Do you feel conflicted about whether or not you should go on a diet?
Maybe you recently heard about the newest fad diet and it sounds enticing. Maybe you have also heard that there are actually a lot of disadvantages to dieting. And maybe you have even experienced some of these disadvantages yourself.
Well if you’re straddling the line, to diet or to not diet, and you want to weigh out the pros and cons of dieting, or, if you just want to prove to a loved one what you already know about the disadvantages of dieting, you’re in the right place!
We will start off by defining both dieting and pseudo dieting. Then we will jump right into the disadvantages of dieting, including the efficacy of diets, the harmful effects of dieting, and the impacts diets have on our lives.
Bonus: We will also touch on the alternative option to dieting and how to stop dieting!
What is dieting?
Dieting can be described as any form of dietary restriction for the purpose of weight loss or altering the shape of one’s body.
To name a few of the most popular diets…
Ketogenic diet, A.K.A “keto” diet
Noom, yes noom is a diet
Atkins, paleo, low carb, etc.
That being said, not all diets have names. In fact, many people who diet, don’t even realize they’re dieting. Which brings me to my next point, pseudo dieting.
Essentially, pseudo-dieting is unconscious dieting. In this case, a person may not be deliberately following a diet, however they’re still letting food rules guide their choices and they have a diet mentality.
Examples of pseudo dieting may include:
Only allowing yourself to eat “healthy” foods (often referred to as a healthy lifestyle)
Going on a vegan or vegetarian diet for “health” reasons
Counting your calories or counting your macros
Skipping meals or holding off on eating until later in the day
Only allowing yourself to eat at scheduled meal or snack times
Making up for overeating or eating something “bad” by doing an extra workout or skipping a meal
Often replacing regular food items with diet or low calorie versions
At this point you have maybe realized that you actually are dieting. Well, after we talk about the disadvantages of dieting, hence why you shouldn’t diet, we will go over an alternative approach to dieting as well as how you can stop dieting.
Disadvantages of dieting
I talk about the disadvantages of dieting all the time on my Instagram page @dietitian.krista, I also talk about it with my clients. Why?
Because if people don’t hear about the disadvantages of dieting and the actual evidence behind it, they have no reason to stop (other than the fact that being on a diet completely sucks). They continue to believe the bullshit lies that diet culture illustrates.
When people are able to clearly see the evidence behind dieting and relate that back to their personal experience, they are more likely to adopt healthier behaviours going forward, such as intuitive eating.
So let’s talk about the top three disadvantages of dieting:
1. Diets don’t work
“What do you mean diets don’t work? I’ve lost weight every time I’ve gone on a diet.” This is something I often hear.
And the chances are yes, you likely will lose weight INITIALLY. However this weight loss is often short term. The truth is, dieting is one of the strongest predictors of weight gain and 95% of diets fail long term.
I know what you’re thinking, well maybe I can be that 5% and succeed with my diet, well stay tuned for the rest of this article and you will realize why that is not a good idea. To add to that, two-thirds (66%) of people who go on a diet gain back even MORE weight than they had originally lost.
If I was a betting person, I would not appreciate these odds, especially knowing the real harms that come along with dieting.
I like to use a cholesterol analogy, similar to the one that Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch used in their book: Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach.
Picture this: you go to your doctor and you find out you have high cholesterol. Your doctor recommends medication to lower your cholesterol. You may be a little hesitant to start a medication you know nothing about, so you ask some questions.
You then find out that there is a 95% chance that this medication will not work and there is a 66% chance that if you take this medication, your blood cholesterol will end up even higher than it is now.
Would you take this medication? No.
Would your doctor ever recommend this medication? No.
Would this medication have ever even been approved in the first place? No.
Well, we are looking at the exact same stats that diets have, yet we continue to diet. Just let that sit with you for a while.
Why don’t diets work?
I thought you may ask this. Your inability to remain on a diet has nothing to do with lack of willpower, it actually probably means your body is functioning properly.
Our bodies do not like to be restricted. In fact, our bodies are unable to tell the difference between intentional restriction and starvation. Regardless, our bodies see these as threats and our bodies are programmed to fight threats.
When your body feels starved at the cellular level, biological and psychological mechanisms are triggered.
An increase in stimulation of certain neurotransmitters (e.g. neuropeptide Y) and hormones (e.g. cortisol) result in increased hunger and cravings, specifically for carbohydrates, as these are the brain's preferred fuel source. Funny enough, carbs are also the most common nutrient individuals try to restrict.
Think about a time you have gone on a diet or tried to restrict certain types of food. Did you crave these foods more? Was it difficult to get the thought of eating these foods out of your head?
I'm guessing your answer is yes. Dieting actually increases food thoughts and cravings. The more you try to restrict a food, the greater the desire to eat these foods, making it extremely difficult to maintain the diet.
Then when you finally “give in” to these cravings and eat the food, there is actually an increased reward response in the brain, which explains the binges that typically follow a period of restriction.
Think about it, every time you have a cheat meal, or end a diet or “give in” you typically indulge in copious amounts of food that you have been restricting. If you hadn’t dieted in the first place, you would never feel the need to eat that much.
Instead you would enjoy these foods in moderation. I know what you’re thinking, “but if I allow myself to eat these foods whenever I want, I won’t be able to stop eating.”
This is a very real feeling, and likely very true if you have been dieting for a long time. It will take time to overcome this battle of overeating or binge eating after prolonged dieting or restriction but it is possible.
I actually have a free guide: “4 steps to overcome overeating,” to help individuals get started. Feel free to check it out!
The last point I would like to touch on here is the impact diets have on metabolism. Prolonged restriction (a.k.a dieting) results in a blunted metabolism.
Think about it this way. Let’s pretend your body requires ~2500 calories a day and you go on a diet that requires you to eat only 1800 calories per day. Well thankfully (but also unfortunately) your body is smart, it knows how to adapt in order to survive.
It will slow down and hold on tightly to the energy it is being provided with and it will learn how to survive on less, hence the blunted metabolism. Stay tuned, I am going to touch on metabolism more in the next section.
2. Diets cause harm
I understand if you’re still considering continuing dieting. You think you can be the small percentage that succeeds on a diet. However, it’s not just the fact that diets don’t work, they actually cause harm both physically and psychologically.
Effects of dieting: Physical
As I already mentioned, dieting results in a blunted metabolism. So essentially what happens when you go on a diet is you typically lose some weight. Now, sorry to tell you this but the weight you’re losing is not just fat.
You’re also likely losing muscle and quite a bit of water weight. Then at some point your weight loss plateaus. Your body adjusts to the lower fuel supply and now it needs less calories to maintain that weight.
So when you go off the diet or the diet “fails” and you start eating more again, you start to gain the weight back. However, your body more readily gains back fat than it does muscle. This is called the “fat overshoot.”
Low calorie diets actually double the enzymes that make and store fat in the body. This is just another way your body compensates for the lack of energy it is getting.
There was actually a study done on “The Biggest Loser” contestants. If you’re not familiar with “The Biggest Loser,” it was an American reality TV series in which individuals in larger bodies went on television to compete to lose weight.
Contestants were put on extremely restrictive diets and intense exercise routines that would never be realistic or sustainable in the real world.
Some of the contestants were followed up 6 years post show and it was found that their metabolism was blunted an average 700 kcal/day and their muscle mass was an average 10 pounds lower than their baseline.
Another harmful impact shown with dieting is the ongoing fluctuations in weight. When a person is on a diet they lose weight, when they go off the diet they gain weight. This is a vicious cycle that continues to repeat itself as long as a person is yo-yo dieting.
This weight cycling is actually a lot more detrimental to a person's health than if they were to just maintain their weight (regardless of their weight). Weight cycling has shown to be an independent risk factor for inflammation, heart disease, high blood pressure and insulin resistance.
Weight cycling has also been directly connected to increased risk of mortality, osteoporotic fractures, gallstone attacks, loss of muscle and some forms of cancer.
Lastly, dieting has also shown to result in many other poor physical health outcomes including menstrual irregularities, dry skin, fatigue, hair loss and more.
Effects of dieting: Psychological
Individuals who diet, this includes pseudo-dieters, are more likely than non-dieters (i.e. intuitive eaters) to suffer from depression, disordered eating, low-self esteem and overall psychological distress.
Further to this, dieting drastically increases the risk of developing an eating disorder. A large study that followed 14 to 15 year olds for three years demonstrated that dieting was the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder.
Individuals who engaged in moderate dieting behaviours were 5 times more likely to develop an eating disorder compared to non-dieters and those who engaged in more severe restrictive eating behaviours were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder.
This is extremely concerning, as we know that eating disorder prevalence in youth only continues to rise.
Now I would like to welcome you to take some time to personally assess how dieting has affected your mental well-being.
Has dieting left you feeling like a failure? Do your eating experiences bring feelings of stress, guilt and shame? Do you feel hopeless each time a diet fails? How is your self-esteem now compared to your pre-dieting years?
Sit with these answers for a bit. Can you see how dieting is connected to these feelings now?
Let's continue to take a deeper look into how dieting negatively impacts your life.
3. Diets interfere with life
If your “healthy” eating behaviours are holding you back from living your life, then they’re not healthy. Diets have a profound effect on one’s social life as well as their relationships with their loved ones.
Think about a time you were on a diet, let's take intermittent fasting for example. Now think about a time when you were intermittent fasting and then had an event come up in which food was involved, maybe a potluck at work.
This potluck was scheduled for noon, but you weren’t supposed to eat until 4PM. There are a few scenarios that may have occurred:
Scenario #1: You isolated yourself from your coworkers and the potluck and you hid out in your office sucking on breath mints and drinking water instead.
Scenario #2: You decided to attend the potluck but you did not indulge in any of the food, instead you spent the whole time thinking about the food and not being able to fully enjoy the moment with your coworkers. You were also likely pretty irritable because you hadn’t eaten anything all day. Yes, hanger is a real emotion.
Scenario #3: You said “screw it, cheat day it is,” and you indulged in the food. You then ate past comfortable fullness and were left filled with feelings of guilt and shame for “messing up your diet” or eating “bad” food.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?
Or what about the time your family was going for ice cream but you were on the keto diet, so you told your family to go without you.
Or the time your friends invited you to dinner but you were on a strict macro plan and there was no way you would be able to calculate all of the carbs, fat, protein and calories in your friend's home cooked meal.
You see what I’m getting at? You see how much dieting actually interferes with your life? It’s hard to maintain good relationships if you can never fully partake in any of the activities with your loved ones.
Never mind that, but that hanger alone can really put a damper on your relationships.
What’s the alternative to dieting?
So what’s the alternative to dieting? I’m so glad you asked! Ever heard of intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is a concept originally created by fellow Registered Dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Essentially, intuitive eating is a non-weight focused, anti-diet, evidence based, self-care approach to eating.
Though I like to think of intuitive eating as something we are born with, that as we age and are exposed to the toxicity of diet culture, seems to fade away. To learn more about intuitive eating and get started today, check out my FREE mini-training: "Getting Started with Intuitive Eating."
What happens when you stop dieting?
A few things will happen when you finally stop dieting for good including, but not limited to, weight stabilization, metabolism recovery and improvement in overall well-being.
First of all, you will no longer see those large weight fluctuations associated with yo-yo dieting, instead your weight will settle at its healthy weight, whatever that may be for you.
This may take some time, as will it for your metabolism to recover. Your metabolism will start to normalize but we can’t say for sure whether it will completely recover or not. This typically comes down to how damaged it is in the first place.
To come to a more accurate prediction we would have to take a look into your past history which would include things like number, frequency and severity of diets tried as well as length of time spent dieting throughout your life.
You will also notice an improvement in general health and potentially specific health issues. This may include improvement in your blood lipid profile (e.g. triglycerides), blood sugar control and blood pressure.
We already discussed how dieting interferes with life, so of course overall life satisfaction will improve!
This might look like…
No longer second guessing accepting an invite to a potluck, appetizer night or dinner date
Actually ordering an ice cream cone when your family goes for ice cream on a hot day and not feeling guilty about it
Moving your body because it feels good and you enjoy it, rather than doing exercise you hate because your think it’s the best way to lose weight
Overall a healthier relationship with food, your body and your loved ones
So what are you waiting for? The facts have been presented and you can now picture how much better life can be without dieting. Yes, I know, it’s a lot easier said than done.
How to stop dieting
It is actually quite difficult to quit dieting for good. Dieting feels safe, it’s all you know. If you’re no longer following external diet rules then how are you supposed to know what to eat right?
The approach I use to help my clients to help them overcome dieting is intuitive eating. If you haven’t already, I suggest you go check out my self-paced online course: The Formula for Food Freedom.
This course if perfect for you if you want to work through the process of intuitive eating on your own time at your own pace. If you prefer to have more individualized support and guidance, consider seeking out 1:1 coaching.
Work with a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, like myself. You can learn more about me and my virtual nutrition services by clicking the services tab on my website Dietitian Krista. If you’re looking specifically for someone in your area, check out the Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor Directory.
Disadvantages of Dieting Discussed
At this point you should have a clear understanding that diets do not work, cause harm, both physically and psychologically, and interfere with life.
I hope you take some time to reflect on what your life could look like if you no longer dieted as well as take the next steps to stop dieting for good.
If you’re looking for further support or would just like to ask a question, please feel free to comment below or reach out to me personally! I would love to hear from you :)
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