Advice about what to eat, what to avoid eating and how to lose weight are all around us. Magazines, billboards, commercials and social media posts often promise quick and easy weight loss solutions. Friends, neighbors, coworkers and family members often obsess about the latest plan they’re on to lose weight. Do you ever feel tempted to try their diet, too? Or maybe you’ve already tried diet after diet and you’re feeling lost. If either of those scenarios applies to you, read on.
The dieting industry is a $65+ billion per year industry. People looking for answers for weight loss are vulnerable and willing to spend money for help. Research has indicated that diets have a long-term failure rate of about 95 percent. When one diet fails, people tend to just move onto the next diet, making diet industry customers lifelong patrons. With a recurring, captive audience, high failure rate and countless, ever-changing diet offerings, it’s easy to see why the dieting industry is so wealthy.
When I say “dieting,” I’m referring to the restrictive way a person eats when they are trying to lose weight. The true definition is simply the way in which a person eats; but for this article, when I refer to dieting I’m talking about fad diets, food plans or dietary restrictions a person makes with the intention of weight loss.
Although I don’t believe in the power of diets to work long-term, I do think it’s reasonable for people to make changes with their nutrition to be the healthiest versions of themselves. I’m not saying people shouldn’t eat healthfully — sometimes people equate healthy eating with dieting. I’m simply arguing that dieting, as I have defined it here, is not physically or mentally healthy, nor sustainable in the long-run.
The dieting cycle defined
The dieting game is cyclical and short-lived by nature. Going on a diet implies go off the diet at some point.
Here’s a common way dieting plays out: You decide it’s time to lose weight so you try a plan with which you have become acquainted. There’s usually specified times to eat, amounts of foods allowed and special foods to eat. Foods are labeled as “good” or “bad” and the plan is almost always very all-or-nothing. You might last a few days, weeks or even months following the plan and likely even see results on the scale. You feel hungry all the time and your metabolism might even decrease due to the restriction. As a result of the metabolic shift, your brain sends signals about eating sugary, fatty foods also known as cravings. You feel deprived but you push through it because it feels good in so many ways.
Eventually you eat something you “shouldn’t” which indicates the end of the diet. Many times feelings of guilt, despair and lack of self-confidence result. Thoughts of “why am I so weak?” or “what’s wrong with me?” ensue. You go back to eating the way you did before the diet, and often start even eating more than before as a result of the restriction and deprivation.
You notice after a few weeks that all the weight you lost is back and then some. You feel even more like a failure. You try to not think about it for a while until you see a commercial, hear your friend talking about their diet or are triggered in some other way to start another diet. You recommit, this time wanting/needing to lose more weight than the previous time but with a noticeable decrease in your sense of self-confidence and decision making skills.
This is why dieting doesn’t work. It leads to doubting ourselves, feeling terrible and physically changing our brains and bodies in their relation to food. It sets us up for failure long-term.
What to do instead
If you feel the need to make some improvements with your nutrition, start with making small changes in the right direction. There are literally hundreds of small things you might want to change about your eating and it can feel overwhelming and impossible to sustain. Instead of trying to do it all at once (like a diet), pick two or three things you feel you could make progress with and start there.
Here is a list of common small steps people make:
Drink adequate amounts of water. Space caloric intake out evenly throughout the day (instead of a tiny breakfast, a quick lunch and then a semi-binge for dinner). Pay attention to portion sizes. Fill half your plate with vegetables at lunch and dinner. Start learning the art of tuning in to hunger and fullness. Go on a 30-minute walk daily. Set aside one day each week to plan out your meals and shop for the ingredients. Cut out (or drastically reduce) sugary drinks and soda. Choose from the list above or pick something else you want to change and start there. Don’t stress about the other 100 things you could improve on. When those get easy, ask yourself what you can improve on next and add in a few more goals and behavior changes to your routine.
The key with improving your nutrition and lifestyle in general is to make changes that are sustainable and realistic in your life and particular situation. Your healthy eating might not look the same as someone else’s healthy eating and that’s OK.
Be kind to yourself. Don’t diet. Reach out for help and support if needed. Choose healthy, nutritious foods most of the time. Make incremental improvements with your eating and avoid all-or-nothing, diet-like thinking. Improve where you can and good luck on your journey!