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Thinking about starting a diet? First, check-the-facts: Diets don't work

We are heading into the new year and that means that our media is inundated with diet and weight loss recommendations, tips, and success stories all meant to help you create the “new, thinner, happier, and all-around better version of you.” What the $70 billion dollar diet industry doesn’t tell you is that diets don’t work in the long-term; in fact, diets do not result in long term weight loss and they are not healthy, in fact, they are detrimental to our health. 

Before we go further, I think it’s important to address a couple of things:

1) In addressing this myth, I want to be very clear - weight loss and dieting is not the key to health. I do not want to feed into diet culture by inadvertently reinforcing the diet industry’s anthem of ‘weight loss the ultimate goal.’  What I’m doing here is dismantling the false logic and false evidence that the diet industry touts.

2) It’s important to define what I mean by the word “diet,” as it has multiple meanings. In this blog, I am referring to diet as “a reduction of caloric intake, via restricting food portions or certain kinds of food with a goal to lose weight." Terms like “lifestyle change,” “eating healthy, “eating right and exercising,” and “clean eating,” are all code words for “diet.”

Why diets don't work:

Diets are temporary by nature. Each fad diet touts its own unoriginal tagline, something along the lines of, “lose _____ pounds in ___ weeks,” “…a never before seen weight loss program,” or “(diet name) will get you the weight loss results you’ve always dreamt of.” These examples could go on and on. Reading between the lines, these messages really tell us that these diets are not sustainable. The fact is, as soon as you begin eating normally again, your body will gain back the weight that was lost or, as research has shown, your body will even add a few extra pounds on top of that to protect against future restriction periods.

Diets implement the ‘yo-yo’ effect, both physically and emotionally. Deprivation of nutrients, which is the case in most fad diets, may lead to a "diet-overeat" or "diet-binge" cycle. Diets are not sustainable because your body will try to get its nutritional needs met by reminding you that you are hungry – headaches, a growling stomach, obsessive thoughts about food – this is your body communicating it needs more nutrients to function properly. 

This often leads to: Depression, fatigue, anxiety, increased rigidity regarding ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, loss of trust in self with food, feeling ‘undeserving’ of food, social isolation or withdraw, and guilt around eating.

All this really sucks the fun out of eating and leads to an emotional "yo-yo" cycle that looks something like this: Diet (restriction) - initial relief or feelings of accomplishment - craving - anxiety - eating of "bad" or "off-limits" food - guilt - attempt to return to diet. We can see from this cycle that dieting creates a unhealthy relationship with food. In other words, it leads to disordered eating.

Economically, this ‘yo-yo’ effect is what makes the diet $70 billion dollar dieting industry so successful — they’re counting on individuals’ ‘personal failures,’ so they can sell the next big fad diet or keep you coming back for more (i.e., keeping you stuck in the yo-yo diet cycle).

Your body learns and adapts to diets. Your body doesn’t want to starve, so it will fight against restrictive diets by slowing your metabolism AKA making it harder to lose weight. This is also why you may gain more weight than you lost when you begin to eat normally again. So, even if the goal is to lose weight (that’s the diet culture’s message), dieting fails at this goal.

If these points, all of which are backed by research, aren’t convincing enough, here are some statistics about dieting:

  • Dieting for weight loss is often associated with weight gain, due to the increased incidence of binge-eating. (Field, et al., 2003)

  • 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years. (Grodstein, 1996)

  • 35% of "normal dieters" progress to pathological dieting (i.e., disordered eating patterns). Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders. (Shisslak & Crago, 1995)

  • Adolescent girls who diet are at 324% (yes, 324%... that is not a typo) greater risk for obesity than those who do not diet. (Stice et al., 1999)

HappyEating

The message I want to get across is this: Your body knows what it needs – we are all born with the capability to eat intuitively; however, after dieting, it may take work to learn how to listen to your body again.

I think the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), says it best: “Eat what you want, when you are truly hungry.  Stop when you’re full.  And eat exactly what appeals to you.  Do this instead of any diet, and you’re likely to maintain a healthy weight and avoid eating disorders.”  To read more about listening to your body, click on the NEDA article here.

A great book I recommend reading on this subject is "Intuitive Eating" by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD.  She also has this informative video titled, “Warning: Dieting Causes Weight Gain.”

Interested in more recommended readings? Check out my Library.

- Chelsea

References

Field, A. E., Austin, S. B., Taylor, C. B., Malpeis, S., Rosner, B., Rockett, H. R., Gillman, M. W. & Colditz, G. A. (2003). Relation between dieting and weight change among preadolescents and adolescents. Pediatrics, 112(4), 900-906,

Grodstein, F., Levine, R., Spencer, T., Colditz, G. A., &Stampfer, M. J. (1996). Three-year follow-up of participants in a commercial weight loss program: Can you keep it off? Archives of Internal Medicine 156(12), 1302.

Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., & Estes, L.S. (1995). The spectrum of eating disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18 (3), 209-219.

Stice, Cameron, R. P., Killen, J. D., Hayward, C. & Taylor, C. B. (1999). Naturalistic weight-reduction efforts prospectively predict growth in relative weight and onset of obesity among female adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67, 967-974.

Last revised: March 1, 2019 by Chelsea Fielder-Jenks, MA, LPC