The science behind why diets don’t work is clear. There are things you can do to change your unhealthy relationship with food and improve your health and well being and understand why most fad diets fail.
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Do you have a love hate relationship with food? What about with your body?
Let’s talk a little about that today along with the disadvantages of dieting and specifically, why diets don’t work.
It’s no secret I’m against people purposefully restricting their food.
We’re going to talk about why diets don’t work.
Most Fad Diets Fail Because..
Most fad diets fail because…. well so many reasons!
Motivation, not being pleasurable or maintainable, loss of energy and so many more. We’re going to do a deep dive into these today!
You may be wondering, do fad diets work?, and innocently hoping they do.
However, let’s discuss why diets don’t work.
Think back to the last time you embarked on a diet, or even the wellness diet, a diet in disguise.
Did it work? Did you maintain weight loss, or gain it all back?
Maybe you gained it back and then some. That’s actually completely normal, as in the majority of people gain the weight back.
If you look at studies beyond the year mark or two (which are rare), that’s when people start regaining the weight.
This is an important distinction.
Weight cycling, the repetitive pattern of weight gain and weight loss (also known as “yo-yo dieting”, is actually more damaging to our health (2).
Meaning, if you go on and off the diet bandwagon over and over to gain and re-gain the weight, you’re actually doing yourself a disfavor.
This is one, of many, problems with fad diets.
The diets failed you, not the other way around.
Diets Come to An End
Why do most diets fail? Well, the very nature of a diet has a start and end point.
This is true whether it’s a temporary hyperfocus on food before a wedding, before a conference, before the school year, etc. Fill in the blank.
People understand they are temporary and not sustainable. If they were sustainable, we’d be able to follow them forever and be happy.
And let’s be honest – no one is happy on a diet. It’s typically a miserable, isolating experience that affects more than just your relationship with food.
So, what can you do instead of fall into toxic diet culture?
Dieting Affects More Than Your Relationship with Food
Do you know how to differentiate between physical vs. emotional hunger?
Consider how your social life changes on a diet.
Perhaps you can’t eat at the same establishments, or going out with friends for appetizers and cocktails gets a little harder.
Changing your unhealthy relationship with food takes time, and intuitive eating is the way there.
Grab Our Intuitive Eating Guide to Help You Achieve Food Freedom!
Here’s an example of diets at work.
Perhaps you think twice about going to your niece’s birthday party because you know cake is your kryptonite and you can’t say no to it.
How much mental energy are you spending on deciding whether or not to go to the party?
Dieting affects our overall well-being.
It affects mental health and physical health (more on that below), and can actually cause more gut issues since your body adapts to having less food and digestion.
Furthermore, the act of dieting takes up so.much.mental.energy.
It puts you in a constant battle with your body for not being “good enough” or measuring up to diet culture’s unrealistic expectations.
Diets Create a Hyperfocus and Obsession Around Food
Here’s another reason that diets dont work long term – they make you obsessed with food.
Not only does dieting take the pleasure and enjoyment out of the food experience because it’s so rigid, but it creates an obsession around food.
Foods are deemed “good” or “bad.” There are foods you can eat and those you can’t – which often lead to feeling guilty after eating.
This hyperfocus around food happens because you’re not getting enough fuel, so your body fixates on what it wants and needs.
This lights up reward centers in the brain.
If you’ve been on a diet or are trying to restrict food (or follow “keto” or “low carb”), have you found yourself on Pinterest just staring at images of food? Or drooling over food photography in food magazines?
This is one reason low carb diets don’t work and I never promote a low carb diet.
Our hormones kick in to make you want food more, and to make the food taste better.
Your body and brain know you need more fuel and this is the one way they know how to manifest that.
Dieting also increases another hormone called cortisol, our stress hormone.
Our body has a natural rhythm for cortisol, but when it is raised for all of these other reasons, related to dieting, this is bad.
Cortisol is actually linked to:
- weight gain
- increased food intake
A study published in the journal Obesity (a problem in and of itself), talks about the increase in appetite that happens when food is restricted and discusses why long term maintenance of a smaller body size and weight is so difficult.
Again, it’s not you. It’s the diet. Restrictive diets don’ twork.
Furthermore, people who engage in extreme restriction (cutting out whole food groups and sticking to intense diets for long periods) are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than non-dieters.
Diets Are Based on External Rules
Diets don’t teach you lifestyle habits. They teach you external rules to live by, rather than encouraging you to check in with yourself.
Rather than encouraging you to follow your innate hunger and fullness cues and signals, they encourage following strict rules that may include eating when you’re not even hungry and stopping before you reach fullness and satiety.
But, what dieting is really doing is increasing ghrelin, your hunger hormone, because your body is focused on survival. Yet, these external rules tell you not to listen to this hunger.
So, eventually, your body shuts down and stops giving you the hunger signal altogether.
Dieting has taken you completely out of your body and ruined any intuitive nature you could have of listening to your body.
This can be repaired but it does take time.
All of this obsessing takes you away from the intuitive nature of your body. Instead of listening to your body, you’re listening to external food rules set by who knows who?!
- Who knows how big of a portion size you need?
- Who is to say that you should stick to this many calories a day?
- Why should you be eating the same amount as the person next to you?
- What does diet culture know about your stress, your biological needs, your exercise, your cravings, your body?
Diets Don’t Take Individual Differences Into Consideration
Another reason fad diets don’t work – We all have different needs, no matter what diet culture tells us.
As individuals, we all have a different genetic makeup. We work differently, we exercise differently, we sleep differently. And yes, we also all eat differently.
The wellness culture forgets to talk about this piece.
There is no way there could be a blanket recommendation or “plan” that could work for all of us and provide the same results. It’s preposterous.
Plus, can we consider that dieting is a 67 billion dollar industry? Not only is it failing you, but it’s taking a good chunk of your disposable income while doing so.
Diets Can Lead to Nutritional Deficiencies and Even Malnutrition
A 1,200 calorie a day meal plan isn’t going to benefit anyone, except maybe my toddler because that’s the amount of food she needs in a day.
A grown adult needs much more. Plus, 1,200 calories can’t provide all the nutrients you need. Fad diet statistics won’t tell you that, but scientific knowledge of the body will.
Whether you are skipping out on food groups entirely, or just greatly reducing the amount of food you take in, there is usually a mismatch in what your body needs and what you’re actually giving it.
And just relying on supplements and additional vitamins and nutrients isn’t the answer.
Many of us know dieting isn’t doing us any good, as some of the most common google searches are, “how to lose weight fast without dieting,” or “how to lose weight without exercise or diet.”
But, what we’re still missing is the fact that we don’t have an evidenced-based way to promote that and what we really need is body acceptance and understanding that health is more than what we weigh.
The problems with dieting are extensive.
Dieting Slows Your Metabolism
Dieting makes your metabolism more efficient, meaning it burns less calories. It makes sense because you’re taking in less energy overall, so your body adapts to using less energy as well.
As you can guess, having a slower metabolism actually makes it harder to lose weight and easier to gain weight. This is why so many diets fail (you don’t fail, the diets do)!
The biological response to dieting is not what the fad diets tell you or what culture tells you.
- Consider the Biggest Loser Study, published in 2016. This study followed participants of The Biggest Loser show and tested their metabolisms (through their resting metabolic rate) both after the show and then again six years later (5).
- Six years after dieting, the mean decrease in metabolism for 14 of these participants was nearly 500 calories a day. Meaning, their metabolisms burned 500 calories a day LESS than before they started dieting.
Imagine having to eat 500 calories less a day for the rest of your life to maintain your weight?
Furthermore, the participants with the greatest weight loss at the end of the competition also experienced the greatest slowing of RMR at that time.
This is how the body works, but diet culture doesn’t tell us this.
Why is Dieting Bad?
Would you ever go to a surgeon that has a 4-5% success rate on surgeries? No, you wouldn’t!
Yet, every year, billions of people buy into the diet industry, looking for a quick fix. The dangers of diets often aren’t disclosed.
As the research states, diets are hard, which is why diets fail.
- slowed metabolism
- hyperfocus around food
- loss of hunger and fullness cues
- low energy
- mental health toll
- weight gain and re-gain
- gut issues and dysbiosis
How to Stop Dieting
Maybe this is the year you make a non-diet wellness resolution.
The whole premise of the intuitive eating principles are to learn to get back in touch with your innate cues and body signals, everything diet culture takes away from you.
First, you want to learn to reject the diet mentality and give yourself permission to be angry at everything dieting has taken away from you.
Here are some great starting points for learning how to stop yo yo dieting.
- Intuitive eating is not a diet, despite what the culture may make it out to be. Try these tips on intuitive eating for beginners.
- Intuitive eating is all about how to have a healthy relationship with food, not about how to lose weight without dieting. You learn to challenge the food police.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch have done a fantastic job in creating the 10 principles of intuitive eating and explaining a concept so “natural.” They just published an updated 4th edition of their book.
- I also highly suggest the intuitive eating workbook, which shares practical worksheets and examples.
- Another thing to check out if you’re sick of dieting is the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement. While some people mistakenly call it “Healthy at Any Size,” what it’s really focused on is supporting people of all sizes in addressing health directly by adopting healthy behaviors and finding compassionate ways to take care of themselves.
- Mann, T., Tomiyama, A. J., Westling, E., Lew, A. M., Samuels, B., and Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments – Diets are not the answer. Psychol.62, 220–233. doi: 10.1037/0003-066x.62.3.220
- Strohacker, Kelley, Carpenter, Katie, McFarlin, Brian. (2009). Consequences of Weight Cycling: An Increase in Disease Risk? Intl Jour of Exercise Science. 2(#):191-201. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4241770/
- Tomiyama AJ, Mann T, Vinas D, Hunger JM, Dejager J, Taylor SE. Low calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosom Med. (2010) 72:357–64. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c
- Polidori D, Sanghvi A, Seeley RJ, Hall KD. How strongly does appetite counter weight loss? Quantification of the feedback control of human energy intake. 2016 Nov;24(11):2289–95. doi: 10.1002/oby.21653.
- Fotherfill Erin, et al. Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after The Biggest Loser competition. Obesity: A Research Journal. 2016 May;24(8):1612-1619. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.21538