Why Diets Don't Work and What Does

If you go to our trusty 21st century dictionary, aka Google, and search “diet”- the first definition is something like, “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats”. Simply put, it’s the way you and I choose to eat; including what types of food we choose, likes, dislikes, and appetite. At least that’s how it was originally meant to be used. The alternative definition, listed underneath the 1st, however is a little different. It defines “diet” as “a special course of food to which one restricts oneself in an effort to lose weight”. This definition sounds much more like modern culture’s definition of diet huh? Implementing rules around food in order to lose weight or change our body’s somehow. Diet, defined this way, is used all the time. Somehow, someway. Anywhere you go you can find someone talking about some new diet, a diet they are on, how badly they need to go on a diet. And let’s not even start talking about diet advertisements in the media. *eye roll*

Did you know that over 45 million Americans go on a diet each year??(1) Ya, that’s a whole lot of people. The type of diets most of these 45 million go for usually stick to the same theme; either taking out whole food groups (dairy, gluten, meat), restricting macronutrients (hello low-carb and low-fat), and/or ridiculously low calorie. Not only are these really impractical ways to eat and live, but there’s rarely any scientific research to support them, and they are usually pretty dangerous.

... Like totally disrupt your metabolic and hormonal health kind of dangerous.

I won’t lie and say you won’t lose weight initially on these diets, because you definitely can and probably will….at first, but how many times have you seen people that see the weight loss results gain all the weight back? If not even more weight? This might even sound a lot like your own journey with dieting and your weight.

If these diets worked the way they promise; “lose 20 pounds in 2 months”, ”get shredded by summer”, “melt away your love handles” why are we still searching for “the next best diet”? Why are more people not achieving long term weight loss if these diets worked?

Answer: Because they don’t work. Diets do not work. Statistically speaking, 95% of people who go on a diet will gain the weight back that they originally lost within the first year. In some of cases, individuals gain even more weight than before they started the diet.(2)

But why?

  • Long-Term Dieting Is Not Maintainable

 One usual diet "no-no": Dessert. For some reason dessert gets such a bad rep, but sometimes you truly need something sweet to end a meal. It leaves you feeling satisfied and complete after a meal. And this night, that meant PB oatmeal cookies and I wasn't mad about it.

One usual diet "no-no": Dessert. For some reason dessert gets such a bad rep, but sometimes you truly need something sweet to end a meal. It leaves you feeling satisfied and complete after a meal. And this night, that meant PB oatmeal cookies and I wasn't mad about it.

Yes, diets help with weight loss at first, because most require massive calorie restrictions, but our bodies cannot sustain a large calorie deficit for long. Diets that provides less than 1,000 calories a day cannot provide you with the energy you need for living. Even the smallest, most petite woman needs at least 1500 calories. You may have tried this restrictive approach before and haven’t felt any real terrible changes (other than being outrageously hungry of coarse), but eventually your body will take over. This often looks like intense cravings for higher-calorie foods and uncontrollable over-eating. A lot people think this is just their “lack of will power”, but actually it’s just your body trying to protect itself from starvation. It’s the diet’s fault, not yours. *Side Note*: Even if you aren’t dieting, but still feel extreme cravings and struggle with uncontrollable eating, especially at night- try and focus on feeding yourself earlier and more often throughout the day. This could be your body’s way of telling you that you may be under-eating/nourishing yourself.

  • Your body was made to fight dieting

Your body is smart. It thrives when it’s in balance, or if ya wanna be scientific: homeostasis. When we drastically restrict calories in order to adhere to a diet, the body doesn’t know we are purposefully trying to lose weight, it thinks it’s in starvation mode. Not the ideal balance your body is looking for. If you usually eat 3,000 calories a day and then suddenly start feeding it 1,000 calories a day- your body will see that as deprivation. The human body was designed to protect itself against starvation in order to survive the feast and famine cycles experienced throughout history. This starvation response consists of the slowing of metabolism, loss of muscle-mass and holding on to fat stores. Probably the opposite of what you were hoping for with your diet I would assume. And also contributes to why you have all those cravings I talked about earlier too.

  • May cause hyperawareness/ obsession around food.

Just like when a parent tells a child to not play with a certain toy and automatically that is the only toy that child wants to play with; the same effect happens when we tell ourselves we are not allowed to have certain foods. The more we tell ourselves we can’t have carbs, fat, and sweets the more we want and crave them. The more rules around food we make- no food after 8pm, no processed foods, no refined sugar- the more apt we are to break them. All food groups have a purpose in the body’s proper function. Yes, even sugar (GASP)- it’s a simple carbohydrate that the body uses for quick sources of fuel. Which is used in high energy-expending activities, such as exercise.

When you are so focused on not eating something or “screwing up” your diet, it can be hard to focus on the people and experiences around you. If your body is sending your brain intense hunger signals or cravings all day, it can be nearly impossible to focus on anything else. When all you can think about is your desire to eat, you can’t give as much mental energy to the things that matter most- such as your family, school, friends and/or career. I can tell you from personal experience, as someone who had a very disordered mindset around food for years, there is nothing healthy about living in fear of certain foods and eating too many calories.

So what if you still want to live a healthier life and do have some nutrition and fitness goals you would like to work towards? That’s great and you can still do that, but crash dieting and over-exercising for two months straight is not the way to achieve them!

You can still achieve a healthier lifestyle and body composition in a much simpler, less restrictive way than dieting.

Try a more holistic, life-style approach to your diet with these tips for holistic and sustainable nutrition!

1.  Ditch the food rules and concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods.

 Went out to dinner with one of my best friends to a Knoxville favorite: The Plaid Apron. SO GOOD. Couldn't decide on what to get, the waiter recommended the half-chicken, so that's what I got. Was feeling something fresher so I got veggie- based sides. Back when I had lists of good and bad foods, I would have never let the waiter pick my order, I had to be in control of every food decision. Glad I'm not like that anymore because let's just say the waiter was right and that chicken was err-thang.

Went out to dinner with one of my best friends to a Knoxville favorite: The Plaid Apron. SO GOOD. Couldn't decide on what to get, the waiter recommended the half-chicken, so that's what I got. Was feeling something fresher so I got veggie- based sides. Back when I had lists of good and bad foods, I would have never let the waiter pick my order, I had to be in control of every food decision. Glad I'm not like that anymore because let's just say the waiter was right and that chicken was err-thang.

We all have them. No matter where you heard it or read it, you have food rules. What are yours? For instance, one of mine used to be “skipping breakfast means I will eat less calories today”, so I challenged myself to start eating breakfast every day to see how it affected me. There were no physical differences at all. Really, the only thing that changed was that I wasn’t HANGRY by noon anymore. Eating fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, nuts and seeds are great, but also allow yourself to eat foods which you enjoy. No food should be off limits! Listen to what your body wants in that moment. Sometimes it might be a salad, sometimes it might be a cupcake. Both are perfectly okay. Doesn’t that sound much more enjoyable than a raw fruits and vegetables, 500-calorie diet anyway??

2. Become more in tune with your hunger and satiety cues.

Being more aware of when you’re hungry and when you begin to feel full can really help with portion control and overall relationship with food. Recognizing you are hungry and responding to that earlier, results in more healthful meal choices. No one chooses the salad over the pizza when they are starving! Hunger is not something to ignore, hunger is your body’s way of telling you it is in need- so take time to listen. Also, feeling when you have reached a satisfying level of fullness and ending the meal then, rather than once you have reached an uncomfortable fullness, can lead to much better portion control and digestion.

3. Have patience.

Everyone wants to lose 10 pounds tomorrow, but sustainable weight-loss or any long-term changes in general, happen slowly. This slower process prevents your weight loss from plateauing and allows your metabolism to adapt to the gradual caloric deficit. Small change overtime creates big lasting change. Big, immediate change creates small change.

It is way passed time we ditch this dieting mentality our society is stuck in and approach food in a more realistic, holistic way. I really hope this encourages you to stop listening to the diet culture noise, instead start listening to the science and your intuition. You do not need to lose 10 pounds just because Kim Kardashian did or try a new fad-diet because your best friend is. It’s definitely not an easy switch in thinking to make, but I can guarantee it’s worth it.

Listen to your body and feed it in a way that will make you feel good, both inside and out- I promise there is no healthier diet!

References:

1.     Nutrition and Weight Management. Boston Medical Center. (2017, September 07). Retrieved April 26, 2018, from https://www.bmc.org/nutrition-and-weight-management/weight-management

2.     Wilen, C. J. (2013, May). The 95%: Why Women Embrace Diets that Don't Work (Doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill, 2013) [Abstract]. Honors in Global Studies, 62(3), 220-233. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.62.3.220