Dieting is like riding a rollercoaster. It’s all very exciting at first – motivation is high, recipes are new, and results begin to happen. Your Instagram comments are full of positive feedback and fire emojis, and it feels so good! “You look amazing! So healthy!”
The sacrifices seem worth it with all the love coming in from friends and family, and the plan feels easy at first…until the results slow down (or stop) and the cravings for “forbidden” foods begin. You’re legit hungry all the time and craving everything that’s NOT on your plan. You’re less motivated to go to the gym. Weight creeps back on and you wonder, “it worked in the beginning, what am I doing wrong?” All of these ups and downs can, instead of improving health like we’ve been told, actually wreak havoc on your mental and physical health.
Dieting Does Not Work – Here’s Why
If this emotional rollercoaster sounds familiar, you are not alone. The fact is, diets and weight loss programs fail for the majority of folks, with most dieters gaining all the weight back (and then some) after a few years. “UCLA researchers analyzed the results of 31 long-term diet studies and discovered that in each of the studies, one third to two thirds of the subjects had gained back more weight than they had lost.”
Why? Do we as humans collectively have no willpower?
No. Because it’s actually not about will power. It’s about biology. Let me explain.
Set Point Weight
Our body weight, like our height and shoe size, is largely determined by our genetic code, meaning we have LESS control over our weight than we’ve been led to believe. Set point theory refers to a stable range of body weight that is largely maintained by our body’s own biology despite variability in how much we eat and exercise.
These biological mechanisms in place protect your body against harm, such as the starvation caused by a famine. When we diet (i.e. restrict calories/macros/food groups, etc.), our bodies eventually compensate for this by slowing our metabolism down to retain as much energy as it can. This is why progress stops after a while with weight loss plans (yes, even you Keto!).
Our brains then help us (without our conscious permission) return to our set point weight by increasing cravings, which eventually become too powerful to push away with willpower. This is why binge eating and the feelings of food addiction are so common among dieters. We dietitians like to call this “compensatory eating” – compensating for not getting enough energy or carbs or whatever you’ve been cutting back on. No, there’s nothing wrong with you. Your body is trying to take care of itself.
Hunger also promotes the release of certain hormones, like ghrelin, that boost your appetite so you can replenish your body. These, along with many other mechanisms, help your body protect its preferred shape and size, and yes, weight, which is what makes it so difficult to change how you look. It’s a game that your body will likely always win.
Our “natural” weight is therefore really hard to change, as you may have experienced. Our culture, diet culture, has tried to teach us that being in a larger body is a moral failure that is our fault, when in fact, it is likely our biology keeping us safe.
Dieting Causes Harm: Weight Cycling
If you’ve dieted and lost weight, only to experience weight regain, you have experienced the diet cycle, pictured above. Repeated dieting causes weight cycling (when you lose weight only to gain it back again), and weight cycling is one of the most insidious harms of dieting.
Weight cycling is common among chronic dieters, calorie/macro counters, and restrictive eaters, and has detrimental effects. The long-running Framingham Heart study has shown that yo-yo dieters have higher risks of premature death and heart disease than non-dieters, regardless of a person’s weight. Other health risks of weight cycling include:
- Higher risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures
- Loss of muscle mass
- High blood pressure
- Chronic inflammation
- Cancers such as renal cell carcinoma, endometrial cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Because of weight cycling, it is often more risky to pursue weight loss than to remain at a higher weight.
Dieting leads us back where we started (plus a few pounds, in most cases) and destroys our self-esteem in its wake. That can be discouraging, disruptive, and damaging to the body and mind, besides being ineffective at changing health in the long-term. So, if prescribing weight loss leads to WEIGHT GAIN for the majority of people and sacrifices our mental health, wouldn’t it stand to reason that we need to focus our efforts elsewhere?
The Non Diet Approach
That’s where the non diet approach comes in. Using weight-neutral strategies is a way of compassionately caring for your physical and mental health. It takes the focus off the scale AND it’s shown to be effective! Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size® are examples of well-known, evidence-based, effective non-diet approaches that focus on behavior, rather than weight.
Why Use a Non-Diet Approach?
With the emergence of non-diet approaches, nutrition scientists have launched hundreds of research studies investigating the overall effects of using weight-neutral, non diet methods to improve health. Some of the conclusions we can draw from the evidence is that non-diet interventions caused less disordered eating and depression, and supported better self-esteem than intentional weight loss methods. Studies have also demonstrated that non-diet approaches do much less physical harm than dieting.
Our health is determined by a wide variety of circumstances and behaviors, some of which are out of our control. Genetics, age, income and education levels, childhood trauma and even zip code have a great impact on how healthy we are and how long we live. Unfortunately, we don’t have control over most of these factors. Our personal choices have an impact, too, like whether we smoke or drink alcohol, eat in a balanced way or engage in movement we enjoy. The more health-promoting behaviors we take part in, the healthier we are.
So, Health Is Not All About Weight?
Wait, what? Isn’t it partly about weight?? Well, the fact is we cannot determine someone’s health status by looking at their body size because weight itself is not an indication of health. There are people who are metabolically healthy in every BMI category. There are also folks who are unhealthy in every BMI category. Weight by itself is not an indicator of health, nor has it been shown to be the cause of disease.
In fact, one study showed that over all BMI categories, health and risk of death can be improved by implementing behavior changes like eating more fruits and vegetables, moving more, drinking in moderation and stopping smoking. This means that no matter what the scale says, behavior changes can have a substantial effect on our health.
So, if we’re not using the scale to be the end-all-be-all measure of how healthy we are, what do you use? Here are some better indicators of how healthy your body is:
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar levels/overall blood sugar control
- Cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- Cortisol levels (measuring stress or inflammation)
- Other blood lab results that show deficiencies or excesses
- Daily eating and drinking habits
- Physical activity habits
- Stress levels
- Mental health evaluations
The non-diet approach is weight neutral, which means that we take the focus off of the scale and focus on behaviors that are effective at improving health indicators, like the ones listed above. This is not an exhaustive list, but can be a good place to begin.
Here are some examples of non diet, weight neutral behaviors that impact our health and longevity in a positive way:
- Connecting to loved ones on a regular basis
- Eating balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals
- Getting adequate sleep
- Moving our bodies on a regular basis
- Limiting alcohol
- Practicing mindfulness
- Eating enough fiber
- Getting regular health checkups and recommended screenings, like mammograms, colonoscopies, etc.
- Taking medications as prescribed
- Learning ways to cope with stress
- So many more!
Notice that dieting and losing weight are not on that list. Knowing what we know about diets, this dietitian wants to encourage you to consider NOT dieting. I know that may sound strange. After all, the word diet is in my job title. So, what could you do instead?
Adding Health Behaviors Using the Non-Diet Approach
Here are 6 steps to follow when looking to improve health without focusing on the scale.
- Define what health really means to you. Dig a little deeper. If “I want to lose weight for my health” has been your mantra for a long time, let’s first ask why. Why do you want that? What do you hope weight loss will bring? Do you want to be able to keep up with your friends or kids on bike rides or other activities? Lower your blood pressure? Feel more mobile or flexible or strong or have more stamina? Feel less pain? Peel back the layers and find what health really means to you.
- Choose one aspect of your definition and focus on one behavior at a time. Stick with one that supports your values. Say, for example, that what you really want is to be able to hike again. What behaviors will support you being able to return to hiking? Cardiovascular conditioning? Improving leg strength or balance? Walking with a friend? Choose one behavior that feels the most important and relevant to you.
- Set a goal that is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and set a deadline for yourself. In this example, a goal might be:
- Work with a physical therapist once a week on quad strength and balance for the month of June.
The goal is specific to what will be done, how often, what will improve, and it has a deadline. Excellent. Now the work can begin.
- Celebrate your achievement. Don’t forget this part! Choose a reward that honors the work you put in – a special gift to yourself, time with loved ones, some self-care, maybe new hiking boots? You decide.
- Set your next goal. Lather, rinse, repeat.
- Get support. Sometimes it’s helpful to have someone to help you at step one – to ask the right questions and support you as you define what health means to you. Or to hold space for you to think about some of the information in this article that can be difficult to accept. Maybe you have tons of questions! There can be a lot to process as you explore the “why.”
That’s where I come in.
When we work together, I meet you right where you are, share new information, help you process it, and help you contemplate making changes that improve your health. I am here to help you explore what works for you and to help you be accountable to yourself if you choose to make changes. I’m part nutrition coach, part nutrition therapist, and always 100% supportive of your choices.
This blog article is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical advice.