One of the reasons diet culture is so persistent and refuses to die is that diets do cause weight loss – for at least some people, for a little while.
Low fat or low carb or high fat or high protein or no sugar or all butter (whoops, did I make that one up? Patent pending!) have all worked pretty much equally well at some point for some people. Studies from a few years back even compared all the current diet methods and said no one diet method was better than any other for shedding pounds (and these studies mentioned nothing about keeping the pounds off long term). I remember back in the early 2000s when Atkins was making a comeback and people, having dropped all manner of carbohydrate out of their diets, did lose weight like crazy (or at least I heard some people did; one guy I worked with didn’t but smelled like deli meat all the time and friend of mine ended up with the worst constipation ever for a month but lost no weight) and the scientists were all, “It’s just because they’re eating fewer calories!” and the Atkins people were like, “No, we’re eating a shit ton of fat, we’re getting lots of calories.” In truth, no one knows why these diets work at first, whether it’s calorie restriction or macronutrient deprivation or what.
So I have a theory on this – and it’s JUST a theory, so take it for what it’s worth. Our bodies seem wonderfully adapted to eat all manner of food and that’s been great from a survival aspect. Some groups of people probably did well just on, like, animal blood and milk, and others did great on mostly some sort of starch and whatever else they picked up off the nearby ground. No diet was necessarily better than another because that’s what was available and we’re great at adapting to what’s available.
Flash forward to the future (now)…and we are like diet nomads, wandering from one restriction to another but on purpose. Like, we have that food but we decide not to eat it for reasons of conforming better to society’s standards of beauty and thinness (something I’m sure our cave people ancestors could have totally gotten behind had they not been busy running from woolly mammoths all the time in between picking up mongongo nuts from the ground half the day). So our body goes without that food and because a WHOLE part of the diet has been eliminated, the body loses weight at first which triggers a biological feedback system that, when it hits a certain point, signals the metabolism that it’s maybe never getting that food again, and it makes some live-saving adaptations, like slowing down your metabolism, making you crave high-energy foods to replace the missing food, getting more efficient at using the available energy (meaning it can use fewer calories for the same functions it used to use more calories for before your diet), and also getting hella good at storing fat, because who knows how long this famine is gonna last. The problem with any diet is that it does make you lose weight and we see that as a good thing while it’s probably just some part of an elaborate feedback system to keep you alive and thriving. The weight loss is quite possibly a symptom of something going wrong in your environment.
Of course, it’s just a theory. And it doesn’t even matter really, because whatever the reason, weight loss is pretty much almost always temporary, unless you manage to develop some seriously disordered eating habits and make maintaining this weight loss your full-time job (which I don’t recommend. You’ve got better things to do).
I like my theory, though, because it also explains why each dieting attempt seems to get harder and harder each time, and no one diet works as well the second time you go on it, am I right? So you’ve got to hop around from diet to diet, and each time you drop some food group out of your diet, your body goes, “OH SHIT this again?” and it goes through the whole feedback system and in the end makes you gain even more weight because that is safety.
But even if I’m wrong about the mechanism, I’m not wrong about what happens. You lose weight on pretty much any diet, your body overwhelms you with a desire to eat, your body makes adaptations (this much we know), and next thing you know, you’ve regained all the weight you lost in those first few halcyon moments of a diet.
And those halcyon weight loss days are soooo fucking seductive. They keep us coming back for more, again and again, just like a cheatin’ lover you just can’t shake.
Meanwhile, we look at the French paradox (that thing where they seem to eat all the foods and they aren’t as fat as us, so we’re told) and go “Zuh, it must be the wine” when in reality it’s probably that they didn’t starve themselves systematically and consistently as we have here in North America for all of the 20th and 21st centuries. They’re bodies probably didn’t get all adapty – until Mireille Guiliano came along and told everyone how French women didn’t get fat and I bet all those French fat women that do exist are on diets now trying to prove her right. (also, it was totally disingenuous of her to tell everyone to just enjoy their food and they’ll get slim, because there is absolutely no evidence that enjoying your food makes you go from fat to thinner. She couldn’t just tell us to enjoy our food and leave the body shame at home?).
All this to say: don’t be fooled. Weight loss from diets IS temporary. We don’t really understand WHY it happens but we do know it IS temporary unless you manage to develop the most disordered of eating habits and devote your life to maintaining your body shape. Trust me when I say, there are so many more worthy causes out there to spend your time on.
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Welcome to food freedom! Dare to Not Diet LLC is owned by Glenys Oyston, Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Therapist and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. It's time to feel good about eating, your body, and your health.