Diets don’t work. If they did – if everyone lost weight and kept it off on their first diet attempt – the diet industry would be out of business by now. Instead, they are raking in $72 billion per year from people who have bought in to their false promises.
And the thing is, even the purveyors of diets know diets don’t work. That’s why they are always shape shifting and name changing. Low fat to low carb. Weight loss to wellness. They have to rebrand to keep you coming back.
So what exactly is a diet? A diet is any plan, protocol, regimen, system, lifestyle or product that dictates what, when and how much you can eat with the goal of “health” or weight loss in mind. It’s also any plan, protocol, regimen, system, lifestyle or product that negatively affects your mental health by making you feel guilty, ashamed, obsessed, or anxious about your food choices or body size.
And that last one is an important one! Eating is your God-given right. It’s how you survive and how every human being before you has survived. It’s also how you thrive. An underfed body will struggle to perform even the most basic functions. Therefore, you should never be made to feel guilty for feeding your body – no matter the type of food, no matter the quantity of food, and certainly regardless of your body size or how much exercise you’re doing. And you shouldn’t be made to fear something as essential as eating either.
Diets go by common names, like Weight Watchers or Whole 30, but don’t let your lack of participation in brand name diets fool you. If you are engaging in any of the following behaviors, you are dieting:
- Intermittent fasting or non-religious fasting
- Time-restricted eating
- Cleansing or detoxing
- Restricting your food intake
- Depriving yourself of foods you enjoy
- Counting calories, fat, macros, sugar or carbs
- Portion control
- Clean eating
- Taking diet pills
- Drinking weight loss shakes or teas
- Eating diet foods or foods labeled as “low calorie” to lose weight
- Moralizing eating by labeling foods or your consumption of foods as “good” or “bad”
- Adhering to strict food rules about what you can and can’t eat
- Substituting for seemingly “healthier” options instead of honoring your cravings
- Avoiding or eliminating specific foods, like sugar or gluten, based on fear of those foods
- Compensating for your food intake by skipping meals or forgoing snacks
- Earning food via exercise
To be clear, if you have a diagnosed food allergy or sensitivity, feel free to limit your intake or avoid that food altogether. If you’re allergic to nuts, avoid nuts. If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease by a doctor (Note: Celiac cannot be self-diagnosed. It requires a blood test.), then by all means go gluten-free. Otherwise, there really is no need to avoid or restrict these foods.
When choosing to eat or not eat something, it’s important to consider your motives and the overall effect on your mental and physical wellbeing. For example, there is nothing inherently wrong with eating plant-based foods. They certainly have heath benefits and are good for the environment. However, if you are choosing to eat a plant-based diet to lose weight, or because someone on the internet told you it would prevent or cure an illness, or because you have anxiety about animal products, I’d invite you to reconsider that choice.
Food choices made purely out of fear are not ultimately healthy choices.
When you’re feeling anxious about your health or your body, diets provide the illusion of control you so desperately seek. That’s what makes them so seductive. They teach you, both subtly and not so subtly, that your body can’t be trusted. They teach you it’s your job to wrangle your body into submission. They teach you that food is the enemy. They teach you that you are ultimately in control of your health (News flash: you’re not! Genetics and social determinants of health play a bigger role than food choices alone.) And they attempt to teach you how to do your body’s job for it, as if it doesn’t know how or isn’t capable on its own. All lies.
Take, for instance, those increasingly popular multi-day detox diets. When you do a detox, all you’re doing is depriving yourself of calories, as most detox diets are liquid based. You aren’t actually removing toxins from your body because your body already does that every day without your assistance. You have built-in, no-cost detoxifiers called your liver and kidneys.
Essentially, you’re spending all kinds of time and money starving (not detoxing) yourself to lose a few pounds that you will inevitably gain back, when you could have been doing literally anything else with your time and money instead, including eating foods that you actually enjoy.
Of course, when it all goes south, when the diet fails to live up to its claims, when you regain the weight or when you don’t get the promised results, the diet or person selling the diet, like an abusive partner, would have you believe it’s your own fault. When you resume eating normally after the detox and your body does its job of restoring your weight to keep you alive, diet culture blames you for not having the willpower to continue starving yourself. It’s completely ludicrous!
Let me ask you, would you go to the store and buy a dishwasher if the salesperson said it only worked 5% of the time? Probably not.
But let’s say the salesperson didn’t tell you about the faulty dishwasher. Let’s say they promised it would clean your dishes better than any dishwasher you had ever previously owned. So, you buy the dishwasher and take it home, only to quickly discover it’s not living up to the hype. Your dishes come out dirty 95% of the time.
At that point, would you blame yourself because the dishwasher wasn’t doing its job? Of course, not! You would blame the manufacturer and/or the salesperson, right?
Here’s what we know about dieting: 95% of people who lose weight on a diet will regain all of the weight (and often more) within a few years. Meaning, diets have a 5% long-term success rate. And there is a very good reason you regain the weight, a reason that has nothing to do with willpower or discipline.
You see, the body perceives dieting as famine – something that could potentially kill you. So, after a diet or even during a diet attempt, the body quickly works to restore your weight to keep you alive. If you find yourself gaining even more weight than what you had originally lost, it’s because your body is storing extra fat in case “the famine” happens again.
Your weight regain is your body doing what it is biologically programmed to do: protect you. This is not a bad thing. It may feel like a bad thing because of weight stigma and our cultural obsession with being thin. But, I can assure you, if you were in a real famine and had very limited or no access to food, you’d be thanking your body for keeping you alive.
Sadly, when diets don’t work, we blame ourselves and even punish our bodies with more extreme dieting. We assume, because we are often told this explicitly, the problem is our lack of discipline. We think we must have not tried hard enough and we just need to try again, or try a new diet altogether because maybe we picked the wrong one. Regardless of the reason, we feel we are to blame, so we jump back on the hamster wheel of dieting and run our bodies into the ground.
Again, the diet industry knows this. Take this direct quote from the Companion Guide pamphlet for alli (orlistat), a popular diet pill, “It’s common to regain a few pounds after stopping the alli capsules…If you start to regain weight after you stop taking orlistat, you may need to start taking orlistat again along with your diet and exercise program. For many people, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is a lifelong challenge.”
Do you see the irony? The people who profit off of diets know maintaining long-term weight loss is “a lifelong challenge” for the majority of people; that’s how they make their money. They keep you coming back again and again and again. You lose the weight. You stop the diet. You gain the weight back. You start the diet again, and on and on – all in the name of “health.”
Let me be clear: diets are not about health. Period. Currently, there is no safe or sustainable way to lose weight. In fact, diets often lead to poorer physical and mental health outcomes.
Weight cycling – the inevitable cycle of losing and regaining weight when dieting – can be detrimental to your health. It’s actually far healthier to remain at a higher weight than it is to ride the diet roller coaster, as there is currently no data to support the idea that higher body mass index (BMI) causes poorer health. On the other hand, there is a large body of evidence linking weight cycling, also referred to as “yo-yo dieting,” to increased risk of overall mortality, hypertension, binge eating, emotional distress, gallstone attacks, muscle tissue loss and morbidity related to heart disease.
Diets are also well-know precursors to eating disorders – the deadliest of all mental illnesses. This is not surprising, considering weight regain is hard to avoid without engaging in disordered behaviors such as under-eating or over-exercising. Unfortunately, these behaviors are normalized and even praised in our diet-obsessed culture, making it difficult for people to recognize or admit they might have a problem.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “preoccupation with weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, and dieting” is a common symptom of eating disorders. Diets in and of themselves can create or exacerbate this preoccupation, especially with their propensity to have people track every pound, point, calorie or carb. Maintaining “an excessive, rigid exercise regime – despite weather, fatigue, illness, or injury” is another eating disorder symptom, which is only fueled by the dangerous diet culture rhetoric that food must be earned via exercise.
Listen, pleasurable exercise is healthy. However, when exercise becomes a compulsory or compensatory behavior, it is no longer a healthy choice. If the thought of missing a workout causes you anxiety, your relationship with exercise needs to be re-examined. If your primary objective when moving your body is to burn calories you’ve already eaten or to earn calories for your next meal, the healthiest thing you can do is take a break from exercise until you can make peace with food and your body.
Remember, you are always allowed to eat to your heart’s content, regardless of the amount of movement you’ve done on any given day.
So, what am I ultimately suggesting with all of this? The answer is simple, although, not easy: stop all dieting behaviors. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be posting about ditching dieting altogether because I know how challenging this can be, especially if you’ve been dieting most of your life.
I’ll be sharing my own story of leaving dieting behind as well as resources that have helped me on this journey. Plus, we’ll be learning together how to eat without rules and restriction, and why weight loss is not the panacea we’ve been lead to believe. I’d recommend subscribing to my newsletter so you don’t miss any of the upcoming blog posts.
In the meantime, I invite you to revisit the list of dieting behaviors at the beginning of this post. Think about the ones you have engaged in or are currently engaging in, and get really honest with yourself. Ask yourself if these behaviors are actually serving you.
Because if these dieting behaviors are only making you more stressed, obsessed, anxious, or irritable, they aren’t serving you. If they are wasting your time and money, they aren’t serving you. If they are making false promises in the name of “health,” they aren’t serving you. If they are causing you to weight-cycle, they aren’t serving you. If they make you feel bad about your body or feel guilty for eating things you enjoy, they definitely aren’t serving you. And, in that case, you may want to consider coming on this journey with me and leaving dieting behind for good.
If you or someone you love is struggling with disordered eating, please reach out for help by calling the NEDA Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.