False Promises and New Possibilities: Life After Dieting
Dana Notte, MS, RD, CD
Spring is an apropos time to talk about diets. The newest fads of the season are splashed all over magazine covers in the supermarket check-out line. TV ads sell us on shiny at home workout equipment. And, daytime talk show guests tout solutions to our weight loss woes. We watch and we read how we’ll finally “lose weight for good” and we walk away feeling empowered and invigorated to take charge of our health…well, at least for a few days.
We start each new weight loss program with the confidence that this time it will really stick – yet it almost never does. So why do we keep coming back for more? And, what can we do instead?
What Do Diets Promise?
Essentially, diets promise to solve all of our problems. They promise to make us thinner (and continuously reinforce the notion that our body size is in fact a problem). They promise to make us healthier. And, they promise to make us happier.
We are captivated by the allure of their potential – because they make us believe that we are just one diet away of having the body and the life of our dreams. Who wouldn’t want that?
What Do Diets Deliver?
The answer: none of the above.
If you are thinking, “wait a minute, I’ve lost weight on lots of diets, so I know they work,” then I challenge you to rethink how you define what “works.” Most people diet with the end goal of maintaining the weight loss they’ve achieved for the long term. And if they really worked, we wouldn’t find ourselves looking for the next best thing every spring. Diets don’t result in long-term weight loss…in fact, they usually result in weight gain1.
It’s also true that dieting can have a harmful effect on health. The vast majority of people who diet find themselves weight cycling (that is losing weight, then gaining it back, then gaining back more than was lost, before losing weight again – and round and round the cycle goes) and research is emerging to show the effects weight cycling may potentially have on health, especially heart health2. And even beyond physical health, dieting takes a toll on our psyche, too. It leaves us feeling defeated, guilty, and shameful. It lowers self-esteem and promotes body dissatisfaction. And, it ultimately perpetuates (and even encourages) disordered eating behaviors3.
And when I ask people how they feel when they are on a diet, “happy,” is not the answer I usually get. Sure, at the beginning there might be a sense of elation, we call that the “dieter’s high,” when we feel like we are finally “in control.” But, it’s short lived and sooner rather than later the feelings of deprivation become overwhelming – leading to us making decisions that are inconsistent with the diet – which then leads to feelings of guilt, defeat, shame, and self-loathing. Usually, it’s the opposite of happy.
If Not a Diet, Then What?
On this International No Diet Day I invite you to make your last diet your last diet. And, I offer you a new approach (drum roll please!)…
As defined by The Center for Mindful Eating, mindful eating is…
- Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom.
- Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.
Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without judgment.
Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.
It says nothing about good foods and bad foods – in fact, it says just the opposite. Food does not have a moralistic value and when we can view food through a neutral lens, it helps to decrease the power it has over us.
It allows us to be flexible with food choices, to be aware of and recognize how to meet our true needs in any given moment. Sometimes that means choosing the grilled salmon salad, sometimes it’s choosing the chocolate cake, and sometimes it’s noticing that food is not really what we need at all in the present moment.
And, it’s also recognizing that each eating experience is unique and is an opportunity to gather information and learn (as opposed to “getting it right” which is the impossible standard set by diets). It creates space for us to experiment with and be curious about food – to gather data and better understand what drives our decisions about what, when, and how much to eat - without setting unrealistic expectations of perfection.
Imagine the Possibilities.
Mindful eating offers you…
- Freedom from restrictive diet rules and the opportunity to finally become your own authority on your food decisions.
- The ability to eat in a way that is truly health supportive and enjoyable.
- A chance to make peace with food and your body – to see yourself as more than just a number on the scale – and to focus on feeling your absolute best rather than tormenting yourself in an effort to achieve the impossible appearance standard that society has set forth.
- The keys to the doors of the life you’ve been putting on hold – the life that dieting has been standing in the way of.
So, on this International No Diet Day, consider saying farewell to diets and celebrating this new, unrestricted opportunity to eat, enjoy, and appreciate food that nourishes all of you – body, mind, and soul.
Dana is a registered dietitian and Nutrition Lead at Green Mountain at Fox Run, a non-diet, mindfulness-based women's retreat for healthy weight and well-being, where she helps women establish a balanced and healthy relationship with food and learn how to use food to feel their best while becoming fearless, confident, and mindful eaters. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Siahpush M, et al. Dieting Increases the Likelihood of Subsequent Obesity and BMI Gain: Results from a Prospective Study of an Australian National Sample. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2015; 22(5):662-71.
2. Bangalore S, et al. Body-Weight Fluctuations and Outcomes in Coronary Disease. New England Journal of Medicine. 2017;376(14):1332-40.
3. Andrés A, Saldaña C. Body Dissatisfaction and Dietary Restraint Influence Binge Eating Behavior. Nutrition Research. 2014;34(11):944-50.