workplace wellness nutrition

Study: For Best Health, Focus on Nutrition Not Dieting

A cornerstone of a well-run workplace wellness program is a focus on nutrition — healthy eating, a balanced diet, and a better understanding of the components of nutrition overall. The goal, of course: Eating properly for one’s best health.

At the same time, many of us diet simply to lose weight. We go on and off these diets… like a yo-yo. Now a study published by the National Institutes of Health addresses the practice and doesn’t find it particularly helpful.

The study is titled “An adaptive response to uncertainty can lead to weight gain during dieting attempts.” It states: “Peoples’ attempts to lose weight by low calorie diets often result in weight gain because of over-compensatory overeating during lapses. Animals usually respond to a change in food availability by adjusting their foraging effort and altering how much energy reserves they store. But in many situations the long-term availability of food is uncertain, so animals may attempt to estimate it to decide the appropriate level of fat storage.”

As Washington Post piece on the study states that “some of that external pressure may come from public health messages.”

The piece quotes Abdul Dulloo, PhD, professor in the Department of Medicine/Psychology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He says: “Terms like ‘war on obesity’ and obsession about slimness can backfire over the long-term. The emphasis should not be about ‘body weight’ or ‘body fat’ per se, but about motivation for a healthy lifestyle in relation to food and physical activity.”

In fact, our evolutionary trends may provide some insight into why yo-yo dieting isn’t the best approach.

The study continues: “Humans appear to have sophisticated controls on fat storage that act to maintain weight at some target, but the variation in body weight within populations indicates that this target must differ between individuals. It has not been fully elucidated why individuals might differ in this way. Existing data show that whilst a significant proportion of the variation in body mass index is attributable to genetic factors, there are strong effects of socioeconomic factors. This indicates that learning may play an important role in determining the individuals’ targets. Here, we assess how weight gain after dieting attempts could be an adaptive response involving learning about the environment. Our model provides proof of the concept that weight gain may be a response to an environment to which the evolved subconscious system for controlling energy storage is no longer adapted.”

The results of the study seem to support the hypothesis: ” If the food supply is limited much of the time, such as during cycles of dieting attempts, the optimal response is to gain a lot of weight when food is abundant.”

A well-run workplace wellness program can help support employees’ nutrition goals without necessarily resorting to these kinds of approaches. Which, according to the study’s conclusion, might be a positive outcome.

It states: “Recurring attempts to diet, by signalling to the body that the food supply is often insufficient, will lead to a greater fat storage than if food was always abundant. Our results shed light on the widespread phenomenon of weight gain during weight cycling and indicate possible interventions that may reduce the incidence of obesity.”