Science, Now + Beyond

Diets don’t actually work – here’s what does

Our whole lives we're told that if we just try hard enough, dieting will lead to weight loss. The problem is, it's a lie.

I spent the majority of my life on diets. I battled the stigma of being ‘the fat girl’ for most of high school, until I started dieting and working out. The ‘diet’ was really just severe calorie restriction, and ‘working out’ developed into an obsession with the gym. Before I knew it, I was in the depths of an eating disorder.

I battled with this eating disorder for over ten years before getting treatment. Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique. Many girls, as young as ten years old, and women of all ages develop eating disorders that start from ‘dieting’.

The beauty ideal advertised to the American woman is ‘thin’ and the narrative sold to us is that anyone can be thin if they work hard enough. This is so ingrained within the American woman that most will think I’m crazy when I say that dieting actually does not work. Science has proven this. Multiple studies, from multiple different researchers, have proven that weight loss from a fad diet is nearly impossible to maintain long term.

Almost all diets are based on calorie restriction. And if they’re not, they’re based on avoiding certain foods altogether. Diets create a sense of deprivation, either actual physical deprivation or mental deprivation from feeling like you can’t have a certain food. This deprivation means that the body is not getting what it needs to properly function.

Research done by Evelyn Tribole for her book Intuitive Eating showed that the physical and psychological deprivation created by dieting actually causes dieters to overeat. Her research also showed that you are specifically more likely to overeat foods that are restricted on your diet.

So you’re on a diet and you constantly feel hungry or like you wish you could eat that thing that’s ‘not allowed’ on your diet. You’re going strong for a bit and you lose some weight and you’re excited, but one day, you find yourself eating uncontrollably, and you’re eating all the things that are ‘forbidden’ on your diet. You feel like you’ve failed, but actually, the research shows that you were set up to fail… by the diet!

Science proves that the size and shape of our bodies actually doesn’t indicate health. True indicators of health include blood pressure, cholesterol, hormone and thyroid function, blood sugar levels, heart rate, and ability to engage in physical activities that are kind to the body. Indicators of good health are just as likely to be found in large bodies as in thin bodies.

According to the BMI scale (which is garbage, by the way) I am obese. I also have stellar blood pressure and cholesterol, great hormone and thyroid function, and I teach snowboarding five days per week, an incredibly physically demanding job, which I perform just as well as my peers in smaller bodies. I spent a long time hating my body for not looking the ‘right way’. Now I do my best to love it for all the amazing things it does.

Science has also proven that even if you lose weight in the short term, you will almost always gain it backNot just that, most people gain back more weight than they lost. Given a long enough time period, dieters always end up regaining the weight. The medical term for this is weight cycling, formerly called yo-yo dieting. Research is beginning to indicate that weight cycling may be more of a risk factor for disease than obesity. So, dieting to lose weight to be ‘healthier’ may actually make you sicker.

Many nutritionists believe our bodies have a ‘set point weight’. This is the weight our bodies naturally exist at when we are eating according to our hunger and moving our bodies enough. Some people’s set point weight is higher than others. If you try to fight your set point weight with dieting, you’ll eventually end up back at your set point weight anyway.

The bottom line is that our bodies need to be fed in order to properly function and they need to be fed all sorts of things. Unless you have a medical condition which requires you to cut out a certain food group, there are no good or bad food groups. Fats are good. Carbs are good. Fruits and veggies are excellent. Dairy is delicious and essential. Even gluten has a role to play in the proper functioning of our bodies (despite what those Paleo-diet Crossfitters say).

It’s important to eat nutritious foods because that’s what our bodies need to properly function as biological systems. But all those ‘bad foods’ we’re ‘not supposed to eat’ have a place in our diet as well. The real secret is to just eat what you want when you’re hungry. Sometimes that will be all junk, but eventually your body will crave healthy foods again and you’ll want to eat them. Truly listen to your body and it will tell you what it needs.

Since dieting doesn’t work, the answer lies not in changing the size or shape of our bodies, but accepting our bodies at their set point weight. For many women, like myself, this means accepting a body that is much larger than what society says is acceptable. This is a difficult task in a culture where women’s value is assessed based on their appearance, but it can be done.

This year, abandon weight loss as a goal and set the goal of loving your body just the way it is.