Headlines everywhere proclaim “Diets Don’t Work.” Yet dieting is all many of us know.
From childhood on, women, and even young girls, are encouraged to diet. To eat less and exercise more. To limit this and avoid that. To avoid fat, sugar, carbs, processed food, meat, wheat, eggs, and diary . . . until the list of what we shouldn’t eat surpasses the list of what we can.
Every week it’s a different scheme.
From women’s magazines to our doctor’s office, we’re told how to restrict what we eat, trick our bodies, and deprive ourselves. Whether it’s for appearance, health, or sports, we’re advised to keep dieting.
No wonder we start to feel guilt and shame about eating, which leads to eating in private. No wonder our attempts at restriction backfire into overeating and binging. Eventually we wear out from controlling our urges . . . and that’s when we start realizing that dieting isn’t working.
This is what it means when we say diets don’t work.
Dieting as a long-term weight or health strategy backfires for both physiological and psychological reasons. The physiological ones include:
Genetics – It is estimated that weight is up to 85% genetically determined, almost as high as for height and equally difficult to change.
Evolution – Your body evolved to survive during famine, and dieting jump starts these defense mechanisms.
Adaptation – Each diet leaves you more likely to re-gain anything lost and less able to lose weight in the future.
Then there are the psychological reasons including the development of emotional eating.
A diet by definition limits what you can eat. When you don’t get to eat when you want you create a backlog of deprivation.
Psychologically anything that is limited becomes more desirable. This is what happens when you want a cookie but instead eat something else. The desire for the cookie only gets stronger which is how you end up at a later time eating a whole bag of cookies.
But there’s more going on.
Your guilt and shame over eating the cookies causes immense self-doubt, feelings of being out of control, and of helplessness. And this strengthens the desire to eat even more of what you consider the wrong things. In an effort to assert power and get back in control, you begin to believe you deserve or have earned those cookies.
Think of it as the inner critic saying no cookies and the inner rebel then asserting “I’ll show you” and grabbing all the cookies.
This is why the worse you feel about your eating the more you’re likely to keep eating in ways you don’t want. Therefore, the more you try to enforce the rules of your diet, the more you are driven to break them.
And it goes even deeper.
Over time you build up an entire deprivation mountain. The food you “can’t” eat comes to symbolize all of the things you have been denied. In this way a cookie comes to symbolize deep unmet needs such as love, belonging, and safety. Now whenever you feel uncomfortable emotions the desire to eat a cookie becomes an overwhelming drive fueled by these core needs.
There are other drivers of emotional eating that then combine to set the stage for strong cravings and eating compulsions. This is the point where the unconscious drivers become so overwhelming that you begin to feel like food is in control of you. Responding to your cravings has become linked with survival.
And that isn’t even the worst result.
As your feelings of confusion, overwhelm and helplessness over food grow, those feelings can begin to radiate outward into the rest of your life. You begin to lose confidence in yourself and to lose trust in your own judgment.
Over time you may begin to abdicate responsibility for more of your choices in life. Just as you may feel you need a diet to tell you what to eat, you start wanting others to tell you what to do.
There are plenty of other reasons why we re-gain weight lost on a diet. These include hunger cues in overdrive from food triggers that are all around, easy availability of highly processed food that tricks our physiology and keeps us eating, increasingly sedentary lifestyles, less home cooking, and many others. The bottom line is that as many as 95% of dieters will re-gain any weight lost and up to two-thirds will gain back more than they lost.
Thus dieting creates a no-win cycle and an obsession with food that leads to binging and overeating. It creates rebellion and wrecks your hormones. It depresses metabolism, making it easier to gain weight than it was before the diet. It leads to equating the foods you’re allowed to eat with punishment, while your cravings increase for what’s forbidden. It creates a chronic sense of powerlessness and failure. It disconnects you from your inner wisdom and causes you to distrust yourself and even to hate your body.
You started out to eat healthier and lose weight. But over time restrictions imposed by outside diet rules undermined your efforts and left you worse off than before you started.
This is not your failure, but the failure of dieting.
How many diets have you been on? If diets worked, then you wouldn’t need another one, would you?
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