Diets. Don’t. Work.
I wish I could scream this from the rooftop…and I do have to say, I’ve come pretty close to doing that. Because I’m a dietitian, I get constant questions and comments about diets. From ketogenic, to Slimgenics, to Weight Watchers, to paleo, to Atkins, to gluten-free, to Whole30. My short answer is always that I don’t support “diets” of any kind, and typically it’s followed up with “well, it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle.” Okay, I get that. But here’s the thing. Any plan that encourages you to restrict, omit entire food groups, replace meals with shakes, count points and calories and grams, pee on a stick, or go against what your body needs and craves IS A DIET.
Now, I understand that some people need to follow certain diets for health reasons, and others may need to eliminate certain foods for a while just to “reset,” which is perfectly fine. I get that some of these “diets” have the potential to help you establish healthier habits, and bring some self-awareness into your life. But I’m not into it when diets clearly have a goal to make you feel terrible about yourself or change your body through restriction or other measures that are not sustainable in any way. Never once have I met someone who has been able to maintain weight loss, sanity or happiness after going on a restrictive or fad diet. This isn’t anybody’s fault: it’s diet culture’s fault for making people feel like they aren’t worthy unless they’re on some sort of a diet.
While seeing someone succeed physically and mentally on a restrictive diet/detox/cleanse is rare, what I have seen is individuals who are able to maintain long-term weight loss, happiness and health with an overall shift in their eating pattern and lifestyle. Nope, they don’t need to replace their meals with a pre-made shake, avoid dessert completely, exercise for 3 hours a day, or weigh themselves constantly. Instead, they focus on eating mostly healthy foods, lots of plants, less junk food and alcohol, and including a balanced amount of movement into their life. They control their stress, get enough sleep and they don’t forget to live a little by enjoying a cookie or two when they truly want it. They listen to their bodies, instead of the media and the celebrities who promote the fad diets.
Another issue with diets is that they set people up to feel awful about themselves. People call themselves “failures” because they weren’t able to maintain weight loss, but it’s not THEM that failed, it’s the diet that failed. Think about it. OF COURSE you’re not going to keep up with counting every calorie that goes into your body. OF COURSE you’re not going to want to drink a nasty protein shake that tastes like chalk for dinner while everyone else is eating pizza. OF COURSE you’re not going to stick with a diet when you’re starving and not providing your body with the calories that it needs to function properly!
Another point I want to make here is that just because your Aunt Betsy went gluten-free and lost 50 pounds and cured all of her health ailments does NOT mean going gluten-free is going to work for you. Just because your co-worker’s uncle is the “picture of health” after going on a ketogenic diet does NOT mean you need to jump on the keto train, too. You see, nutrition, weight loss, health, and so on is not one-size-fits-all. When it comes down to it, it’s the overall lifestyle changes that people are making after going on a “diet” that allows them to maintain their results. It’s not the diet itself. Examples: a person who has been eating fast food on a regular basis for years, who suddenly switches to a “paleo” diet that includes lots of whole foods & vegetables is of course going to lose weight and improve their health.
Some studies have shown that individuals who go on restrictive diets actually do more harm than good to their physical and mental health. Diets have the potential to damage your hormones and metabolism. They have the potential to lead to binge-eating, anxiety and even depression. To the contrary, there is evidence that individuals who eat intuitively and maintain healthy SUSTAINABLE habits are able to improve their health and achieve a weight that their body naturally wants to be at (yep – the weight YOUR body wants to be at may be completely different than what society tells you your weight should be. More on that later).
Here are some questions to ask yourself before going on a “diet”:
- Is this going to prevent me from being able to eat the foods I love?
- Is this going to prevent me from being able to socialize and enjoy time with friends and family?
- Does this diet require me to restrict my calories past the point at which my body needs to function?
- Does this diet suggest that I avoid or eliminate an entire macronutrient (protein, carbs, fat)?
- Is this diet going to add work and stress to my life?
- Am I going on this diet with a one and only goal to change my body?
- Is this diet going to be difficult to keep up with in the long-term?
- Does this diet require me to drink meal replacements or skip meals entirely?
If you answered yes to any of these, then you might want to re-consider for your own health and sanity. Instead of going on a “diet,” think about some changes you can make to your life to help you achieve your health goals. Could you start eating some more vegetables? Could you start eating meals without distractions, so that you can recognize your fullness more easily? Could you stop thinking about certain foods as “bad,” so that you aren’t tempted to binge on them? Could you reach out to a non-diet registered dietitian or therapist who could help you re-frame your thinking, and assist you with setting reasonable goals?
I hope this post has convinced you not to resolve to “diet” this year. Make this the year of taking care of yourself and listening to your body, not the year of dieting, restricting and obsessing over food.