Does anyone else see the issue with dieting? If diets are so great, why do we have to keep doing them time and time again? Is this a clue that maybe they aren’t working? That maybe they’re failing us?
Let’s take a minute for some personal reflection. Have you been on a diet before? How about more than one diet? My guess is that most of you answered yes to both of those questions. Including me. But a few years ago, I gave up on diets after seeing them fail time and time again. That’s when I became a non-diet dietitian.
Dieting is a multi-billion-dollar industry, with a surplus of money available to pour into marketing their products and convincing you that you NEED them. They market the idea that by using their product, you’ll have a smaller clothing size, a lower number on the scale, a thinner waist, and you’ll be happier. What we’re often left with are these quick-fix, short-term promises with little to no plan for sustainability.
One thing you won’t hear in a weight-loss ad is the negative consequences of dieting. Dieting puts our bodies in a state of deprivation1. When we don’t eat enough food from all food groups, our bodies begin to crave the nutrition they need. On a diet, we let our bodies get to the point that they are so hungry, they are forced to get nutrition through any means necessary. Oftentimes, this may be perceived as a binge; we may even feel as though we have lost control. And after that happens, we feel guilt and shame. We think, “I’m a failure.” We try to restrict ourselves even more, but all this leads to is an endless cycle of deprivation and overeating. How can we expect our bodies to trust us after that?
The constant ups and downs of dieting can damage our metabolism, too. If we under-eat or suddenly start an intense exercise regimen, our metabolism will slow down to try to compensate for the decrease in available calories2. If we overeat, our metabolism speeds up to burn off the extra calories. The truth of the matter is that everyone has a “set point weight” that is unique to them. This is the body’s natural weight. In fact, the body has many “set points” that it works hard to maintain to keep us healthy. The set point temperature of our body, 37 degrees Celsius, is one example. If we get sick and our temperature goes above or below 37 degrees, special mechanisms in our body kick in to get things back to the set point3.
Let’s get back to the idea of set point weight. What does that mean, exactly? And how does it happen? Research has shown that an individual’s set point weight range is determined by genetics – the weight range our body seems to always want to return to depends on our bone structure, metabolism, musculature, and much more. Trying to keep our body below this natural set point will lead to an increase in hunger signals. Our body is attempting to get back to where it wants to be! When we understand that we each have our own set point weight, it’s easier to see why dieting has such a low success rate. In fact, research has suggested that dieting often leads to weight gain in the long run, not weight loss4. In one study, within five years of starting a diet, between 33-66% of participants weighed more than they had before the diet began5. Yet almost everyone starts a diet with the ultimate goal of weight loss. Is this starting to sound a little backwards?
So, what if we stopped counting? The points, the macros, the grams of sugar? What if we just followed our gut and did what our body wanted us to do? To nourish the mind, nourish the body, nourish the soul? What does that look like for you? Does it look like starting a new diet every 3 months, every 6 months, every Monday, every January? Or does it just look like you living your life, without the guilt of eating, without the stress of “messing up” or “cheating”?
What if we took away the strict rules, the “dos” and “don’ts,” and transitioned to a more flexible approach? We could have the freedom to choose foods from all food groups, and even enjoy occasional treats without any guilt. We could change the way we think and feel about food and about our bodies.
And that’s why, as a dietitian, I don’t say diet.
- Fleming, K. (2018). Why diets do not work. In Centre for Clinical Interventions. Retrieved from www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Why%20Diets%20Do%20Not%20Work%2025-01-18.pdf
- Centre for Clinical Interventions (2018). Set point theory. In Centre for Clinical Interventions. Retrieved from http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Set%20Point%20Theory%2025-01-18.pdf
- Ciliska, D. (1992) Set point: what your body is trying to tell you. In National Eating Disorder Information Centre. Retrieved from http://nedic.ca/set-point-what-your-body-trying-tell-you
- NEDIC (2014). Statistics. In National Eating Disorder Information Centre. Retrieved from http://nedic.ca/know-facts/statistics
- Mann, T., Tomiyama, A. J., Westling, E., Lew, A., Samuels, B., & Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist, 62(3), 220-233. doi 10.1037/0003-066X.62.3.220.
Contributor: Natasha Barnes