If you look up the word ‘diet’ in the Oxford English dictionary you get different definitions, two of which are below:
Noun: “the kinds of food that a person, or animal, habitually eat”
Verb: “to restrict oneself to small amounts or special kinds of food, in order to lose weight.”
The noun is indicative of what the word traditionally means – what we put in our mouths – meaning everyone is technically on a diet all of the time. However, due to many factors including the unrelenting rise of the weight management and diet industry – that is forecast to be worth $259.8 billion globally by 2022 – most people associate the term ‘diet’ with the alternative definition that dieting means to restrict foods and drinks with weight loss as a goal.
A survey conducted in 2016 found that almost half (48%) of all adults in the UK have tried to lose weight in the last year and of these two thirds (representing more than 30% of the adult population!!) said they are trying to lose weight ‘all or most of the time’.
At the same time as all of this we have unprecedented levels of not only obesity but also body dissatisfaction and body shame for people of all body sizes.
This leads me to pose the question – ‘are diets a waste of time?’
The dangers of dieting
Currently, we have no good evidence that any form of diet (and trust me many, many different diets have been and are being tested in research) for weight loss is successful in the long-term. In fact, it has been estimated that no more than 20% of participants in weight loss research maintain that weight loss after 1 year. The number of people who maintain this weight loss drops again after 2 years and after 5 years there are estimates that up to 77% of participants regain their original weight.
For many people trying to lose weight can seem like a never-ending battle. Weight loss is inevitably followed by weight gain; this is known as weight cycling or ‘yo-yo’ dieting. Research suggests that weight cycling is directly linked with higher risk of high blood pressure and some cancers, as well as overall risk of death. As well as often not being good for our long-term health in the short-term diets can have an immediate obvious impact on our mental well-being. Common traits of dieters include weight and food preoccupation, body dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety and binge eating.
Weight re-gain is inevitable in part because everyone has their own fixed weight set-point, predetermined in part by genetics. If you just take a second to look around at the diversity of body shapes and sizes it becomes logical that there is unlikely to be a very narrow range of weight we should all ‘fit’ into.
Although when diets are initially started (and energy intake is likely restricted) there is often some initial weight loss this is mostly due to water loss from glycogen (energy) stores in the liver being used up. Your body cannot tell the difference between you wanting to “slim down and tone up” and genuine starvation, so changes happen in your body as it readies itself for a state of semi-starvation.
Hormonal changes occur that can lead to cravings for carbohydrates and increased hunger as your body strives to increase energy intake. Your body also becomes more efficient at extracting energy from food and reduces how much energy you use day-to-day. This means that, even if you’re eating less than before, over time weight loss often plateaus or weight is even re-gained as your body fights to get back to its natural set-point. The high levels of motivation experienced at the start begin to waver when weight loss is the main goal and so will power to maintain positive health change is often also lost.
Therefore, although it goes against the training of most healthcare professionals (i.e. weight management is essential for improved health) as well as what is screaming off the pages of magazines, TV adverts and reinforced by movies of cultural expectations of the “thin ideal”, I would argue that having weight loss as the primary focus in the pursuit of health and happiness is detrimental to our physical and mental wellbeing.
But what about these new diets that promise me the world..?
There is very little or oftentimes no good quality data to support the crazy range of diets touted to us. I’m thinking of the likes of the ice diet – eat a litre of ice every day (WTF?!).
As well as this many diets are highly restrictive and exclude food groups and important nutrients for reasons not founded in good science. As an example, very low carbohydrate diets, such as the ketogenic or Atkins diets, have very low fibre intake. This can be detrimental to health as fibre is important for digestive health as well as for reducing risk of disease such as cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer.
Constipation, low energy levels, sleep issues, nausea and poor exercise performance are also all listed as common side effects with very low carbohydrate diets – not forgetting the psychological effects of feeling crazy around carbohydrate-containing foods and like a failure for eating a piece of toast!
Many diets are also tempting as they offer promise of a ‘quick-fix’ and ‘rapid weight loss’; for example, the newly established Whole30 diet, where dieters cut out alcohol, sugar, grains, legumes, dairy and additives for 30 days, lures people in under the assumption that 30 days is all it takes to get the body they want. However, invariably after such a restrictive diet over-eating of previously off-limits foods occurs and as overall relationship with foods has not changed weight creeps back on.
So, what can we bloody well do then?!
We are often sold myths with diets, it’s important to judge expectations with what can realistically be achieved for your body. Although it might sometimes seem challenging if our bodies do not align completely with the socially accepted ‘perfect’ body, we have to accept and make peace with them as they are. This means treating our bodies kindly and with respect; listening to what they need and nourishing them with foods, drinks and self-care practices that help them function as they should.
Shifting focus from weight management to health promotion (think wellness not weight!) means incorporating gentle nutrition with no restrictions on ANY foods. People who eat like this and who eat in accordance with how foods make their bodies feel tend to eat a balance of a wide variety of foods, benefiting both their short and long-term health.
As well as this finding enjoyable activity that energises you and makes you feel good (rather than dragging yourself to the gym and hating life while you’re there) and getting sufficient sleep can help to keep stress levels to a minimum, benefiting both physical and mental health. Focusing on health rather than weight may or may not lead to weight loss, however health improvements can occur independently of weight, regardless of what we seem to be told.
If this sounds like it makes complete sense to you and you would like some more information, have a look at the Health At Every Size (HAES) Community website. I plan on writing another more detailed blog about this approach and why diets are just the worst!
“Progress not perfection” – Tribole & Resch
For the keen readers and evidence checkers amongst you:
Anderson JW, Konz EC, Frederich RC, Wood CL. Long-term weight-loss maintenance: a meta-analysis of US studies.Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Nov;74(5):579-84.
Bacon L1, Aphramor L. Weight science: evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutr J. 2011 Jan 24;10:9. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-10-9.
Dulloo AG1, Jacquet J, Montani JP, Schutz Y. How dieting makes the lean fatter: from a perspective of body composition autoregulation through adipostats and proteinstats awaiting discovery. Obes Rev. 2015 Feb;16 Suppl 1:25-35. doi: 10.1111/obr.12253.
Industry Today (2017). Weight Loss and Weight Management Market 2017Market Size, Share, Trends, Opportunities & Forecast. Available at: https://industrytoday.co.uk/health_and_safety/weight-loss-and-weight-management-market-2017market-size–share–trends–opportunities—forecast
Lowe MR1, Doshi SD, Katterman SN, Feig EH. Dieting and restrained eating as prospective predictors of weight gain. Front Psychol. 2013 Sep 2;4:577. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00577.
Mintel (2016). Brits lose count of their calories: over a third of Brits don’t know how many calories they consume on a typical day. Available at: http://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/brits-lose-count-of-their-calories-over-a-third-of-brits-dont-know-how-many-calories-they-consume-on-a-typical-day
Sarwer DB1, Polonsky HM1. Body Image and Body Contouring Procedures. Aesthet Surg J. 2016 Oct;36(9):1039-47. doi: 10.1093/asj/sjw127.
Wing RR1, Phelan S. Long-term weight loss maintenance. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jul;82(1 Suppl):222S-225S. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/82.1.222S.