We’ve all heard that “diets don’t work,” but do you know why? First let’s go over the definition of diet.
Dieting is any eating habit that involves the restriction or elimination of nutrients and/or the control, counting, and restriction of calories. Point systems are diets because the program has pre-restricted the calories for you; these are counted calories disguised as point values.
Here’s why diets don’t work.
When you restrict calories and nutrients you lose weight. This is why diets are so attractive on the surface and seem like they work. The problem is that internally your body goes into “deprivation mode,” craving the nutrients it’s missing and slowing the metabolism way down so as to store energy for crucial functions, such as fueling your heart and brain. When you “give in” to those cravings, the metabolism is slow to use the energy– one because it’s sluggish and two your body naturally wants to use the energy sparingly since it doesn’t know when it’s going to get those nutrients again. Often you won’t feel good eating something of which you’ve deprived yourself (like sugar or bread) thus blaming the food, when really it’s your body not responding well because it’s broken.
When I went through the re-feeding process during anorexia recovery, I felt physically ill for about eight weeks while my metabolism re-learned how to accept and process nutrients again. It was another several months before my body found homeostasis.
Yo-yo dieting or chronic dieting puts the body in constant deprivation mode (also called starvation mode) and gives the body no semblance of normal. It can’t settle into a homeostasis where the flow of nutrients to body function is rhythmic and natural. Instead, dieting trains the body to reserve the nutrients and keep the metabolism slow so as to store energy for internal functions. Simply speaking, you hold on to the weight. The body isn’t sure when it’s going to get those nutrients again and it has systems and processes to run, so it’s going to store calories and use them wisely.
Here’s a replicated visual my eating disorder therapist showed me
Person A and Person B are both born at the same time. As they grow, they gain weight accordingly. Person A doesn’t diet at all, and over time her body settles into a consistent weight with minor (and natural) fluctuations.
Person B begins dieting and her weight drops. Each dip in the graph represents a diet with a corresponding weight drop. After each diet, though, her weight goes back up, increasing just a little more each time and never finding a consistent stability.
At the end of life, person B dies not only at a higher weight than non-dieter A but also at a higher weight than what her original weight before she started dieting. If you are a dieter, have you sometimes noticed when the weight comes back, it’s often just a little more than the last time you put the weight back on? It’s not because you are a bad person who has a problem with self control. It’s because your body is trying to protect you, trained to operate in deprivation mode and with a broken metabolism.
Distorted Body Cues
Dieting forces you to go against your body’s natural cues. When you’re hungry a diet will keep you confined from feeding your body what it needs. Diets say:
a) You can’t eat because it isn’t time.
b) You can’t eat the thing you are craving because it’s “bad.”
c) You can’t eat the amount you need because it’s “too much.”
The body and brain become confused.
Body says: “I’m hungry. I need (crave) a plate of meaty pasta and a slice of cherry pie. Pasta will give me long-term fuel; the meat will give me stamina; the cherry pie will give me the quick spark and pleasure to start the refueling process for all systems.”
Brain says: “Nope. You’re on a no-carb, no-sugar diet. You’re getting a chicken salad with no cheese and a sugar-free flavored water. You need better discipline. Cherry pie? What are thinking, fatty?”
Body says: “Hmm? Okay, so you’re giving me fiber, water, and a tiny bit of protein. I’ll do my best but don’t be surprised when I’m sluggish and you’re cranky.”
Binge eating happens when we’re in deprivation mode because the body is so desperate for nutrients we’re not paying attention to when the body says “Enough!” Confused hunger and fullness cues become normal.
Some people experience the opposite problem where it seems like it takes more food to get full and that’s because the brain isn’t tuned in with what fullness actually feels like for their body. There are a plethora of reasons why some people eat more than they need (emotions, distractions, strict rules such as “must eat everything on my plate,” distorted view of portion sizes, etc.)
The bottom line is this: Dieting goes against your body’s natural biology. Your body knows what weight it wants to be, when it’s hungry, when it’s full, and what food it needs. It gives you all the cues to let you know what you need.
If you are in the midst of a vicious dieting cycle or considering dieting at all, I encourage you to learn more from the book shown on the left here (not an affiliate link, nor am I affiliated with the authors in any way). It was introduced to me my first week of recovery, though it took me months to learn how to apply it because I was so disordered in my habits and beliefs. Everyone at any size can find their homeostasis again, including you. No more diets, okay? You’re life is way too valuable and diets aren’t worth the sacrifice. <3