For years our society has been bombarded with unrealistic expectations about how we should look. We're also regularly told what we should eat, and that in order to be "healthy," we should go on a diet and lose weight. We are surrounded by diet culture.
As I've mentioned in the past, I previously dieted off and on for decades - prior to doing some internal housekeeping, and eventually becoming a non-diet dietitian who assists clients with making peace with food and their bodies. This post is in no way meant to shame anyone who has ever gone on a diet, is thinking about going on a diet, or is currently on one. My intention is to simply discuss how dieting doesn't work for most people in the long-run, and explore some of the harm that dieting can contribute to in terms of our psychological, emotional, and physical health.
DIETING DOESN'T WORK FOR MOST PEOPLE
Dieting does not produce sustainable weight loss. While there are exceptions, a good number of individuals go on a diet - such as restricting calories, carbohydrates, points, etc. - to change their body size. While dieting does generate short-term weight loss, 95% of the people dieting will gain back the weight that they've shed in 5 years or less. According to the American Journal of Public Health, as long ago as 1992, "...the American National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a consensus statement that dieting is an ineffective method to produce sustained weight loss."
Weight loss through dieting is also a predictor for weight gain. When a group of UCLA scientists explored 31 long-term studies on dieting, they realized that up to 2/3 of the people in the studies gained back more weight than they had originally lost - within a period of 5 years.
Our bodies use different mechanisms to combat starvation. Way back in the day, people survived famine partially through their fat stores. Our bodies still implement a variety of tools in today's world to fight starvation - and do not realize when we're intentionally restricting our food intake. With this in mind, the book, Intuitive Eating, states the following, "Chronic dieting teaches the body to retain more fat when you start eating again," and "slows down the rate of weight loss with each successive attempt to diet." In response to dieting, the body also experiences a decreased metabolism and increased hunger through a reduction in the hormone, leptin. In other words, the body is preserving energy while also trying to generate more eating. Additionally, if someone is chronically restricting his or her food intake, chemical reactions take place in the body to generate intense cravings, followed by overeating - to combat starvation. All of these actions by the body are for survival purposes. These are all reasons why dieting doesn't work.
DIETING CAN BE HARMFUL
If you've been on a diet, you're probably familiar with the emotional roller coaster of stepping onto a scale and being closer to the number that you were aiming for, followed by your weight eventually fluctuating, and then feeling really down afterwards. And as your weight continues to fluctuate, you find yourself thinking more and more about food, exercise, and what the scale is going to tell you next time around. It's no surprise that dieting is associated with feeling unsuccessful, not trusting in your body's internal hunger and fullness cues, and experiencing social anxiety - no matter the size of a person's body.
Dieting is also associated with an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. People who are living with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes.
When we think about the physical harm that dieting can contribute to, it's worth noting that dieting increases the chances of dying prematurely and experiencing worsened cardiovascular health as a result of yo/yo dieting/weight cycling - no matter the size of the body to begin with. Dieting doesn't work and can be harmful.
A review in the Journal of Obesity states, "...we argue that it's unethical to continue to prescribe weight loss to patients as a pathway to health, knowing the associated outcomes - weight regain - (if weight is even lost) and weight cycling - are connected to further stigmatization, poor health, and well-being. The data suggest that a different approach is needed to foster physical health and well-being within our patients and communities."
As a health practitioner, it is my responsibility to "first do no harm." I firmly believe that dieting doesn't work and can be harmful. With this in mind, I am now a non-diet, weight-inclusive dietitian who helps bring the joy back into eating. I assist clients with making peace with food and their bodies, and implementing health-promoting behaviors that feel right to them - without focusing on obtaining a particular number on a scale.
Some of you who are reading this are wanting to find different ways to enhance your health, but might not know what to do next. You can take the step to end the food fight and get off the diet train. You CAN empower your health at any size. ALL bodies are worthy of receiving respect, love, and care. There's a growing number of Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size (HAES) practitioners out there who would be happy to help you - including me.
If you would like to work with me on developing a healthy relationship with food and your body, in addition to empowering your overall wellness, click here to learn more about my private one-on-one sessions.