There's a good chance you've been on at least one diet in your lifetime, and you may even be dieting right now. While Keto is the current heavyweight champ of the dieting world, past popular diets have included such gems as the grapefruit diet, Weight Watchers, SlimFast, Atkins, and Paleo.
But diet marketers are also getting smarter. The current trend in dieting is diets parading as “healthy lifestyles”—a clever marketing tool used to get around the anti-diet backlash. Diets are now being rebranded as things like “wellness,” “cleanses,” “resets,” etc. They sound good in theory, but unfortunately, they're no different than other diets, and their promises fall just as flat.
So many people are on the hunt for that magic pill that will make them lose weight for good and finally achieve the promise of a thin body (and everything that's supposed to come with it, like health and happiness). As a past dieter myself, I understand how alluring this idea is. But the truth is, magic pills don't exist, and most people would be better off if they stopped dieting forever.
When Clean Eating Makes You Feel Dirty
I fell hard into what I thought was a healthy lifestyle back in 2010 when “clean eating” first started climbing in the diet ranks. My time spent drinking the clean-eating Kool-Aid certainly wasn't all bad. I learned how to read labels, started cooking, and ate a wider variety of foods, which did made me feel good. This was a far cry from my college days of subsisting on mostly Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, canned New England clam chowder, and a steady stream of pizza and Taco Bell.
And that's true of most diets. Diets are often based in some sound nutritional recommendations and have at least a few useful tools to teach. But then those recommendations and tools get twisted into dogma before being wrapped in righteousness, obsession, guilt, shame, and a laser focus on shrinking your waistline.
During my clean-eating days I cut out all white sugar, white flour, and white pasta in the name of “health.” I became increasingly concerned with buying organic, and I obsessed over scanning ingredient lists for unpronounceable words as I worried about the purity of my food. Clean eating also gave me a “holier than thou” attitude when it came to what other people were eating, whether it was family, friends, or complete strangers.
Diets And “Healthy Lifestyles” Have All The Same Qualities
If you're eating in such a way that you are restricting what you eat in order to intentionally change your body, that's a diet. If you are living in such a way that you are obsessing over food and your body to the detriment of other areas of your life, that's a diet (and depending on the severity, may even be a disorder).
Some other qualities of diets and the diet mentality include:
- The requirement to count things, whether that's calories, grams, macros, or points
- Black-and-white food categories like clean and dirty, good and bad, real and fake, or healthy and unhealthy
- Cutting out entire foods or food groups for a non-medical or non-ethical reason
- Demonizing certain ways of eating while putting other ways of eating on a pedestal
- Eating based on a blanket set of external food rules without consideration for your individual needs and preferences
- Equating thinness with “health,” “success,” and/or “happiness”
- Weight gain being a sign of doing it “wrong” and weight loss being a sign of doing it “right”
You may be wondering why it matters so much to correctly label dieting behaviors as diets, and the reason is that diets are not all they're cracked up to be (no matter what they're called). Even if the way you eat right now doesn't have an official name or brand behind it, if you're eating based on the many diet rules you've picked up and internalized over the course of your life, doing so will lead to the same results as named diets.
Why It Might Be Time To Stop Dieting For Good
So if diets and dieting behaviors are the norm, you're probably wondering why should you give them up. Here are ten compelling reasons to stop dieting forever:
1. Diets don't keep weight off in the long-term.
Most people go on diets specifically to lose weight, but it's estimated that only about 5-15% of people who lose weight on a diet will actually go on to maintain that weight loss after 5 years. Imagine how you would feel about other things with a 5-15% success rate. Would you undergo a medical treatment with those odds? Or send your children to a school where only 5-15% of students graduated? Maybe under the right circumstances, but you'd sure put a lot more thought into the choice than most people put into starting a new diet.
2. Diets don't create long-lasting healthy habits.
If you're thinking, “But I'm not just dieting to lose weight, I'm dieting for my health,” think again. Even if a diet you've been on has promoted some healthy changes that made you feel good, have you ever been able to keep up with a diet in the long-term? Most people jump on and off diets because diet rules trend toward unsustainable and unrealistic. It's also important to remember that your physical health isn't the only part of your health that matters. If a diet is hurting your mental health, social health, or any other area of health, that needs to be considered.
3. Diets increase hunger and decrease metabolism.
Each of us has a set-point weight range that our bodies prefer to stay within. That's right—your body has a predetermined size range. If your weight dips below the set point your body has naturally, your body will fight back by slowing your metabolism and sending your hunger into overdrive to try to get you back into your body's preferred weight range. You may feel low in energy, lose your period or sex drive, feel irritable, or any other number of things as your body attempts to conserve energy. Further, if you're someone who has a history of yo-yo dieting, this experience may increase in intensity each time your weight goes up and back down, which can also drive your set-point range higher over time.
4. Diets make cravings and eating past fullness worse.
Because diets shift our focus to what we can't have, our minds get fixated on those things and our cravings increase. It's like if I were to say to you, “Don't, under any circumstances, think about a pink elephant.” You would immediately think of a pink elephant. The same phenomenon happens when we place certain foods off-limits. Eventually, we give in and eat the “forbidden foods,” and we do so to excess because we know we are breaking a rule and we're not sure when we'll be able to have that food again. It's this cycle that diet culture uses to convince us that we are “out of control” and “addicted” to certain foods, when in reality, our reaction to restriction is a normal physiological one.
5. Diets eat up precious time and energy.
Diets require time, energy, and willpower that most of us just don't have to give without seriously cutting back in other areas of our lives. Dieters often find themselves having to make compromises that make them unhappy. For example, a dieter might obsess over what food they can eat at a party (or choose not to even go to the party so they don't have to deal with the anxiety) instead of enjoying the party and making memories. What might you have accomplished by now if you had back all the time and energy you have spent in your life pursuing diets that weren't sustainable.
6. Diets can be harmful to your mental health.
So many diets claim to be about “health” but are actually harmful to both physical and mental health. Dieting often leads to a preoccupation with food and our bodies that can border on obsession. Dieters who “cheat on” or “fail” their diets are made to believe that they simply didn't have enough willpower or self-control to stay the course. This mentality that the dieter is to blame instead of the diet leads to increased stress and other negative feelings, such as guilt and shame, that affect overall health.
7. Diets are disempowering.
Our bodies are built for survival, and we have everything we need within us to know what to eat, when to eat, and when to stop eating, but diets make us doubt ourselves. Diets teach us to ignore what our bodies are telling us and follow restrictive rules in pursuit of weight loss. They entice us with the idea that our real lives—our happy, successful, and exciting lives—are waiting for us just around the corner once we get thin enough. The notion that we are not enough as we are right now is incredibly damaging.
8. Diets promote weight stigma.
Weight stigma is discrimination or bias based on a person's weight. Weight stigma is prevalent in our society, and a culture of dieting has heavily influenced that. As a culture, we shame and blame people in fat bodies in the name of “health” and morality. Diet culture promotes a single acceptable “look”, declaring that only thin bodies are healthy and worthy ones and if you have a fat body and you're not pursuing thinness then you are automatically “unhealthy” (a far cry from the truth). This puts bodies in a false moral hierarchy and obscures the fact that all bodies deserve equal respect and care.
9. Diets can't fix your life.
So many of us believe that if we could just lose weight then __________. Then we could find a partner. Then we could get that promotion. Then we could wear that swimsuit. Then we could love ourselves. The problem is that none of those things have anything to do with food or weight loss, and as a result, the act of dieting and losing weight won't help us get to the root of those issues. Dieting is so often used as an escape—a way to ignore what's really going on and blame our bodies for our problems. But all that thinness will bring you is a thin body. You'll still be left with all of the other stuff to figure out on the other side.
10. Diets don't take into account the details.
Diets provide a set of blanket rules that are supposed to work for everyone. But how many things in life do you know that work for literally everyone? You have a unique metabolism, genetics, and history with food and your body. You have individual tastes, preferences, and desires. Your circumstances change day in and day out, but diets don't take any of that rich context into the equation. The truth is, there's no one way of eating that is right for everyone. There's only the way of eating that is right for you.
If I'm Not Dieting, Then How Will I Know What to Eat?
I understand that the idea of giving up dieting behaviors is scary. Diets are built into the fabric of our society. Entire relationships are held together through talking about dieting trends and the desire to lose weight. Perhaps you've been dieting for so long that your own identity is wrapped up in the very act of cycling between different diets, hunting for the holy grail.
Further, ditching diet culture and learning to eat more intuitively isn't easy. It will require you to take a deep dive into everything you've been taught about food and your relationship to it so that you can begin to dismantle all of the lingering rules. You'll have to start listening to your body—truly listening to it—and if you've been ignoring your body's signals and desires for a long time, that is going to take some troubleshooting.
But doing the work of getting back in tune with yourself and healing your relationship with food will last you a lifetime. And who knows what you might accomplish with all the time and energy you'll have taken back from the life thief that is diet culture. I'm rooting for you!
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