Why Diets Constantly Fail You

Kiersten enjoying a donut

It was my sophomore year of college. I just got out of a physically intense dance rehearsal, and I felt ravished. Knowing that I was low on groceries and reaching the end of the meal money on my student ID, I decided to hit up the grocery store.

When I walked in and saw the plethora of fruits and vegetables, my stomach growled. I felt the need to grab produce since that’s the healthier option, but my body was screaming for some carbohydrates. So I decided to grab a frozen pizza.

I picked up each pizza box in the frozen food section, evaluating what the “healthiest” option would be. One was fewer calories, another had a better ingredients list, while another was made with some kind of healthier crust. Not sure which one was truly the healthiest option, I decided against frozen pizza and wandered the store for something else.

As I perused the aisles, I was bombarded with messages like heart-healthy, organic, low-fat, low-sodium, and no added sugars. I felt paralyzed by the vast options in the store without any clue of what the healthiest option would be. Utterly exhausted from rehearsal and from my debilitating set of options, I openly wept in front of the pasta sauce selection. I called my friend, and while I have no idea what words I blubbered to her in my hysteria, I distinctly remember her saying “come over.”

I showed up at her door, still in my dance attire and tear stains streaked down my face. She pulled me into a hug, wrapped me up in one of her blankets, lit a few scented candles, and made me a delicious dinner of butter pasta with a jar of Ragu.

While I could have easily made the same meal at my apartment down the street, I didn’t. The never-ending pressure of being “healthy” consumed me, and pulled me away from simply feeding my body.

The pressure to be healthy is debilitating.

I think it’s safe to bet that my story of emotional breakdown in the aisles of a grocery store is a familiar one for you. Maybe not the exact circumstances, but the same crippling pressure to “be healthy.” Humans hear from doctors over and over that we need to eat healthier, lose (or maybe even gain) more weight, and even though we are trying hard to do both of those things, our efforts still aren’t good enough.

So, naturally, we diet. We restrict ourselves from eating “bad” foods and throw money at the $72 billion dollar weight loss industry. We try juice cleanses and detoxes, flat belly teas and weight loss pills. And when those don’t work, we subscribe to whatever diet is trending at the moment—because it seems to be working for everyone else. We buy foods that are only keto-approved, vegan-approved, paleo-approved, Whole30-approved, Mediterranean diet-approved, the list goes on. Yet even after all of our efforts to restrict ourselves from birthday cake and follow a certain diet plan, the weight we quickly lost soon comes back with a vengeance, so we give up. We then find ourselves at another doctor’s appointment where we’re reminded yet again that our BMI-scale numbers are too high, so we try it all over again. Yet each time we give it a go, the weight is even harder to lose.

I use the term “we” because I, too, have fallen deep into this cycle. I endured too many appointments with doctors telling me that I’m obese based on my BMI, which immediately lead me to a strict diet of only eating green foods for a few days…and nothing else.

Yo-yo dieting makes it harder to lose weight.

In these moments, I would fall into this ugly cycle commonly known as yo-yo dieting. I would try some new form of healthy eating and restrict myself from anything that wasn’t “good for me.” Yet after some time, I would crave foods I missed—usually frozen toaster waffles and ice cream—so I would indulge (sometimes both of those things at the same time). After scarfing my cheat meal in a desperate, animalistic manner, I would immediately be bulldozed by guilt. Instead of letting the guilt drive me to eat healthier, it dug me into a deeper hole. I would binge on all of the “bad” foods that I wasn’t allowed to have on my new diet, and promise myself the I would just start again on Monday.

Constantly jumping back and forth between dieting and not-dieting wreaks havoc on your body, and yes, it can even make it harder for you to lose weight. Your body is not meant to naturally diet, it only understands when you’re taking in less sustenance. So if you’re seriously restricting yourself, your body will conserve energy (fat) for later. It’s not until you’ve fully phased-out of yo-yo dieting that your metabolism will start to function normally. Healthline has a great break down about yo-yo dieting that’s worth the read.

Is this also your story? Are you a victim of yo-yo dieting as well? Maybe you’re in the middle of that cycle now, restricting yourself from some kind of food or deep into one of your binges.

Wherever you are, I’m here to tell you that you can step out of that cycle right now. Abort ship. Break up with dieting. Say goodbye. Never look back.

“Did they really keep off the weight?”

I’m going to make a wild assumption about what you’re currently thinking.

Kiersten, this sounds good and all, but how in the world do I get healthy if I don’t diet?

Because dieting, my friend, is not the answer. When you take a step back and look at the dieting industry as a whole, you’d be shocked at what a massive failure it is.

Think about why you would ever want to diet in the first place. The motivation for dieting could come from a lot of different avenues. Maybe you saw one of those crazy before-and-after photos online after someone tried a detox or a “cleanse.” Maybe the motivation came from seeing someone you know lose a lot of weight, and you’ve decided that you’re next in line on the weight-loss express. Or, and we can’t forget this one, it’s December 31 and you’re all about having the “year of you” and it’s time to finally get your crap together once and for all.

Sound familiar?

Now I want you to take a step back and evaluate the motivation you have, and the situation that is coming from it. Isn’t it interesting how we’re so motivated in that moment by someone else, but don’t have any idea what their results looked like a year or even two after that initial weight loss?

For me, my motivation was always a combination of these things. I have watched countless people shed off the pounds, and I truly wanted to be next in line. So I would succumb to some kind of trendy diet to try and lose weight. Yet even if I lost those extra pounds I always wanted to lose, I consistently would gain all of them back—sometimes plus some. I would then fall into an ugly spiral of feeling shameful for gaining it back, yet never truly thought about where my motivation came from in the first place. Did she also gain her weight back after trying this diet? Were people ever really able to keep off the weight after going hard in January for their New Year’s resolutions?

No, I never thought about these questions. Because I was too wrapped up in my own shame of failing yet again to lose the weight for good.

Diets don’t work long-term—research says so.

Traci Mann, Ph.D., Professor of Social and Health Psychology at the University of Minnesota, and author of the book Secrets From the Eating Lab has dedicated her work and research to eating habits, and more importantly, why diets fail. Her book is bursting with study after study on how dieting just doesn’t work, and she talks particularly on this issue.

In her book, Mann points out that the length of time for most weight loss studies we hear about is a pretty short length. Typically the trial diet period for participants would last six to twelve months, but there weren’t a ton of studies out there that showed the effects of what happened to participants at least two years after initially losing the weight.

After some extensive digging, Mann was able to find a few studies that did evaluate the final weight loss result of these participants between two and ten years after losing the weight. She found that on average, the dieters lost a grand total of 2 pounds from their original weight before starting the trial period. 40 percent of dieters actually gained more weight than what they started with.

Now I’m sure you’re reading this and thinking that even losing 2 pounds sounds pretty good right now, but there are a few other things you need to know.

In order to choose the dieters for these studies, the researchers would actually have people go through a “try-out” period before starting the study at all. That way they could choose people that had higher willpower and wouldn’t struggle with dieting. So even to start, they knew they had strong candidates that would be able to keep up with a diet. Talk about swaying the results.

Once starting the studies, 20 percent on average dropped out when it was time to follow up a year or two after the study took place. And for any of the weigh-ins that were recorded, the dieters didn’t do them in front of researchers but right at home over the phone or email. Those numbers were communicated to the researchers over the phone or in an email. So there’s no real evidence that those numbers are entirely accurate, especially when reporting weight gain could cause an immense amount of shame for the participants involved.

Not only that, but it was recorded that 20 to 65 percent of dieters also tried another diet (separate from what they were told to do) while on their trial period. Remember, these participants are supposed to have the “strongest” willpower—yet they still failed.

Weight Watchers is one of the best examples of massive failure for dieting culture. Did you know that Weight Watchers only has a 16 percent success rate? That’s right. This billion-dollar industry has seen success for only 16 percent of its customers. So if a program that is so well known for weight loss and healthy living can’t even maintain a higher average than 16 percent success rate, that should be a small hint that dieting culture just isn’t working.

Mann was the lead author for a famous UCLA research report proving these theories, and her co-author Janet Tomiyama wrapped it up nicely by saying “several studies indicate that dieting is actually a consistent predictor of future weight gain.”

You’re not the problem—diet culture is.

Mann’s whole book is full of study after study on how diets continue to fail people. And yet, we continue to fall back on it. We let weight loss studies and fad diets call the shots on our eating habits, without taking a closer look at what happened to participants in the long term.

Worse, we think that failing at a diet isn’t because of a failed diet system (which we now know is not true), but because of our failed willpower. As the research obviously shows, willpower has nothing to do with it.

If your motivation is to get healthier, here’s my advice: Don’t go on a diet. Because according to research, they are highly unsuccessful.

This is part of an on-going series

I’ll be writing more on this topic as time goes on, so if you want immediate updates from me, get on my email list.

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