones. You can’t just arbitrarily cut calories; you have to cut the right things that help you keep your appetite, cravings, energy in balance. I use the acronym ACES: appetite, cravings, and energy. Those are your hormones talking to you.

When you do a diet that let’s say you cut your carbohydrates down to nothing and you start craving those foods, that’s your hormones saying, “this diet is putting me more and more out of balance.” So that’s one thing; start to tune in and listen and make adjustments. It may not happen as fast. You might not drop 5 pounds in a week, but you’ll be doing something that not only is more sustainable, but the more in balance your hormones are, the more effective your metabolism.
Bottom Line: You really need to listen to the cravings.

Dr. Kalanick: You do.

Bottom Line: So if your body says it needs carbs, give it some carbs?

Dr. Kalanick: Give it some.

Bottom Line: Not chocolate cake.

Dr. Kalanick: Right, not chocolate cake. Maybe try a sweet potato or some pumpkin. And you’re going to have to play with it a little bit. Now, if you’ve been doing this for years and you’re one of those people that starts a diet and actually gains weight, you might not really be able to trust those appetite, craving, and energy signals. Things can get really, really messed up, and that might be the case where you end up with someone like me, where you need to seek help to sort these things out.

But the other thing that’s really important is much of what we’re doing in the diet—the overexercising, the undereating, maybe not getting enough sleep—you really have to stop those things. If you’re stressing yourself out by too much cardio, too much exercise, or doing more than you can handle, you’ve got to dial those things back down and do more walking and more strength training that’s not maybe as metabolic or as fat-burning.

We love to do the things that we think are going to get us the most bang for our buck. Just remember that those things, while it might be true that those are the most effective for fat loss, if you’re stuck and you’re one of these women that just goes on and off of a diet, then it’s time to do things differently and work with the current hormone mess that we have.

Bottom Line: Is one of the secrets to the exercise part of it to have variety so that your body never quite knows what the set point is?

Dr. Kalanick: Part of the thing with exercise—and we hear this a lot, that your body needs to constantly be surprised—I think the most important thing is to not do things that make it worse. So don’t spend hours doing long duration cardio. That’s ineffective, and for most women, that can create a problem. Not to say don’t ever do it, but shift away from that if that’s your predominant exercise to a little bit more strength training.

Find a balance between the things you love and the things that are going to get you results. What most people are not doing enough of is just walking. It’s a great hormone reset activity, where it’s going to lower cortisol, it’s going to help your blood sugar, and it’s not going to perturb any of the other hormones that are out of balance.

Bottom Line: What’s your optimal exercise prescription, I’ll call it?

Dr. Kalanick: If someone were to look at this like a template, I would say three times a week of full body strength training with some weight that’s heavy enough that you’re in an 8 to 10 rep range. That tends to be a little heavier than most women. If you can do 15, that weight’s probably not high enough. We’re talking full body movements, so maybe a squat, a deadlift, some sort of rowing or pulling activity, and maybe a push-up. Put those together.

If you’re working with a trainer who’s changing your workouts all the time, you can be a little bit more precise. And everyone’s different; we’ve got different physical injuries and things like that, but for the most part, think about are you getting some full body smart strength training?

This is, again, if you’re stuck. If you’re in that “dieting has ruined you,” this is where you want to turn. So full body strength training, lots of walking, and if you have time for more cardio, skip the long duration stuff and go for some sprinting. I don’t necessarily mean—when I say sprinting in intervals, we don’t mean necessarily the programmed interval on the machine. We mean your all-out sprint. Something you can’t do for more than 30 seconds. That would be the other really efficient time-saving workout.

Bottom Line: All right. Thank you, Dr. Brooke Kalanick. The bottom line? Dieting actually is teaching your body to retain its food and to retain its weight, oddly. We’re really fighting ourselves; when you reduce your caloric intake and you increase your exercise, that classic equation actually works against ourselves. So what you really want to do is reduce your intake, yes, but watch what your body’s craving and don’t overeat and don’t undereat.

As far as exercise is concerned, again, a little bit of variety. Do some strength training. Not too much cardio, not hours and hours and hours. You want your body not to go into a stress mode, because when it goes into stress, it retains all of the fuel that it can. I’m Sarah Hiner, and this is Bottom Line.