I’ve said it once, & I will say it 1,000 times again until my friends, family, & future clients understand: Dieting doesn’t work.
This isn’t a popular opinion. The diet industry is a billion dollar industry, & it has an extremely powerful influence on the way that you and I make decisions about what we eat each day.
The diet industry builds it’s revenue on the premise that we cannot trust our bodies to tell us what our body needs. It determines when we eat, what we should eat, why we should eat it, and how we can lose weight in the quickest & easiest way. It promises us that if we just follow the right rules, that we will become more fit, loved, and acceptable in the eyes of the world around us.
If diets actually worked, then we wouldn’t be in a constant cycle of dieting & restricting food, “over-doing it”, falling off the band wagon for a few days, & eventually make plans to try a different fad diet.
Unfortunately, many medical professionals, including primary care physicians & even registered dietitians often promote dieting out of personal gain (to keep clients) or pure ignorance. It’s time to shed some much needed light on the subject.
Here is what EVIDENCE-BASED research tells us about dieting:
- Dieting is linked with weight gain, and obesity.¹
- Dieting can lead to binge-eating.²
- Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source. To restrict carbohydrates is to deprive our brains of the fuel that it needs to think, learn, and grow.³
- Food restriction can cause a number of cognitive impairments, such as the inability to concentrate and a preoccupation with food.4
A couple of years ago I became very good at dieting and losing weight. So good, in fact, that I developed anorexia. The diet industry tells you that if you want to lose weight, that you should cut out certain food groups, (bread, sugar, sweets, fats, processed foods, etc.) so I did just that. I cut out gluten, dairy, most processed food, and desserts. I compromised by body and health in exchange for the safety, security, and peace that my eating disorder gave me. I despised food yet obsessed over it for what seemed like every minute of the day. It got to the point where I felt guilty for simply eating anything, despite having the knowledge that if I only laid in bed for a day, that my body would still need 1,300+ just to ensure that my body and brain would function properly.
Sure, if we want to lose weight, restricting food will eventually help us do just that, at least for a brief period of time. However, the consequences of doing so can be detrimental to our health. For most people, dieting leads to either leads to weight gain or disordered eating patterns, actually harming our bodies .
When I started restricting food, my body responded in a way that it tried to protect me. My metabolism slowed down, & I was able to survive on a smaller amount of food each day. As my dietitian told me, this was my body’s way of “taking some of the pain out of starvation.” I didn’t have a period because my body sensed that it wasn’t safe for me to have a child; I wasn’t properly nourished. I couldn’t sleep at night because my stomach was telling me that I needed a snack, or another meal for that matter. My anxiety and depression peaked at an all time high as a result of food restriction and over exercise. My heart rate dropped into the low 40s. My family has spent thousands of dollars in efforts to reverse what could have been prevented in the first place. The recovery process was very painful physically because my body wasn’t used to a normal amount of food.
I’ve talked about this in previous posts, but I think it’s worth talking about again.
The diet industry doesn’t tell us that we all have a biological set point, the natural weight that our body prefers to be at when it is healthy, without restricting food or exercising. The actual range has little to no importance. Everyone is different, & that’s okay. When we are outside of this range, our bodies start sending signals that something is wrong, such as the things that I listed above (lack of period, lower heart rate, lower basil metabolic rate, mental health issues). Although I did lose weight & met criteria for anorexia, I can’t stress enough to you that eating disorders have absolutely nothing to do with weight or size. They are psychological disorders with a food/nutritional component. Despite losing some weight, at my worst place in recovery I was still within a healthy BMI range for my height. BMI doesn’t take into account bioindividuality. It doesn’t know the difference between muscle and fat, & it’s not always a predictor of good health, as in my case. My BMI was healthy, but my body was slowly wasting away.
Most people have had an unhealthy relationship with life at some point in his or her life, whether it be chronic dieting, binge-eating, over-eating, under-eating, or anything in between. I would place an obsession with “clean eating”, also known as orthorexia, in this category.5 However, food isn’t the problem; the problem occurs when we elevate food to a level in which it was never meant to function. God gave us food to nourish our bodies and enjoy meals with other people. Food becomes a god, a way to strive for “cleanliness” and “perfection”; morality through the diet. Food isn’t meant to fix our feelings of anxiety, loneliness, or depression. We all know that the box of cookies only provides temporary relief to pain or simple satisfaction; at the end of it, we feel worse off than before we started. What we need more than anything is some way to enter into a balanced, healthy relationship with food.
To go on a diet is to put ourselves in danger. Dieting is damaging when it deprives us physically, mentally, psychologically, and emotionally, and only leaves us craving more. It’s time to ditch the dieting & focus on eating food that not only nourishes our bodies, but also enables us to live our lives without limitations holding us back.
The chronic restriction of food & an obsession with “eating-clean” is more damaging to our health than having a chick-fil-a sandwich with fries a few times a month. It’s all about balance, moderation, variety, and adequacy. Normal eating is messy; it’s imperfect. The hardest part for me in the recovery process was accepting that I would never be able to realistically maintain a “perfect” diet, with no processing, no packaging, & no calories. To choose chronic dieting and food restriction would have meant choosing to die a slow, painful death. I decided I wasn’t about that life & day by day began to say no to dieting and yes to nourishing my body.
When you ask people on the street what they think it means to eat healthy, the most often say, “Don’t eat fast food or sweets, eat fruits and vegetables.” This idea is oversimplified and dangerous. You can still be healthy and eat fast food and dessert from time-to-time.
If you need to change for medical reasons, you may need to change the types of foods you eat. For example, if an individual has celiac disease, it would be wise for them to follow a gluten-free diet, but not while simultaneously restricting calories and going to bed hungry each night. Likewise, if a person has is overweight and has high triglyceride levels, they may benefit from switching to chicken a few nights a week rather than ribeye steak, or substituting chips for carrots and ranch. These are healthy changes & sustainable changes. No restricting, no dieting, just mindfulness.
I’m not saying to disregard nutrition. That’s my major, my love language, if you will. Evidence-based nutrition research was actually a very helpful tool in my recovery process. I began to distinguish the truth from the lies, and applied it to my life in a way that kept me healthy, despite the fact that I was no longer dieting. I believe that a healthy diet is rooted in balance & variety, with an adequate amount of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Carbs, fats, and protein all have different functions within the body, all of which we need to live & survive. It’s also fun and enjoyable to mix up our meals. The variety keeps our taste buds satisfied, while also providing our bodies with different vitamins and minerals at each meal. It’s best to not wait more than 4 hours between meals, because this restriction can cause our blood sugar to drop, & as a result our bodies crave sugar, which often can lead to binge-eating. Those are some of the basics. I love this quote on normal eating: “Some days I eat salad and go to the gym, and some days you eat cupcakes and refuse to put on pants. It’s called balance.”
Instead of going on a diet tomorrow, try doing what your body wants & needs. Maybe that means having going on a jog and eating baked chicken and vegetables for dinner, or maybe that means taking a nap and going out for dessert with your friends. Your body knows best, & it’s time that we start trusting that.
- Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer.
Mann, Traci; Tomiyama, A. Janet; Westling, Erika; Lew, Ann-Marie; Samuels, Barbra; Chatman, Jason. American Psychologist, Vol 62(3), Apr 2007, 220-233.
- Howard CE, Porzelius LK. The role of dieting in binge eating disorder. Clinical Psychology Review. 1999;19(1):25-44.
- Macdonald IA. Dietary strategies for the management of cardiovascular risk: role of dietary carbohydrates. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2014;73(02):167-171.
- Tucker T. The great starvation experiment: Ancel Keys and the men who starved for science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; 2007.
- Donini LM, Marsili D, Graziani MP, Imbriale M, et al. Orthorexia nervosa: A preliminary study with a proposal for diagnosis and an attempt to measure the dimension of the phenomenon. Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity. 2013;9(2):151-157.