The idea that dieting is the solution to weight management, and that weight management is essential to health, is widely believed and reinforced by the wellness industry. But like many other mainstream media messages on how to “live your best life”, this is unfounded and without scientific backing. The message in our culture is clear: you are less likely to be healthy, happy, humanized or heard if you are considered overweight. Combine this with the fact that dieting simply does not result in sustained weight-loss, and the result is a very complex and confusing relationship with food and your body.
The foundations of dieting are grounded in the pursuit for weight-loss. Dieting is different than choosing foods you know will make you feel good from the inside out. It means following strict guidelines from an outside authority designed to restrict you of particular foods or entire macronutrients (carbohydrates or fats), topped off with an infinite array of products promising to shrink your body size.
But according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, diets are not effective as a long-term strategy for weight-loss as 95% of all dieters will regain the weight within 1 to 5 years. In fact, dieting for weight-loss is actually associated with weight-gain, due to the increased incidence of binge-eating that results from restriction. If there was a diet that brought significant and lasting weight loss, there wouldn’t be as many types as there are, and there wouldn’t be a new one popping up each week. There’s a reason why people often try multiple diets in their lifetime - they simply fail to deliver on their promise.
Your body will respond to caloric deficits in the short-term, but it’s unlikely to last. Quick weight-loss triggers a rollercoaster of emotions: first feeling excited, to growing fearful of regaining, and circling back to frustration and shame once you’ve reached or surpassed your pre-diet weight. Everyone has their own unique “setpoint weight” - a weight range that the body likes to stay within.
“For anyone who overeats after ending a diet or finds his or her intake gradually tricking up, it’s a normal and predictable physiological reaction to what the body perceives as starvation. You can only cheat biology for so long before recovery mechanisms kick in.” - Linda Bacon, Body Respect
Your brain contains an incredibly powerful mechanism that controls your weight. It works like a thermostat - once your weight drops to the low end of the range, your body initiates physiological processes to gain weight. Once it reaches the (much more flexible) top end of the range, it urges your body for weight loss. The low end of the range is very rigid as your body is evolutionarily designed to conserve the energy in calories and fat. The energy deficit created by dieting causes your brain to initiate physiological processes designed to conserve weight, including intense hunger signals. The flexibility on the upper end of the range means that repeated dieting will disrupt the signals from your fat stores to your brain, ultimately raising your set-point.
The truth is that body weight is more of an inheritable trait than almost any health condition, including breast cancer, heart disease and schizophrenia. Of course, genes aren’t the only determinant in weight, but they can easily override attempts to lose weight by diet, exercise or lifestyle changes. Failing to lose weight long-term is merely a sign of the success of your internal weight regulation mechanisms, rather than a reflection on your self-control or willpower.
The act of dieting is listed as a feature in the definition of disordered eating (unhealthy eating behaviours and worries about body image). In fact, dieting is one of the most common indicators of the development of an eating disorder. The black-and-white rules that accompany diets, such as skipping meals or cutting out major food groups, extend themselves into a progressive mindset of restriction and then subsequent bingeing.
In a study of teenagers, dieting was proven to be the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder; those who dieted were five to eighteen times more likely to develop this serious issue.
Though cleverly marketed as a health initiative, dieting is actually a weight-loss strategy that exploits our cultural desire to be attractive. Studies have shown that weight is not an accurate indicator for the presence of certain health risks, like elevated blood pressure or higher blood levels of fats, sugars or cholesterol. So while we’ve been taught to attribute these health risks to obesity, the truth is that these exist in people of all shapes and sizes. Health improvements like lowering of cholesterol, improving aerobic capacity, or balancing blood sugar can occur in a person of any weight.
Confronting the truth about dieting may leave you confused and frustrated, and overcoming long-held assumptions about health and your body takes practice. Whether you’re on a diet or you feel confined by rigid food rules, you’re setting yourself up to rebel - it’s in your nature to desire what you deny. Despite your entrenchment in our culture of diet mentality, there is a better way to feel good about your body. Start by giving yourself access to a new way of thinking and approaching your personal wellness. Savor provides a safe space for you to explore your core beliefs and experiences with issues like weight, dieting and disordered eating.