(This is the second of three posts that were originally published for my blog at Albany Times Union. These posts inspired this blog, and so I will post them all over this first week of blogging, and then continue with new material.)
“I’ve been on a constant diet for the last two decades. I’ve lost a total of 789 pounds. By all accounts, I should be hanging from a charm bracelet.” Erma Bombeck
Disclaimer: If you are a dieter, and happy with how that’s working for you, this post is not for you, and I make no judgment of you if you choose to diet. If you have found a personal solution for lasting weight management that doesn’t detract from the quality of your life, that’s great! However, dieting is not workable for the majority of dieters; it negatively impacts health and well-being, doesn’t result in long-term weight maintenance, and causes anxiety and time and energy consuming preoccupation with what and when to eat, and body size and shape. If that’s been your experience with dieting, and if chasing a number on the scale has been ruling (and ruining) your life, you are not alone and I want you to know that it is not your fault. If you’re a struggling dieter, it’s totally understandable, and here’s why:
The problem with diets is that they work!
Yeah, diets work, but only in the short term. There’s a surge of motivation, hope, and energy that often accompanies a new diet; and during that honeymoon period, diets are often pretty easy to follow. During that brief period, you drop a bunch of water weight, your clothes get looser, and people may even notice. You get compliments and feel pretty good. Some of your fat cells shrink and maybe you start losing some muscle (but who cares, you’re losing weight!). After a bit of time, the diet starts “getting old”, your enthusiasm and weight loss slow, and so does your metabolism.
Some people are successful at losing weight on a diet and keeping it off long-term – typically because they either devote their lives to their diet plan or they develop their own more personalized and sensible approach to maintenance. But the vast majority of dieters gain the weight back, and then some. And to add insult to injury, the post-diet weight is more stubborn because their metabolism has slowed. I recently read that when we put on fat after dieting, that fat is more likely to be the more troublesome adipose (or belly) fat.
Each diet gives us a few extra pounds that become more and more difficult to lose. As a result, the most likely long-term result of dieting is…….weight gain. But we go on diet after diet anyway because we’ve become so used to being dissatisfied with our bodies that we feel like there’s no alternative. The slim hope that the latest diet will be “the answer” is enough to keep many of us on that diet treadmill for most of our lives. Plus, because diets usually work in the short term, you blame yourself rather than your diet when you ultimately go off the diet, and there’s always someone in a nearby cubicle touting the quick weight loss they’re experiencing on their latest diet. Which motivates you to try that diet. And it goes on and on.
Going on a diet is like going to war against the food industry, your biology, and your psychology. And your connection to your body’s internal capacity to regulate hunger and enjoy eating can be a casualty of the war.
The diet industry
If you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that it’s not in the diet industry’s interest for diets to work in the long term.
If they did, dieting wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar industry. If diets worked, if you gained some weight you’d go on a diet, lose the weight, and that would be the end of it. But you and I know that’s not how it goes.
If diets worked long-term, I’d be a perpetual size 6 and would not have a closet full of 3 or 4 sizes of pants.
As I already mentioned, statistics suggest that the vast majority of dieters gain the weight back – some of it, all of it, and pretty frequently, they add a few extra pounds. And the statistics probably don’t tell the whole story. Long term dieting results are probably even worse than get reported in the literature because the results only use the people who successfully completed the diet in the first place, not all the people who dropped out. Even the results of the gold standard in research, randomized control studies, aren’t applicable to real life weight loss, because those studies examine weight loss under idealized conditions, and using ideal participants. And rarely do these studies report how much weight loss was maintained long-term.
I also should mention that, aside from the water weight that makes up the initial, motivating weight loss on a typical diet, the amount of weight people generally lose on diets, even “effective” ones, is pretty modest.
A few years ago, the BBC reported that Richard Samber, former finance director of WW (formerly Weight Watchers) said that WW is successful when only 16% maintain a weight loss “It’s successful because the other 84% have to come back and do it again. That’s where your business comes from.”
The food industry
The food industry exists for profit. And the way it profits is by selling more and more food, which means that the food industry needs you to eat more and more. So your effort to curb your caloric intake is countered by an entire industry full of lobbyists, marketers, and advertisers working around the clock to get you to eat more food. Open any magazine or spend an hour watching TV and you’ll be inundated with images of decadent foods in enormous portions. Then enjoy the fist-sized portion of dry chicken breast with steamed broccoli that’s on your diet’s menu plan. See how that goes. And, once again, to add insult to injury, when you diet, you are more vulnerable to food advertising because you become hyper-focused on food. That’s not a failure of willpower; that’s your body trying to save your life. Which leads me to…
The biological impact of starvation
Starvation obviously results in hunger. A classic psychological study known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment in 1944 created a state of semi-starvation in participants by having them eat about 1,500 calories a day. Participants in that study never had weight or food issues before their participation and were selected for the study based on their health and psychological hardiness, but they developed disordered eating, eating obsessions and other health and emotional problems during their participation. A follow-up decades later revealed that many of them remained obsessed with food, and their disordered eating habits persisted.
A more recent example of the biological impact of starvation occurred right before our eyes over the past decade with the network TV show, The Biggest Loser. As we recently discovered, most “Loser” contestants gained much of their weight back and they experienced persistently slowed metabolisms.
Even if most people don’t go on diets as drastic as The Biggest Loser’s barbaric program, many current diets recommend eating far fewer calories per day than caused starvation and wreaked life-long havoc on the participants in the Minnesota starvation study!
Our bodies were designed to hold onto calories in preparation for times of scarcity, so when we eat substantially less than we require, like 1,200 calories or less (which is the calorie goal for many popular diets), our bodies assume there is a famine, and hold onto calories and slow our metabolisms. In addition to slowing our metabolisms, hormonal changes occur that make us hungrier and make us need more food to feel satiated. Finally, when we starve ourselves, we become preoccupied with food. Our bodies do all of this to protect us because they have no idea that we are starving ourselves on purpose.
Our bodies would probably think that’s a pretty stupid thing to do!
The psychology of deprivation
Diets are doomed because they’re deprivation plans. The moment we tell ourselves that something is off limits, we want that something. That’s just how we’re wired. So, it follows that any restrictive diet will lead to food cravings. Sure, it may be motivating or even fun to start a diet, but deprivation won’t work in the long run. When people eventually give in they tend to go berzerk (psychologists have a clinical term for that; it’s called the “What the Hell” effect), which triggers a cycle that involves over-eating or bingeing, self-judgment, shame, stress, and more over-eating. Deprivation is not sustainable, it leads to weight gain, can cause health and emotional problems, and it certainly is not a pleasant way to lead one’s life. Chronic shame is a poison; you should not spend your life feeling ashamed of yourself for having a body and an appetite!
Losing connection with hunger
Most diets direct us to eat on a schedule, to eat only certain foods, to measure food portions, or to follow strict meal plans. Each of these directives causes us to look for our cues for eating outside of our bodies. And by doing this over time, we can lose touch with our innate capacity to know when we’re hungry or to allow ourselves to eat in response to physical hunger signals. If we do notice hunger, diets lead us to evaluate whether it’s ok to eat, or even whether it’s ok to be hungry. This judging has the result of making us feel bad about ourselves, which can result in over-eating.
And it gets worse; if we don’t know what it feels like to be hungry, how in the world are we supposed to know what it feels like to be satisfied – to have eaten just the right amount? As I mentioned earlier, dieting messes with our internal hunger and satisfaction sensors, and this can lead to chronic over-eating or chronic under-eating, and is just not a sensible approach to life.
We don’t use the toilet on a schedule someone else provides for us; we trust our bodies to know when to go to the bathroom. We should trust our bodies to know when and what to eat as well.
The bottom line
I believe people have a right to be happy in any size or shape body and can pursue health (or choose not to pursue health) irrespective of body size. For this post and only for the sake of metaphor, I’m likening carrying more weight on your body than you would like to a medical condition. Suppose you went to a doctor for a condition and the doctor told you there was a treatment that could possibly help a little bit, but in 90% of cases, would make your condition worse, would you accept that treatment? That’s the promise of diets, and what for, anyway? Having a larger body than you would like is not a medical condition in and of itself, even if our culture treats it that way, and I’ll get into the science and controversy regarding health and weight in a future post. Many healthy people are dieting to fix a problem that only exists because of cultural ideals, and in doing so, creating new problems; our bodies don’t need to be perfect, and we shouldn’t have to dedicate our entire lives pursuing a likely unattainable and definitely unsustainable ideal. That should not be our life’s purpose. But that’s for a different post too.
So now what?
For most of us, dieting is all we know. That’s all we grew up knowing, that’s all our parents know, it’s all our friends and co-workers know, and it’s even all that most of our doctors and personal trainers know. That’s why we keep doing it, even when we suspect (and now we know) that diets usually don’t work. The antidote to dieting is simple, but not at all easy. From my own personal experience, I can tell you that it’s really, really hard, sometimes scary, and it’s probably a life long process, but I strongly believe it’s ultimately worth it and better than a life spent hungry and ashamed. I recently posted about my own experience with what I call The Shame Diet. You can read about it here. If we want to get off the diet rollercoaster with its side effects of weight gain and a lifetime of shame, we need to learn to live in our bodies rather than look at our bodies, to have compassion for ourselves and our struggles, to care for ourselves so that we will want to choose healthy ways to nourish ourselves rather than to punish and restrict ourselves because we don’t like ourselves, to unlearn the rules of dieting and to relearn body trust and how to eat “normally”. As I said, not easy, but if your life has been hijacked by dieting, the reward can be less stress, greater well-being, and freedom! In some cases, the reward can even be improved health and weight loss. In future posts, I’ll share resources to help you ditch the diets if you’re ready, but in the meantime, if you’d like to read more about this, there are many books available to get you started. Let me recommend Why Diet’s Make us Fat by Sandra Aamodt PhD, Secrets from the Eating Lab by Traci Mann PhD, Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole MS RD and Elyse Resch MS RD, If not Dieting, then What? by Dr. Rick Kausman, and Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon PhD.