By Denise Jorgensen, LPC
In today’s culture, dieting has become synonymous with health or lifestyle. It’s often not a question of whether you are on a diet, but which one you are currently practicing. Even if you aren’t following a specific diet, when you’re stuck in food rules or counting calories, when your day depends on the number on the scale, when you avoid food groups out of fear, feel the need to earn or make up for that meal/dessert or rest day, are “good” all day but find yourself “out of control” at night, avoid social gatherings where forbidden food will be served, etc., the diet culture has its hold on you.
And it is no wonder because diet culture is literally everywhere! How many advertisements did you see this summer promising a way to lose those extra pounds and be “beach body ready?” In a couple of months, the campaign for a “new year, new you” body will be screaming at us everywhere we turn. What I find truly disheartening is that these messages are often placed right next to topics such as “how to find the real you.” We claim to want people to embrace their true selves, but only in the body that we, as a society, deem acceptable. Am I the only one who finds that disingenuous and exhausting? It makes sense when you consider that the diet industry is a $175 billion-dollar industry1. They profit big time from our insecurities and self-doubts, promising a bill of health, confidence, and acceptance. But how often do they actually work?
Why Diets at Best Fail and at Worst Cause Harm
Most diet studies end after two years, and that’s because most diets actually fail! The reality is that dieting is one of the strongest predictors of weight gain2. In fact, after two years, over ⅔ of people will have not only gained back the weight they lost but will have subsequently gained even more weight3. If you’ve ever had the experience of losing weight only to regain it and then felt like a failure, please hear me when I say you’re not alone, and it isn’t you! Physically, dieting leads to a decreased metabolism and teaches your body to retain more fat once you begin eating again. Mentally, dieting increases your cravings and food obsessions, leading to increased binging and emotional eating through a cycle commonly known as the dieter’s dilemma (restrict -> binge -> repeat). Not to mention that because so many diets fail and we take responsibility for that failure, this leads to lower self-esteem and feelings of failure and shame. It’s not your lack of “willpower” that caused the diet not to work. Diets have a design flaw. The diet is the problem, not you!
You might be thinking, what about someone who is “successful” at dieting? Sure, they lose weight, but then find that to continue losing weight they have to eat even less. They will likely receive compliments for their weight loss, which, while it may feel good initially, has been found to actually increase one’s obsession with their body. Food rules become the norm and perpetuate anxieties that consume their thoughts. Sadly, disordered eating has become normalized, and because of that, so many people are suffering in silence, feeling compelled by their restrictive relationship with food. The path between this and a full-blown eating disorder is a short and steep one. No diet advertises that it is a gateway to eating disorders. You won’t find a general surgeon’s warning on the front of a diet book cautioning that diets are the number one predictor for developing an eating disorder or that 1 in 4 people who go on a diet will progress to a clinical eating disorder4but that’s the reality we live in.
So if the research points to diets not working and actually causing adverse effects, but diet culture isn’t going anywhere, what are you to do? Here are some action steps that will lead to greater HEALTH that have nothing to do with food rules or your weight:
Head: Examine your thoughts around food and where they come from. Without judging yourself, get curious about what diet messages and rules you live by that influence your eating and feelings about yourself that need to be challenged and released.
Eliminate: Delete the negative influences on social media, food tracking apps on your phone, throw out the scale, the pants that are too small but you’re keeping to one day fit into again, and any other influences that make you feel bad about your here-and-now body and perpetuate the diet influences.
Attitude: Develop an attitude of gratitude for your body. It’s unrealistic to think that we will always love everything about our bodies, but if you can begin to appreciate all of the amazing things it does for you instead of the ways you feel it has let you down, it opens up a whole new way of loving and accepting yourself.
Learn: Seek information on anti-diet approaches to food, such as Intuitive Eating, Mindful Eating, and HAES, that teach a way of relating to food and your body that is built on respect, trust, and well-being.
Talk: Tell those closest to you that you are trying to heal your relationship with food and your body, and ask them to please not make comments about your body one way or another, and also that you’d prefer not to be involved in diet conversations either. There is so much more about you to praise, and so many topics that are way more interesting!
Help: Seek help from a licensed therapist trained in body image and food struggles to continue to dive deeper into the roots of these struggles in order to continue your healing and embrace the beauty that is, and always has been, the true you!”
Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash