According to a 2020 survey, the average adult will try 126 fad diets during their lifetime (~2 diets/year!). But when every diet claims to be “a quick and easy solution to lose weight”, which one are you supposed to trust?
The truth is, weight lost from any diet is usually gained back within a few years, leaving people less satisfied and happy than before. So, if focusing on weight loss hasn’t seemed to yield good results for you, keep reading to learn more about another approach that may be more beneficial in the long run!
But First … Why Do Diets Fail In the First Place?
1) Slower metabolism
In 2016, a study was conducted with 14 individuals who had participated in “The Biggest Loser”, a 30-week American weight-loss competition show. Researchers found that most of the weight they lost during the competition was regained afterwards. More surprisingly, despite gaining weight, the participants’ resting metabolic rate (RMR) remained low, with the amount of weight loss being directly proportional to the amount of metabolic slowing.
What this essentially means is that if you lose more weight for a longer period of time, you may experience more persistent metabolic slowing (aka metabolic adaptation). Even if you gain a significant amount of weight, your body will still continue to conserve energy like it did during periods of weight loss.
2) Body fat overshooting
This phenomenon was identified as early as the 1900s and confirmed in follow-up studies. One such study, known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, replicated starvation in hopes of understanding its effects for rehabilitation. At the end of the experiment, the participants reported increased obsession with food and decreased mental and physical abilities. They were also consuming more food than they were before the experiment, which caused them to continue gaining weight even after reaching their starting body weights (aka body fat overshooting).
Although most diets nowadays don’t involve severe starvation, body fat overshooting is still observed. For example, a 2003 study conducted with 9-14 year old participants found that frequent-dieting adolescents gained significantly more weight than their non-dieting peers.
What are some potential explanations for body fat overshooting?
Some individuals are already at a higher risk of obesity or higher weight based on their genetics. Because of the stigma surrounding weight, they may then be more motivated to try dieting, which can further accelerate weight gain.
Weight loss involves the loss of both body fat and lean tissue. However, when weight is regained, body fat recovers at a faster rate than lean tissue. As a result, body fat continues to increase until lean tissue is completely recovered.
Weight loss efforts may trigger cycles of restricting and overeating.
3) Increased risk of weight-cycling (yo-yo dieting)
Due to its unsustainable nature, dieting can contribute to weight-cycling or repeated intentional weight loss and regain cycles.
Why is weight-cycling bad?
Weight-cycling may lead to increased cardiovascular stress due to greater fluctuations in blood pressure, heart rate, blood glucose, cholesterol, etc. You may experience body dissatisfaction and increased pressure surrounding food, particularly during periods of weight gain.
4) Triggers unnecessary guilt and decreased self-esteem
Dieting may trigger “food guilt” by labeling foods as “healthy”/ “good” vs. “unhealthy” / “bad”. Even when asked to look at images of chocolate in a 2007 study, women who diet reported greater cravings and stronger feelings of guilt than non-dieters. When you tie negative emotions to certain foods, eating these foods may lead to decreased self-esteem due to perceived lack of willpower and more negative perceptions of body image. All of these only add more stress, pressure, and anxiety when you eat, and increase the likelihood of cycling between restricting and overeating.
5) Makes eating food less enjoyable
A 2005 study of 33 dieting and 33 non-dieting women found that dieters had poorer performance when asked to recall the names and locations of presented objects. They were more frequently distracted during the task, which researchers suggested may be due to an increase in thoughts about “forbidden foods” and weight.
So, dieting not only affects your ability to focus at school or work, but it also makes the food you are eating taste less satisfying, because it may not be what you truly desire to eat.
Furthermore, dieting behaviors have been shown to increase stress. For example, repeatedly monitoring food intake throughout the day may increase perceived stress. Restriction also increases the stress hormone cortisol in response to metabolic adaptation, serving as another contributing factor to weight gain.
So, What Should I Do Instead?
Given the not-so-great physical and psychological effects of dieting, it may be more helpful (and sustainable) to take a non-diet approach, such as intuitive eating.
The non-diet approach takes the focus off achieving certain numbers on a scale, eating a “perfect healthy diet”, attaining a specific body type, etc., and instead looks at:
- Satisfaction – Food has often been compared to fuel or medicine, but you can also simply eat for personal enjoyment! This involves not only eating the foods you want to eat, but also eating it in a comforting and pleasant environment.
- Joyful movement – Instead of putting additional pressure on yourself to exercise for the purpose of burning calories or losing weight, you can choose to move in ways that make you feel good.
- Unconditional permission – Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat is the first step to being more confident in your abilities to make decisions that show your body the respect and care it deserves.
- Mindfulness – Focusing on the present and observing our experiences without judgement allows you to become more aware of your own body cues (honoring hunger cues, feeling fullness). It also allows you to enjoy foods that are both mentally/emotionally satisfying and physically satiating!
- Coping with emotions – By understanding your personal triggers for emotional eating, you can learn how to better cope with your emotions and establish a more positive compassionate relationship with food.
- Body respect and weight neutrality – Weight/body shape ≠ health and self-worth!
- Food neutrality – Recognizing that foods aren’t inherently “good”/ “healthy” or “bad”/ “unhealthy” can help you remove feelings of guilt and shame when eating.
… which has been shown to result in a variety of long-term positive outcomes:
- Less psychological distress
- Lower rates of disordered eating/binge eating episodes
- Improved body image and self-esteem
- Lower body-mass index (BMI) and better weight loss/maintenance (even though weight is not a focus of the non-diet approach)
- Lower cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and overall dietary risk
This approach is definitely easier said than done. It’s not as simple as “eating whatever you want and stopping when you are full”, nor is it an approach that can be adopted overnight.
However, through using this approach, you can slowly learn how to be more in tune with your body, reduce stress surrounding food, and more confidently and effectively reply to your body cues.
If you’re ready to break free from restrictive diets and develop a healthier relationship with food, consider booking a consultation with our registered dietitian. We can help you create a personalized plan that focuses on nourishing your body and cultivating a positive minder towards food. Take the first step towards a happier, healthier relationship with food and schedule a consultation with a dietitian today.