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Do you know that what percentage of people who lose weight regain it? As many as 80 to 95% of dieters gain back the weight they’ve lost within a period of 1-5 years. So why do we keep engaging in it? Why is the diet industry alive and making billions while dieters are continually under the stress of “failure” to “succeed” in a game that’s rigged against them? In this post, I’ll share why dieting doesn’t work, how diet culture perpetuates dieting, what are the negative side effects of dieting and how to stop dieting and enjoy eating again.
Why dieting doesn’t work
First of all, dieting doesn’t work for numerous reasons. In essence, dieting doesn’t provide long term results because we put stress on our system, and that stress causes an increase in cortisol, a stress-related hormone, which in turn causes us to gain weight. I mean, who feels happy and relaxed when restricting calories and going hungry?
As this research paper explains it: “Weight loss is accompanied by persistent endocrine adaptations that increase appetite and decrease satiety thereby resisting continued weight loss and conspiring against long-term weight maintenance”.
Dieting also doesn’t work because we often take extreme actions for short term gain. Extreme and restrictive diets such as the keto diet, intermittent fasting, and paleo, just to name a few, are very difficult to follow and are mostly guaranteed to fail in the long term. Which can bring more problematic psychological damage to the dieter. It’s worsened by the fact this failure to achieve and maintain substantial weight loss over the long term is commonly attributed to poor adherence on the part of the dieter, thereby potentially further stigmatizing the patient as lacking in willpower, motivation, or fortitude to lose weight. This type of victim blaming is at the heart of toxic diet culture.
What happens to your body when you start dieting?
Your body is not wired for weight loss. Your body is wired for survival. You need energy (calories) in order to move and carry out living functions. When you’re not getting enough energy–through intentional dieting–your body will see this as a threat to survival and will compensate both in a physical and psychological manner. Let’s check it out.
How your body resists weight loss efforts
Lindo Bacon, researcher and author of Body Respect and Health at Every Size (both excellent books), puts it this way: “Your body likes to maintain the status quo and keep your weight relatively stable; this range of stable weight is called your ‘setpoint” ”. What this all means is that our bodies (like a thermostat if you will), like to stay within a genetically programmed weight range.
“This, in turn, leads to the catch-22: Your body wants to maintain the status quo and is stubbornly resistant to change. When you lose body fat, the very loss of fat triggers processes to reclaim it. So losing weight in and of itself is counterproductive to maintaining weight loss. We shouldn’t be too surprised that weight loss is so rarely maintained”.
Most attempts to override this regulatory mechanism are as futile as trying to control your own temperature. I know it’s an unpopular fact, but I think you’ll agree that dieting’s significant failure rate can confirm it.
How your mind resists dieting
Food restriction leads to bingeing behavior. It’s your body’s way of getting the energy it lacks. Ever wonder why certain food cravings are particularly stronger when you’re on a diet? Food deprivation can trigger what is known as rebound eating. This is how it works:
You deprive yourself of a particular food you like (for example, ice cream) for the sake of “dieting”. Then, at some moment when you encounter the “forbidden” food (after “being good” and avoiding it), instead of just enjoying it, a binge may occur, along with the food-conditioned guilt that comes with it. Then the cycle of deprivation and bingeing starts all over again. This paper describes how “dieter’s food cravings were more likely for foods they reported restricting eating”. If this happens to you, know it’s not your fault: it’s diet culture and the diet mentality abstinence-like model at work in our programming.
What is chronic dieting?
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition defines Chronic Dieting Syndrome as individuals who:
- Have a persistent overconcern with body shape and weight
- Restrict their food choices for more than 2 years
- Continually diet to achieve weight loss without success or with success but with weight regain
It may be a surprise that we even consider Chronic Dieting a “syndrome,” since it’s such a culturally acceptable reality. Sadly, as the research paper points out, “Dieting has become the norm—it is more common for a woman to be ‘on a diet’ than not “.
One of the biggest health hazards to stem from chronic dieting is the emergence of weight cycling, or “yo-yo dieting”. You know, you go on a diet, lose weight, stop the diet, regain weight, start the diet again….
Weight cycling poses a dangerous health risk, and as time goes by we have more evidence that weight cycling may result in:
- Increased inflammation, which is a known factor that increases the risk for many chronic diseases
- Insulin resistance
- Poor cardiometabolic health
- ….and other negative health effects
In this next section, let’s explore the negative side effects of dieting to your health and psychological well-being.
What are the side effects of dieting?
Unlike prescription medication, dieting doesn’t come with a package insert of its very real and dangerous side effects. The need to stop dieting and get off that hamster wheel is vital for your physical and mental health. Let’s see how dieting can be hazardous to these areas of your life.
On a physical level, dieting can lead to a slower metabolism in the body. In the face of insufficient energy, the body goes into self preservation or starvation mode as soon as it realizes that it is not getting enough calories. Metabolism will then slow down in order to conserve energy, which means the body will store fat for energy. As I mentioned above: the body is wired for survival.
The body is wired for survival, not weight loss
Nutrient deficiencies can also result from severe diet restrictions. Carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants are the building blocks of life itself. These essential food groups and their absence in the diet can be the cause of numerous deficiency diseases and health problems.
On a psychological level, dieting can cause detrimental mental health harm, in the form of:
- Aggravating a sense of failure
- Lower self esteem
- Increases in stress levels
- Increases in the sense of lack of control
- Heightening social anxiety
- Loss of self trust
- Increasing the risk of eating disorders
What to do when you are tired of dieting?
As you’ve just seen, dieting is a waste of time, energy and well-being. There are many other ways to approach health and happiness that don’t involve your weight. In fact, I highly recommend you read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. One of the main themes of this very enlightening book is how the “myth of beauty enforces normativity, especially for women: in our society, it’s a myth that perpetuates the subjugation of women to men”. Having a certain weight and body shape-through dieting-is a “mechanism of cultural ideology with the power to control women, women who have otherwise been liberated to freely pursue their desires”. Think about that one long and hard. Who or what are you trying to appease through dieting and what can you stand to gain if you actually stop dieting?
Buy it Here: The Beauty Myth
For those who are tired of dieting, the though of stopping might be scary and unfamiliar. However, it’s definitely worth it to gain your health and sanity (contrary to popular belief, you can be healthy at any size. Check out this post right here). There’s no one magic formula to stop dieting. Like any other change, it might be difficult to adjust your way of thinking if you’ve experienced dieting and deprivation for a long time. It also takes constant practice and slow and methodical thinking – at least in the beginning – to remind yourself of these things. Here are some ways you can start your path to ending dieting forever.
Stop dieting, start living
One way you can start out on the non diet journey is by exploring your desire to lose weight, as well as your motivations for wanting to do so. Dig deep and keep in mind how the diet mentality operates in order to see if your motivations are truly your own, or if they were conditioned by diet culture.
Other health promoting goals you can focus on instead of dieting are:
- Take time to get to know what you really want: Diet culture has hammered in the false belief that we need to be certain weight, body size and shape in order to be happy and fulfilled. And that’s an outright lie. Taking time to really connect with yourself can help you gain insight on the things that truly give your life meaning and contribute to your well-being. Activities such as journaling, meditation, and mindful walking can be helpful for self awareness. Check out this article from Psych Central for some great ways to get to know yourself better. “There are so many voices out there telling you who to be, how to act, what to do.” Why not listen to your own for a change?
- Develop more self confidence: This goes hand in hand with the above statement. The more you trust yourself and feel confident in your own skin, the less diet culture and its toxic messages can affect you and your self worth. Start by putting yourself first. This could include scheduling in more time for self care or telling someone “no” when you don’t want to do something. In my opinion, learning to love yourself as you are right now is the most important health related goal you can reach for. Everything else will fall into place.
- Learn to develop a healthy relationship with food: Connecting to yourself also means connecting to your hunger, fullness and eating habits. That’s where intuitive eating comes in handy. Intuitive eating is the opposite of dieting. Did you know we’re actually born intuitive eaters? We are not bombarded with societal messages about body image and food when we’re babies. We’re later conditioned by diet culture to unlearn our natural hunger and satiety cues. Developing a healthy relationship with food and our bodies is at the heart of learning to eat intuitively and stop dieting forever.
- Focus on Habit-Forming Actions: If there’s a specific health goal you want to accomplish (for example, moving your body more, drinking more water, eating more veggies), you can focus on what daily steps you can take to get there. We become what we repeatedly do. Don’t simply think about the outcome you desire, but rather, ask what you must do repeatedly to get there and reach your goal.
- Practice joyful movement: Regular movement is important for both physical and emotional health. But what good is it if it’s just another unpleasant chore or a complete torture? That’s why joyful movement is a gentler alternative to structured exercise. It emphasizes finding pleasure in the ways we move our bodies. Joyful movement asserts that all types of movement are good and valid. Whether its dancing to your favorite song in your living room to doing a triathlon. “No movement is privileged over another; a walk is seen as morally equal to a hard-core spinning session”. It’s also better to stick to long term than a complicated workout routine.
What happens if I stop dieting?
I’ll be frank with you. Depending on how long you’ve been dieting, the road will not likely be smooth. There may be some challenging situations such as:
- Fear of weight gain: Current beauty standards consider weight gain as the end of the world, and the possibility of weight gain can cause real fear. This is where developing radical self love and weight neutrality come into play. It’s not easy, but working with a professional trained in intuitive eating and Health at Every Size can be especially valuable. Here’s the Intuitive Eating Counselors Directory, and the link to the Association for Size Diversity and Health.
- Food binges: This is especially common as a result of the fear that leaving dieting behind can bring. If you begin to restrict food as a result, even in small ways, it can make binges worse. Once again, by following the intuitive eating principles, especially allowing yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods and honoring your hunger cues can help you cope better.
- Difficult emotions may start to emerge: If you’ve been using dieting as way to feel some sort of “control” over a particular area of your life, these difficult emotions may start to surface once you don’t have dieting to turn to. Don’t hesitate to work together with a counselor or a mental health professional who can help you effectively identify and deal with those underlying issues.
Remember to be very patient and compassionate with yourself. Stopping dieting takes time and practice in order to unlearn those toxic cultural messages that we are programmed with in Western society. If you’re having trouble eating more intuitively and your issues around dieting feel particularly challenging, consider seeking out a professional who can help you and guide you and give you the support you need.
And now I’d love to know your thoughts. Do you think you can benefit if you ditched dieting? What challenges do you think get in the way of letting go of the diet mentality? What tactics do you think could be helpful to learn to stop dieting? Let me know below in the comments section.
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…