Four Reasons Diets Don't Work

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In the first post of this series, I talked about the research showing that diets don't work.  Today I want to address WHY they don't work.  

weight loss is not just about willpower

One of the most common things I hear about dieting and weight control, from those judging other's bodies and from those feeling like a failure after dieting, is "I/they just didn't have enough willpower". This is absolutely false.  Another article was published in the NY Times as a follow up to the one I linked in the first blog post of series, discussing the neuroscience behind the results. It discussed the complex brain-body response to dieting.  In short, the brain registers dieting as starvation.

This starvation leads to a cascade of events – slowed metabolism (for preservation), increase in stress hormones (like cortisol) that send signals to your body to store weight and crave more calorically dense foods, and increased likelihood of binge eating those forbidden foods.  

If you want to dig deeper into the neuroscience, I recommend watching this video from neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt about why dieting doesn't usually work.

Our “Hierarchy of Food” Needs

Hierarchy of Needs

One of my favorite nutrition authors, Ellyn Satter created the “Hierarchy of Food Needs” based on Maslow’s well-known Hierarchy of Needs. It helps illustrate the complex psychology of why dieting doesn’t work.

Dieting ignores or destroys the bottom levels of the food hierarchy of needs, making focusing on eating a certain way to achieve certain health outcomes essentially impossible.

Enough food

To access your body’s internal wisdom for health and weight regulation (hunger/fullness cues) you first must give your body the signal that you are getting ENOUGH food. The body/brain is very susceptible to food scarcity.  

Acceptable food

Giving yourself permission to eat foods and find them acceptable. Not making certain foods or food groups off limits.

Reliable, ongoing access to food

Consistently having access to enough, satisfying food is crucial to turning off the starvation instinct in your brain that can lead to the restrict/binge cycle that dieting often creates.

Good-tasting Food – Once your body gets the message that food is consistently available, you can then start to tune into your appetite and cravings.

Novel Food

Once you’ve had consistent access to food and allowed yourself to tune into your body’s cravings, you can then start to develop tastes for new foods.

Instrumental Food

Once you’ve addressed all the other levels of food needs, you can start to focus on eating for “instrumental reasons” – to achieve a desired health, physical or emotional outcome.

Ok, now that you have some background, here’s the bottom line…

Four Reasons Why Dieting Doesn’t Work

1) Dieting puts your body into starvation mode, triggering a cascade of metabolic effects

2) Dieting disrupts the relationship with food, disconnecting you from your body’s own internal wisdom

3) Dieting increases your risk of disordered eating.  The starvation response to dieting increases your chance of binge eating as well as hyper-focusing on food, exercise, and body-image. Dieting sells happiness and freedom, but ends up resulting in feeling guilt and shame and being imprisoned by rules.

4) Dieting is unsustainable.  The research is in. Dieting is unsustainable and does not achieve the promised results. You may experience short-term results, but because of the complex psychological and metabolic effects discussed above, <5% of people achieve long-term success with dieting and usually end up at a higher weight than they were when they first began dieting.

I know what you’re thinking.  I can see the eye rolls happening as I’m typing this.  

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I want to be HEALTHY and HAPPY. How can I do that if I’m not dieting and aspiring to thinness?

Ultimately, weight is NOT a predictor of health.  

Say it with me now: Weight is NOT a predictor of health.  

What is a predictor of health? How you take care of your body.

Self-care nutrition is something I work with all of my clients on.  

It’s developing a sense of what your body needs to function well physically.  It is also finding a healthy way to connect emotionally to food.  It’s mastering each level of the food hierarchy discussed above.

What is a predictor of health? Where your Happiness lies.

I’m not going to deny that there is thin privilege that exists in this world.  

However, what I can guarantee is this - as long as your happiness is dependent on your appearance and weight, the happiness you experience will be fleeting and conditional.   

Finding true internal happiness not based on your external appearance is a pursuit that will lead to lasting peace and joy.  Wouldn’t it be nice to not have your happiness be a condition of the number you see on the scale each day?

What if I told you that you could eat the foods that you love and be healthy and happy?  

What if I told you that you never had to pick up another diet book for the rest of your life?  

What if I told you you never had to count another calorie, carb, fat, or other rando nutrient ever again??


It’s what I practice myself, believe with all my heart, and teach all my clients how to do.  

You CAN break free of the prison of food rules and body dissatisfaction.  I promise you can.  

In the next post I will give you practical steps to take to move towards food peace and away from dieting, so stay tuned!