Sep. 12. 2019
Health Articles
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Dietitian, Founder and CEO

Dieting, supplements, diet books and products are a multi-billion dollar industry. But does dieting work for everyone?

Have you tried a diet before? When we have new clients in our Wellness Coaching practice, our clients on average try three diets, plans, or trends prior to coming to see us for sustainable solutions. And they’re not alone! This is becoming increasingly more common with so much information on the internet, new trends, new diets, and new plans coming out weekly.

If this topic is interesting to you or a friend, be sure to share and read more about these 5 reasons why diets don’t work for everyone, why and how diets might work for some, and how to measure outcomes and results without traditional methods like the scale.

Have you thought about how many diets or plans you’ve tried in your lifetime — which ones were successful and sustainable for you?

Diets aren’t just tried by people who have a health condition or a condition that dictates weight-loss — diets don’t discriminate and they impact all walks of life. Despite the intention and purpose behind many diets being weight loss, most diets in the long-term actually lead to weight gain. There are many perspectives to look at when we chat about dieting.

What Is Dieting?

If we get technical about the word diet and take out any emotion related to it, it’s simply defined as the food and habits around food a person has. In our mainstream society, dieting has a different meaning defined by weight loss, slim body types, and attempts to reach a society-defined picture of optimal health.

However, we know that diets and the word dieting can surface different emotions and feelings for everyone who has a past history with diets, challenges with body image, challenges with a health condition, goals to reach a certain weight, or a certain idea of health. Diets can be helpful for some short-term goals and health conditions, but they can also be problematic for some people regarding mental and emotional wellbeing.

History of dieting

Dieting for the purpose and intention of weight-loss isn’t something that’s popped up in the 2000s with the rise and popularity of social media, diets have been booming since the 1970s. From the cottage cheese diet, grapefruit diet, South Beach, Paleo, and now Keto (ketogenic diet) now on the rise. There has always been and will continue to be diets claiming to be the one magic diet, plan, or lifestyle that will be sustainable, give you the results you desire, and cure anything that might be ailing you.

Not only have diets been around for decades, but they’ve also evolved over the years with celebrity culture, influencer culture, and the rise of the internet reaching all demographics starting with young children.

Diets today include paleo, vegan, keto, 30-day challenges, 21-day plans, archetype diets, 7-day detoxes, and a long list of more. Some of these diets may support managing a health condition or lifestyle choices from an ethical or moral standpoint such as veganism, yet most dieting nowadays is centered around the goal of a societal ideal.

Why Diets Don’t Work For Everyone

It’s important to distinguish between 1) dieting used as a tool to improve health conditions and 2) dieting to reach a societal ideal which is not tied to a biological need to lose weight or improve health markers.

Dieting can work as a temporary tool for those who need to lose weight for certain health conditions. Dieting to reduce weight in order to reduce your risk of certain types of health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular conditions can be a useful temporary tool to utilize.

Dieting for the sake of reaching a subjective goal weight that on a 2-dimensional level doesn’t impact your health negatively, is a good example of why checking in with yourself about your intention to diet is key.

Your Brain and Body On A Diet

Most dieting, for the sake of the example of reaching a societal ideal, includes calorie deprivation. When your body is calorie deprived, a few things may happen physically and mentally.

  • levels of leptin (the satiety hormone) decrease (1)
  • levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) increase (1) (2)
  • ability to burn calories decreases (3)
  • mentally dieters become fixated on food (4)
  • attention and focus leans towards anything related to food (5)
  • dieters may have improved smell function and report food tastes more pleasant (6) (7)
  • the metabolic effects of chronic dieting can last years later (8)

5 Reasons Why Most Diets Don’t Work

Depending on how you change habits, your lifestyle, relationship with food, and health status diets might work for you — if not, here are four reasons why diets don’t work.

1. Short-term Thinking — Start and Stop Mentality

Like with most diets, dieting isn’t sustainable or else they would “work” for everyone for life and we wouldn’t see so many diets and trends pop up. We all have unique lifestyles and bodies to honor and most diets don’t take into consideration other pillars of our health. That also goes for diets and plans that have a start and end date — 21-day this, 30-day that, 5-day other — what are you supposed to do after that time period?

Most people who find themselves in this yo-yo or start and stop cycle end up dieting for years which takes them further from finding a balanced approach to eating they can live with. This all or nothing mentality makes it impossible for people to make a lifestyle change through behavior change that will last longer than the diet’s expiration date.

It also takes them further away from tapping into their own unique needs and closer to following some plan that may work for a short amount of time before trying something else. Developing healthy habits for life is key to maintaining health. (9)

2. Dieting can cause weight gain over time

As mentioned, dieting causes fluctuations in your hunger and satiety hormones. As leptin decreases (or you lose weight/lose fat), appetite will increase. Also, most dieting causes a person to lose lean muscle mass along with regaining any weight lost, back within a year. (10)

3. Dieting can increase the risk of developing disordered eating habits

In this article, we’re talking mostly about dieting as it relates to weight loss as the main goal, but dieting for the sake of reaching optimal or an idea of health can pose challenges as well.

“Clean eating” and Orthorexia Nervosa is defined by someone who takes “health” to an extreme with dieting thoughts, actions, and behaviors to achieve this ideal. This is characterized as disordered eating and can impact those who are dieting for weight loss or those dieting to reach an ideal picture of “health”. The more someone on a diet puts attention, mental, and emotional focus on their food or obsesses about food choices puts themselves at greater risk for developing disordered eating habits.

4. Dieting can increase the lack mentality

If you’ve ever been on a diet before, this might sound like a familiar situation. You go out to eat or go to a social gathering while on a diet and are offered foods you “can’t have” which increasingly make you hyperaware, hypersensitive, and focused on that food choice.

Dieting or eating foods tightly regulated by counting calories, macros, or any kind of measuring may make a person dieting feel isolated or like they can’t relate to others around them eating. In addition to the fixation on food, it’s a fixation on the lack mentality — can’t have, aren’t allowed to have, off limited, etc. terminology that strengthens a storyline that some foods are bad or not allowed.

5. Dieting can take the joy and pleasure out of the food experience

If you’ve been on a diet before, then you know that we don’t need science or any study to tell us that dieting can take the pleasure and joy out of the eating experience. We’ve worked with clients in our Wellness Practice who used to measure every ounce of food they ate, counted every calorie and added up every macronutrient which not only preoccupied them with food choices but took any joy from the experience.

Many mainstream diets require constant, incessant tracking of food on a day-to-day basis. While it may begin with good intentions, this hyper-focus on food and food intake can lead to a negative association with hunger and mealtimes. The use of said tracking devices can absolutely be necessary on a case-by-case basis, but a constant use when not medically necessary can do much more harm than good.

Food is far more than just nourishment for our cells, it’s tradition, culture, pleasure, and joy.

4 Ways To Reach Health Goals Without Dieting

Intuitive eating

Intuitive eating is a way of eating and living that connects you with your hunger cues, releases the diet mentality, and in general, promotes unique ways for you to implement long-term health. It’s a way of eating that feels second-nature and integrated into your life.

Reframing your definition and idea of “healthy” and “goal weight”

If you were able to push aside the images or words you may associate with the word health, influenced by external sources, then how would you define health, healthy, or goal weight? What words, feelings, or phrases might you express if you defined these words unique to your life and body?

Reframing and redefining health based on what it uniquely means to you is a great starting place. Oftentimes we see clients in our NS Wellness practice who have a goal of weight loss, yet do not physically need to lose weight —they just think they should be based on external sources or culture. By practicing intuitive eating and working with them with our process, they’re able to cultivate a healthier relationship with food and their body to reframe this meaning.

Ditch the scale and measure your health in other ways

There are many ways to measure and reach your health goals without dieting — including ways to measure outcomes and success outside of the scale.

Some examples might include:

  • blood work/labs if you’re managing a certain health condition,
  • to be aware of how you’re feeling day-to-day,
  • feeling more confident,
  • expressing creativity and joy in your life,
  • honoring what your physical body allows you to do (i.e. give loved ones a hug, exercises, think, work, breathe, etc.)
  • eating free from distraction
  • less stress around food and food choices

Work 1-1 with a Registered Dietitian who focuses on cultivating a healthier relationship with food

Working alongside a Registered Dietitian who can support you and guide you to cultivate a healthier relationship with food is key. If you can also find support in a counselor or psychologist, this may also help you unblock and uncover potential emotional and mental triggers associated with dieting, body image, or any potential disordered eating and lifestyle habits that don’t serve you in the long-run.

Put Into Practice

Work alongside a Registered Dietitian who can support you and guide you to cultivate a healthier relationship with food is key. Take into consideration your unique body, lifestyle, and how you change your habits — for you, short-term diets may support your health and be a kickoff point to finding a balanced approach to food, if not, try the four tools above.

Have diets worked for you in the past? What worked and what didn’t work? Share below your thoughts and feedback on how dieting has affected your life. We’d love to hear and the community would love to hear your voice.

Supportive resources: 

  • https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
  • https://www.intuitiveeating.org/
  • https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health-resources