Dieting: Why is it so hard?

Nutrition science and information is constantly changing. Although this article has good points, my opinions and research have developed and changed. If you want to get started eating right for you, check out this new post on nutrition for beginners.

Leptin. Heard that word before? Leptin is the answer to your questions. Dieting is so hard because leptin is involved. We love leptin…it does wonderful things, but when you diet, it becomes your worst enemy.

What Is Leptin?

Leptin is a hormone that plays a key role in energy expenditure and intake. Sounds pretty important huh. Well it is. Leptin is your satiety hormone. Meaning, it tells you when you have eaten enough. It also is kind enough to raise your metabolism, something all dieters are striving for!

Sounds Good To Me…

Yeah, but its a little more complicated than that. Leptin levels revolve around a couple of things. Your level of body fat is one. People with higher levels of body fat generally have higher levels of leptin. Leptin is secreted from fat cells, so there is a direct correlation (obese people actually produce a lot of leptin but their receptors have had enough of it and dont recognise it…hence not ever feeling full).

The second thing is calorie intake. When you try to lose fat and restrict your calorie intake, your body lowers leptin levels. Regardless of your body fat level, if you lower your energy intake, your leptin production will slow down. Lowering leptin means your metabolism will drop. Also means you are not going to be satisfied and feel full.

In an ideal environment for the body, leptin levels are normal and the brain gets the idea that you have eaten enough. It keeps your metabolism high, and your body is primed for fat burning. As soon as you start dieting, leptin plummets. After only a week of dieting they can drop by 50%. You can see how this will greatly affect your ambition to lose weight. Your metabolism drops and you are always hungry. Your body does not want to burn fat. To make it even worse, when your metabolism drops, a couple of other nasty hormones get involved that really want to help your body STORE fat, and increase your appetite. Bit of a catch 22 isn’t it, you want to lose weight so you restrict your calories, but you also want to keep your leptin high and metabolism firing. Tough gig.

How Do I Stop This Crazy Cycle?

Mmm looks good…so eat it!

Cheat. Eat some crap. Go on, do it. Your personal trainer might come at you with a stick but I have a very good explanation.

OK, so I mentioned above that leptin levels drop dramatically when you diet, causing all sorts of problems that you don’t want. Basically making it near impossible for you to lose the pounds. The good news is, this is reversed really really quickly. It takes less than a day for leptin to get back to normal levels. With a fair increase in calories, your body will increase your leptin levels, thus your metabolism will go up and appetite will be suppressed. Great I hear you say, but then I am eating more calories and will just reverse all the good work I already did. Well, not if you are strategic about it.
If you cheat on your diet once a week (when we know that leptin can be at its lowest after dieting), you give your leptin and your metabolism a boost, setting and priming your body up for fat loss once you resume your diet. You can eat what you want for a day, try not to binge…it’s just not a good habit. Up your energy intake that day, get your metabolism firing. When you go back to dieting, you will be in a much better state than if you had simply let your leptin levels and metabolism hit rock bottom. It’s almost impossible to lose weight at this stage.

The best thing to eat is stuff that is full of carbs. There is a relationship between leptin, carbs and insulin. There has been research suggesting that upping your energy intake alone won’t really help. If you stuff yourself full of protein and fats, it won’t raise your metabolism and up your leptin levels as effectively as carbs will. So on you cheat day, concentrate on carbs.


There is another thing you should take from this carb business. If you should have carbs on your ‘cheat’ day, because they help stimulate leptin levels, then maybe you should still try to get them in on your diet days….There are so many diets out there that focus on limiting your cards. Yes, they do have the most energy in them, but you need them, and they help your body get into a state ready for fat loss. They can slow down the drop in leptin that is inevitable when dieting. Don’t ignore carbs all together in your diet, they play a very important role.

So, why is dieting so hard? Leptin. This hormone is your tool to weight loss. Be strategic, not stupid.

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  1. says

    Fair ideas,…

    But, metabolism can be manipulated in other ways. In particular by avoiding carbs’ not because they are high in energy but because the lack of carbs’ leads to the automatic metabolic change: burning the fat stored in your body…

  2. chris grant says

    Just a the article again..CHEAT!! Don’t go 100 percent healthy, you won’t lose any weight… (I have tried and tested this theory, it’s working wonders for me!)

  3. Lauren says

    @ dusan
    True, but your body needs carbs. You can’t function without them. If you up the protein in your diet, and decrease the carbs a little you wil go a long way to upping your metabolism. Carbs are important, the body needs energy.

    @ chris
    Yeh it is a lot better, and it does work. It’s hard, for the non body building population it can mean getting into a bad binge cycle. I would recommend not trying to binge out and eat crap on your cheat, but just to eat a little more one day a week. To make sure you aren’t always in starvation mode.

  4. Abby says

    I’ve been doing this for years and it really helps with weight loss and maintenance too. I started having some “cheat” time back when I was going to Weight Watchers. Every week from the time the meeting ended until bedtime I ate whatever I wanted. My reason was more psychological than physiological though. During the week every time I had a craving or saw something I really wanted to eat but wasn’t in my food plan, I would write it on my list of things to eat after my weigh in. It helped get though the day, and at the end of the week, I couldn’t possibly eat all the things on my list. I also found that by then I didn’t even want most of them. I would just choose the few things I didn’t want to go through another week without. It helped me lose over 80 pounds. Now to maintain, I’m strict Mon-Fri and eat as I please on the weekends.

  5. Lauren says

    wow Abby 80 pounds good job. It’s nice to hear success stories. I am glad it worked for you. I hope that it can help and motivate other readers on LaurensFitness. I like the idea of writing everything down that you wanted to eat, I think that would have gone a very long way to you not wanting to eat it on the weekend! Thanks for your comment, I hope to see you on here often.

  6. David says


    Umm, this article was pretty helpful to me…

    I’ve dieted so much that now I have eating disorders, and I’m terrified of eating but at the same time, I lose control after a long time and binge on fruits and vegetables (which isn’t going to make me gain weight I assume, but they make me extremely bloated and sick)

    So, I was wondering, if you have any advices on how to get into a regular routing where I don’t binge or under eat, and would feel good mentally and physically.

    I know this seems to be asking for a lot, so any bits and scraps of good information would be greatly appreciated, thank you so much

  7. says

    Oh! Perfect job!
    Very interesting and useful post.
    I add your interesting blog in my Netvibes page!
    We’ll expect many new interesting posts from you 😉

  8. says

    Hi Lauren!

    I get what you’re saying about Leptin, I learned about that in YOU On A Diet. What I do though, is eat 5 to 6 small meals a day to keep my metabolism up.

    For me (and if one isn’t a sugar addict, then this wouldn’t apply), I’m not able to “cheat” and add in junk food because that sets up a cycle for me where I just want more and more sugar (refined sugar or white flour), and then I get off track with my healthy eating.

    However, if one isn’t addicted to refined sugar and white flour, then maybe they wouldn’t have a problem adding this stuff back in. I wish I could do that in moderation, but it doesn’t work for me…. and it also triggers my emotional eating patterns. I envy you and anyone else who can eat refined sugar and flour in moderation. 😉

  9. Lauren says

    Hi JoLynn

    Cheating doesn’t necessarily mean refined sugar, it just means eat a little more carbohydrates. You can ‘cheat’ by just getting more food in that day and upping your metabolism a little bit, however the way you are doing it is perfect!


  10. Mike says

    Lauren, I have a question for you:
    Right now I’m on a diet where I only eat about 1400-1500 calories a day, so if I were to have a cheat day on Saturday what do you recommend I bring my calories up to (like 2000, 2300, or higher)?

  11. Lauren says

    Hi Mike,

    Ok I’ll answer your question first. Even higher than that would be OK, basically it doesn’t matter. Whatever you put on from that day would be mostly water retention. If you are limiting your carbs a bit just a few more meals with healthy carbs in it. Try and test it out.

    I would have to say thats really not a lot of food. Are you exercising or weight training? When you are dieting, a trap people fall into is not eating enough. Cheat days aren’t really enough when you are dieting that low. Do you strength train? Your body WILL get used to eating more than that, especially if you are exercising, and eventually you will shed fat, but maintain and build muscle. I would like you to check out this article from StrongLifts if you already don’t know it. It’s a blog about weightlifting but if you are exercising this nutrition guide will give you some pointers.

    Cheers, I would like to hear back from you.

  12. Mike says

    Lauren: thanks for the reply and the article, got a little side-tracked reading some other articles on that site.
    I’m not really into gaining insane amounts of muscle at the moment, I’m only looking to get rid of some of the fat on my body and then I’ll decide from there. I do lift weights 2-3 times a week, but I don’t really do anything that intense, and I also go for a jog/walk for about 30-60 minutes every six days of the week.
    A lot of the recommended calorie intake calculators tell me that my daily calorie intake should be 1900-2100 with my given lifestyle, which sounds a bit accurate, and if I cut off 500 from that total then I should be losing 1 pound of fat a week, and I was hoping that little weight lifting sessions might tell my body to keep the muscle and burn the fat instead.
    And another question, when I’m done dieting and such, am I supposed to bring my calorie intake up to the recommended daily calorie intake, and when I’m doing that should I still eat clean for the week and then do eat (cheat day) junk food on Saturday to keep the weight from coming back?

  13. Lauren says

    Glad that you had a good look through Mehdis site, it has some very good information. Incase you didnt read it, check out this post…I think it might be perfect for you.

    sorry to refer you out for info, but Mehdi’s site is really good and has covered these topics in a little more detail than I have.

    Yes weightlifting will help keep your body in check, i.e don’t lose muscle… keep the protein intake up too. If your diet is working now then stick with it, I just feel you could up your calorie intake with a bit more protein, but not put on fat if you are exercising, make your body more efficient.

    To answer your question, if you aren’t dieting anymore, and just eating clean, you don’t need a cheat day, because you will be eating what you need to in order to maintain your weight. The cheat day shouldn’t really be too much junk anyway, just more calories.

    The problem with dieting is the weight will always come back a little before your body adjusts, and then you burn more efficiently and stabilize again. The best thing you could do would be to up your exercise a tiny bit, and start eating more slowly (mostly protein), your body will adjust, and you will burn more fat. Mehdi advocates this a lot, yes, it does take longer, but the results stick, and you can eat a lot more than you could before.

    Cheers…let me know if you have any more questions!

  14. Mike says

    Lauren: Thanks for the quick reply ;D And yeah, I read that article earlier when I was going through his site.

    When you say start eating more slowly, do you mean I should bring it up from 1400 > 1600 > 1800 > 2000? Like, slowly increase my caloric intake?
    I notice that in order to lose a pound of fat I need to eat 3500 calories less each week in order to burn that pound, but if I have a cheat day on every Saturday and bring my caloric intake up a bit, won’t that destroy most of the dieting I’ve done for the week?
    And about the cheat day, if I eat 3000 calories less in a six day period rather than seven, and burn at least 780 a week from doing little exercises, would that still be a healthy way to lose fat? Sort’ve counters the extra calories I eat on Saturday, doesn’t it?

  15. Lauren says

    Yep thats what I mean by slowly, just to get your body used to it. Make sure it’s protein your adding too.

    You said ‘won’t that destroy my diet’…well the point I am trying to make is to up the amount that you CAN eat, which means then being 500 calories in deficit every day will mean you still need more than you do now.

    In all honesty Mike the numbers are confusing me a bit! Everyone is different. The only way you know how your body will respond, is trying things. Perhaps you only need a cheat day once every 2 weeks, especially if you are upping your calorie intake slowly. Try a few things out. But remember, keep the cheat day relatively clean, just add more carbs. If you are upping your calorie intake, test a week without the cheat day and see what happens. It’s not always necessary, or instead, make it simply a cheat meal.

    Be aware, you might put 1kg (don’t know pounds sorry!) back on. This is because carbs store in your body as glycogen and have a lot more water weight, it will come off very quickly, it is NOT fat. Test a few things out Mike regarding your calorie intake and cheat day, over the next month and see how your body responds. I know very little about you and your body and it is hard to say how many calories you actually need.

    Remember it’s hard to count calories you are burning from exercise, I wouldn’t try to count it. If you are resistance/ weight training you will burn a LOT more than you think, and a lot more than from cardio. If you up your resistance you do need to eat more, but mostly a little more protein.

    Sorry I am going around your question a little bit but I still want to encourage you to eat more! For a guy doing some weight training that’s not enough food.

    Am very interested to see how you go, if you want you can always email me.


  16. Mike says

    Hahah, I knew it would confuse you when I was typing it.. hm, I’m starting to think of a different approach here.
    To maintain my weight I need about 2000 a day.. so maybe if I cut off 250 calories from food, and then exercise the other 350 calories off that would bring me to about 1400 ;D That way I could combine exercise and the lower calorie intake so that I’m not exactly always hungry.

  17. Lauren says

    that sounds better mike. Like I said, try a few things and see how your body responds.

    good luck and let me know how you go!

  18. Mike says

    Will do! Thanks for the help, by the way.

    Also, what are some foods that are pretty high in carbohydrates? Preferably junkish or not so casual ones, please. I’ve been eating healthy all week so I might as well get in some junky carbs.

  19. Lauren says

    hmm pizza…lollies…chip…anything you can think of has a lot of carbs, really. BUT it’s not the best mindset to have, simply that you may as well eat junky carbs. It would be better to stay relatively clean and have a big bowl of pasta, or your favourite cereal etc etc. How about have a few slices of pizza, that should cover both cravings. Be careful with cheat days, they can easily get out of hand.

    No problems for the help, I enjoy it.

  20. Mike says

    Mhm, I’ve already got my calorie intake level set for Saturday, I’m just going to hit my recommended maintenance and if I go a 100 over or so it’s not that big of a deal.
    Pizza sounds awesome, maybe a small one from a pizza join here, total pizza is about 1200 or so..

  21. Radovan III says

    Hey, I was wondering, I bought some T3 and Im not sure how to use them properly. I know what it is and what it does to your body. Im just looking for some advice on how to get maximum effect. Any advice would be of great help…

  22. Lauren says

    Radovan I have no idea, I can only advise you against it. It has terrible side effects and there are natural ways to do the same thing.

  23. Radovan III says

    I know about the side effects. I’m not to keen on using it, but I’m gonna give them a try. I finished medical school and I know how to handle these types of problems. I will fill you in on the details as soon as I start with it. Thanks for your concern.

  24. says

    I think this article had some great points. I also think the idea of a “cheat day” without making it a binge day is beneficial beyond the leptin idea.
    Diets often don’t work because we are not going to live that way forever. We cannot realistically cut out every food we love for the rest of our lives. It is unrealistic. So, if you can have a day that you allow yourself some treats, that could help someone stay with their healthy program. I work with clients on this–we figure out ways to have favorite foods with a healthy diet. A healthy, fun way of eating for the rest of their lives. I did find the explanation on the connection to Leptin really interesting. Thanks! Diana
    Diana Fletcher Life Coaching

  25. Laura McElroy says

    So here’s a question. Is it normal, when you start to work out on a regular basis to become more hungry. I have been hungry all day today and I just can’t seem to be full. I have worked out 30-40 minutes 4 days this week and eat many small meals a day and snacks, all healthy. Yes I cheat and have cookies, but I eat pretty well. I have fruits, vegs, complex carbs and what gives?

  26. Lauren says

    Hey Laura,

    Definitely 100& normal. You are burning more energy and increasing your metabolism. Which means your body needs more fuel to adapt and grow. Give it what it needs and you will see good changes. Keep doing what you are doing with your diet but maybe add a bit more protein in to fill you up a bit more.

    Hope that helps!

  27. nim. says

    i’ve been eating carbs from dawn till noon and them eat healthier from noon till bed. as the article says it takes your body half a day to drop in leptin levels. so as the levels are dropping over night when i don’t need energy (and this also helps me to sleep as i have suffered from night terrors) i can then pick up my leptin levels in the morning. and my body never lets me go without breakfast cause it craves the morning toast :) i eat about 5 meals a day. (small bowl) drink normal stuff. (coffee, tea, gree tea, water, orange juice) and snack on; fruit, alpen bars, and for some reason fried eggs. this maybe cause i’m vegetarian? or i’ve discovered how nice they are? idk..

    i just kinda crave eggs now. (lol) so that’s what i do. i’ve lost a whole dress size in almost a month. :) (almost size 12!!) you just have to be sensible and if you can’t not go without that snack then half it, and save the rest for later.

    i try to drink a lot.
    excercise (10 mins) 4 times a week. (pilates and core/strenght)
    eat something every 1/2 hours.
    and walk everywhere. it’s very good for stamina and you get to see a lot more of the world 😀


  28. Maria says

    Hi Lauren,

    I recently had a baby who is almost 4 months old and I breastfeed him. I’m about 155 lbs and looking to get down to about 130 lbs. What would be my ideal calorie intake without affecting my milk supply? I also work out at least 3-5 times a week.

  29. nicole says

    Hi i just wanted to ask whether or not my diet is beneficial even though i have lost 4.5 kg already in a month ,in my diet it is high protein low carb where i eat 3 snacks and 3 meals a day (every three hours) for breakfast i have a peice of bread and a peice of fruit , for lunch i will have a salad +lean meat and for dinner a source of healthy protein lean chicken,tofu ,fish ect .. and as much veggies as i want my diet does not include,pasta,potatoes,bread (except in the morning) or rice ect … however once i have lost the weight i will be able to add more carbs to my diet anyway everytime i eat i feel extremly satisfied i never feel hungry i actually feel full so is my body still going in starvation mode? on a sat or sunday is my free day where i get 2 free meals i basically eat whatever i want on this day however i cant eat as much as i usto as i get full easy now , arnt vegtables carbs ?or do i need bread,pasta ect to avoid this leptin effect please inform me ? in this diet i aslo drink 8 glasses of water a day and do a 30 min + walk

  30. says

    I think losing weight can be positive not just for yourself, but for others around you like family members.Maybe dieting is all about positive thoughts?

  31. says

    Here’s a perfect metaphor: when you want to start a barbecue, you have to light a match first. When you want your body to burn fat, you have to give it a little energy, something to burn first. Fires can’t start themselves, there is always a trigger.

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  33. says

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