Diets Don't Work. Advice from a Registered Dietitian

Image Source: Getty Images

Image Source: Getty Images

The Problem with Dieting.

Many of you may have read the New York Times article published last year discussing the results of research into the long-term follow-up of contestants on the TV show “The Biggest Loser.” I’ll give you the cliff notes in case you missed it:  After 6 years of following contestants, all but one had regained the weight they lost during the show.

The Effects of Dieting on Weight Loss and Gain.

This is not an anomaly.  Research shows that 95% of the time, dieting leads to short term weight loss and long-term weight regain. Actually, diet cycling leads to a higher body weight over time – not lower.

So why is the diet industry so profitable? Weight-loss companies do a great job of finding people who can show they had short term results and they sell it, hard.

What they don’t advertise are the adverse physical and emotional outcomes of dieting in the long-term.

It is the one industry where they sell a faulty product, and 100% of the time, blame the consumer for the failure. The problem is not willpower as these incredibly profitable companies and society would want you to believe. It’s much more complicated than that.  I’ll cover the reasons dieting doesn’t work in post 2 of this series.

The Other Problem with Dieting – Massive Nutrition Confusion!

Dieting perpetuates the lie that to be healthy you have to abide by rigid, strict, and complicated eating rules.  The reality is that achieving health through food is quite simple.  The more complicated the nutrition rules, the more skeptical I am of the validity of the nutrition prescription.  

Nutrition recommendations are constantly changing.  I teach all of my clients to be savvy and skeptical consumers of nutrition research and news.  The foundation and nutrition basics for the most part don’t change much from year to year, but the sensationalized headlines are rapidly evolving.  

One day, coffee is good for you.  The next day it’s bad.  One day alcohol will make you live longer and increase your metabolism, the next day it’s poison.  

If we look back over the last century, every decade had a fad.  The 1920’s had the cigarette diet.  Yes, you read that right!  In 1976, congress’s call to create the dietary guidelines led to a low-fat diet boom to prevent heart disease.  

Anyone remember Snackwell’s fat free cookies?  We later discovered this was ineffective for lowering heart disease risk.  Then came the low-carb Sugar Busters/Atkin’s diet craze of the 1990’s.  

There’s also been the grapefruit diet, cabbage soup diet, weight watchers, paleo….the list could go on forever.  They all promise the same thing: a magic bullet for weight loss so you can live according to society’s unrealistic thin ideal and also achieve perfect health.  Again, see above, this is rarely what happens.  

Nutrition shouldn’t be complicated.  

I keep it simple with my clients.  I focus on the solid research we have, variety, balance, moderation.  

If you want a good laugh about the ever-changing nature of nutrition recommendations, I highly recommend watching this video highlighting the change in our thinking of what a healthy breakfast looks like over the last few decades.


If Diets Don’t Work, Why Does Diet Culture Persist? Our Fat Phobic World.

Our society has been obsessed with thinness for quite some time now. This has intensified as a war on fat has been declared by society and our medical community.  Bodies naturally come in all shapes and sizes, so why does society demand that everyone should be the same size?

Weight-loss is being sold by the medical community as a “cure-all” for just about every illness:

Knee pain? Lose weight.  PCOS? Lose weight.  High cholesterol? Lose weight.  Constipated? Lose weight.

Weight loss is given as a recommendation often, without any blood work or physical exam being conducted. The reality is, you can be unhealthy at any weight.  

The CDC confirmed this in a 2013 study that revealed that while there was a higher mortality rate at the extreme end of each side of the BMI spectrum, the majority of Americans who rest soundly in the middle of the BMI range (normal, overweight, and class 1 obesity) do NOT have a higher mortality rate.

All the medical conditions listed above can occur at any weight.

Weight alone does not determine your metabolic health.

Health is an interplay of genetics and behaviors.

Your weight is not a behavior.

Recommending weight loss without thorough evaluation and understanding of the whole person is weight discrimination.  

Our culture’s obsession with thinness also immensely contributes to larger issues.

The images we are exposed to at a young age show women with pre-pubescent bodies starring in our favorite shows and selling the clothes, makeup, and products we want to wear.They show men with ripped, tan bodies.

What they don’t show is how these individuals maintain this physique. It is true that a certain percentage of people are genetically inclined to maintain a naturally thin body, but the images we are exposed to are often of individuals who are underweight or who have been airbrushed and photoshopped.

Many are going to extremes to sustain this body type. Exposure to these images is a risk factor for body dissatisfaction, obsession with the thin ideal, and disordered eating/eating disorders in men and women.  

The Psychological Toll of Dieting is Vast.

Ancel Key’s great starvation experiment during World War II gave us incredible insight into the psychological and physical effects of starvation.  To mimic starvation, the men were placed on a semi-starvation plan that is actually quite similar calorie wise to dieting today.  In fact, many diets today are much lower in calories than the plan these men were placed on.  

The men who previously had no special interest in food and cooking became obsessed with food and cooking and reported it being the main topic of conversation and journaling.  Many found ways to eat in secret and would impulsively eat and feel guilty afterwards.  

Even though the participants had no previous history of anxiety or depression, most reported difficulty concentrating and showed signs of clinical depression and anxiety. They scored higher on tests of emotional agitation and showed impaired mental performance.  

What is really interesting is the dieting experiment changed the way the men felt about their body.  Study participants who previously had zero concern about appearance or weight started to hyper-focus on their body.  They started complaining of their body shape and size and expressed feeling overweight – even though they had just lost weight.  

Even after restoring the men’s diets to normal, they continued to be preoccupied with food and weight, and felt they could not stop eating once allowed normal access to food.  Cravings for food also increased, especially for sweets.  

AHH!  So here we have been left to believe that we are at fault for experiencing these things after subjecting our bodies to dieting, when in fact, starvation has a quite powerful effect on our emotional health and relationship with food.

Don’t worry – this is reversible.  It’s what I help my clients do Every. Single. Day. I will help you too.  

The 60 billion dollar diet industry has been in control of determining our health and happiness for far too long now.  Won’t you join me in changing that?  Stay tuned for my next two posts to learn how!