There’s a health myth still floating around out there that says that the more intense a diet is, the more effective it will be. And because of this myth, so many of us still find ourselves in the middle of liquid diets, juice cleanses, strict calorie counting, and other impossible-to-maintain regimens. And while we might feel good or at least proud of ourselves for finishing some sort of diet related challenge, the reality is that any weight lost almost always comes back — and with a vengeance too.

So why do we continue to believe that starving ourselves is the right way to lose weight?

Chances are it’s because we’re not understanding the relationship between three important things: Stress, Epinephrine, and Weight Gain.

Here’s the thing…

When we embark on any kind of intense diet, we almost always end up adding additional stress to our lives, both physically and mentally. Not only are we now stressing about what we can and can’t eat, we’re also typically physically stressing the body too by depriving it of essential nutrients it needs to function properly. When this stress rises, so does cortisol.

Cortisol, a hormone produced by the body when it’s under stress, contributes to weight gain. That means that most intense diets actually leave you fighting against yourself — your body trying to gain weight while you’re simultaneously trying to lose every pound possible. 

When cortisol is released in your body, it saturates your blood and tissues. When this happens, your body prepares itself to fight, triggering signals in your body that tell you to eat — and for your body to hold on to the energy (or fat) it has. Part of this triggering is done by epinephrine, or adrenaline, which actually curbs your appetite for a short time (in case your ancestors needed to actually run from a physical threat).

The problem today of course is that the stress we tend to experience isn’t caused by an external physical threat. Like wanting to adhere to a very strict diet, the stress we experience is internal and often inflicted upon ourselves. This kind of stress doesn’t dissipate quickly, which means the adrenaline (epinephrine) we experience at the beginning fades and all we’re left with is extra cortisol in our body — and an appetite even bigger than what we started with.

In order to stop this vicious cycle of starving ourselves to lose weight only to actually gain more weight, we need to understand that our bodies are well-designed; they don’t need to be punished in order to function the way we want them to. Instead of starving ourselves, we should be caring for ourselves, which means being mindful of what we eat each day, noticing how we feel after we eat, and allowing ourselves to truly enjoy food.

When we’re able to develop a healthy relationship to food, we not only say goodbye to impossible diets, but we also dramatically reduce stress in our lives — and that ensures that we continue to move in the right direction with our weight, no starving required.