Confession time: I HATE the word “diet.” Weird for a nutritionist, right? I started my first diet at age 9. That was when the low fat craze hit back in the 80s, and my mom had a book on counting fat grams. I read it cover to cover and cut out mayonnaise and all the other “fatty” foods, keeping my daily fat intake under 25 grams. Sad for a little kid. Also, developing children NEED good fats for brain development! Maybe that’s why I’m a little crazy 😉 I can’t remember if it worked, but I do remember the nasty cardboard low fat foods that were likely high in sugar –the real cause of weight gain– to mask the fake taste.
Anyway, the word diet conjures up images of tasteless foods, deprivation, and a temporary unpleasant semi-starvation period until you can go back to your old ways. Let’s ditch the diet dogma and replace that with a sustainable life-long plan that includes REAL foods as they’re meant to be eaten.
Here’s a list of reasons why diets don’t work.
1) Biochemical individuality: this means we’re all physiologically different and we all have different needs and requirements. The South Beach diet may work wonders for your neighbor and may not be the right plan for you. Then you feel inadequate because your neighbor lost 50 pounds, and you stayed the same (or worse, gained).
2) Deprivation: if you’re restricting calories too low and eating Lean Cuisines, your body is going to rebel and prevail in the end — when you have an inevitable binge. Eating too low cal actually pushes your body into fat storage mode, as it perceives you are in a famine state, so it needs to hold on to what it’s got. You could also be losing muscle. And you’re finally so hungry because you are literally starving your body of nutrients that when you finally give up and binge on pizza and cookies, you feel like a failure when it’s really not about willpower. You’re starving yourself! I should know– I lived this restriction/binge cycle for years. I’d been so “good” during the week that I’d go nuts on the weekends as a reward, only to feel bloated and inflamed on Monday, mostly because eating whatever I wanted included lots of inflammation-causing gluten, dairy and sugar. Then I’d restrict myself as punishment. Who wants that?!
3) Not sustainable: diets aren’t sustainable. People perceive diets as something you go on when you want to drop weight, then you can go off and back to your old ways. There’s no lifestyle change in place there. It’s about finding what works for your body, folks. It’s more than a calories in/calories out game– figure out which foods cause you inflammation (major contributor to weight gain) or are “trigger” foods (gluten, dairy, nuts, sugar) and avoid those. Focus on what you can and should have: lots of protein, good fats, veggies. And dark chocolate!
4) Associated with “diet foods:” Lean Cuisine, SlimFast, Jenny Craig, low fat, fat free? Gross. Not even real food! Highly refined and processed and void of nutrients. Above all, unappetizing.
5) Lead to weight gain: that cycle I described in item #2? That leads to weight gain. So does periods of mega restriction when you’re dieting. It may work initially but not long term. The key? Finding a sustainable plan with real foods that nourish, not deprive, you. Know that when you’re craving pizza, for example, there are alternatives made with healthful ingredients over refined white flour that will set you up for a craving/binge cycle. Here are three right here:
Everyday Paleo pizza with almond meal crust
Grass Fed Girl’s paleo pizza
6) Promote unhealthy relationship with food: diets create a sense of deprivation and put you at “war” with food as the enemy. By focusing on good fats and proteins and veggies and seeing those foods as truly nourishing, you redefine your relationship with food. I highly recommend all former dieters in dieting rehab check out Julia Ross’s book:
The Diet Cure: The 8-Step Program to Rebalance Your Body Chemistry and End Food Cravings, Weight Gain, and Mood Swings–Naturally
The enemy foods are the low fat, highly processed diet foods that are skeletonized and cause cravings and hunger because they don’t provide any nutrients, not that grass fed steak or even that organic bacon!
7) Damage metabolism: the longer you restrict calories, the more stressed your body becomes. It thinks you’re in a famine state, so cortisol rises and you are in fat storage mode. Stay here for too long and thyroid function can also be affected. A hypothyroid state makes it much more difficult to lose weight and burn fat until it’s corrected.
I hope this convinces you that diets don’t work long term. If you have a goal of weight loss, it’s important to determine which foods you’re eating that are preventing weight loss (gluten? dairy?s soy? grains? corn? sugar? alcohol?) and why. Or if there’s an underlying metabolic issue like hypothyroidism or adrenal fatigue.
Did you know being overweight is actually considered a deficiency? Eating too many refined foods or sugar over time causes insulin resistance, meaning nutrients can’t get into cells (insulin is the primary vehicle to get glucose and nutrients into cells). This drives appetite and cravings up because your body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs! It’s possible to reverse this over time. It Starts with Food: Discover the Whole30 and Change Your Life in Unexpected Ways does an excellent job of explaining this cycle. So, say goodbye to the Lean Cuisines and the Kashi Go Lean, and say hello to grass fed burgers wrapped (bunless, of course) with avocado!
How did you break out of the dieting cycle? Please share your story!
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.