Here is the science behind why diets don’t work and things you can think about instead of dieting.
I’ve just started reading Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison, a new book that came out this year. It’s been fascinating so far because it goes into the history of dieting.
The book will continue to break down why diets don’t work and food restriction goes against what our bodies are wired to do. It also greatly touches on weight stigma, what we know about weight stigma, and how that can be damaging to health in and of itself.
It’s been a fascinating read so far and one that I recommend to anyone who is either caught in the trap of dieting or trying to find a way out of it.
So, I thought today I would touch on why diets don’t work.
Diets Come to An End
The very nature of a diet has a start and end point, 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.
Think back to the last time you embarked on a diet, or even 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 (1).
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).
The diets fail you, not the other way around. Read on to learn more about how to stop yo yo dieting.
Dieting Affects More Than Your Relationship with Food
This is a BIG one, and the premise of My Ebook, How to Learn To Honor Your Hunger Again. 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.
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.
Dieting affects our overall well being. It affects mental health and physical health (more on that below).
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
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 foods you “shouldn’t” eat. It becomes easy to obsess about the what and the when.
There is a hyperfocus around food because you’re not getting enough 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?
There’s a reason for that. 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 (3).
Cortisol is actually linked to:
- weight gain
- increased food intake
This 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 (4).
Again, it’s not you. It’s the diet.
Furthermore, people who engage in extreme restriction (cutting out whole food groups and sticking to intense diets for long periods) are are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than non-dieters.
Diets Don’t Consider Your Internal Needs: They 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 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 foods 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
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.
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.
Dieting Actually 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.
So, What Should You Do Instead of Dieting?
The whole premise of intuitive eating is to learn to get back in touch with your innate cues and body signals, everything diet culture takes away from you.
I have a post with intuitive eating tips that talks about how to eat intuitively for starters. Intuitive eating is not a diet, despite what the culture may make it out to be.
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 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.
This post is getting long, so I think it warrants a future post about how to stop dieting and eat normally and how to start intuitive eating.
- 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 stronglydoes 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
What questions do you have below?
What else did I miss about why dieting doesn’t work?