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.
The last diet I ever went on was something I tricked myself into thinking was a lifestyle thing. I was gonna be a vegan. I was a raw vegan for six months. I was sure that this was it! I was finally going to be thin and healthy…in the end I gained two pounds. I was so mad! And sad. I think I even cried. Eventually I found out about HAES and that’s been my journey ever since.I laugh at that last diet experience now…. so funny!And I was so not healthy either! I really appreciate posts like this from professionals. Thank you for the work that you do!
Oh wow, raw vegan is definitely a “lifestyle!” My litmus test for “is it a diet” is: would you eat this way even if your health and weight remained unchanged? Do you like this way of eating? My answer was always, no, of course I would not eat this way, I’m so hungry!!
Glenys, you are so right about the mechanism – here is an article that supports you 🙂 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23126426
Great article, I’m constantly telling people “imagine you’re in a famine, that’s what your body thinks is going on!”
We’ve been putting ourselves on one big long self-induced famine!!
It isn’t just a food famine; it’s also a famine of spirit, of self- acceptance, that leads people down the garden path of dieting ONCE AGAIN, pinning all their hopes on achieving a more “acceptable” body this time, and promising themselves not to regain weight as they always did in the past. This is a great essay!
You’re so right, Bill. The physiological harm dieting does is really only a tiny part of it. You nailed it with “famine of the spirit”! We end up living half-lived lives on diets.
I’m glad you mention Mireille Guiliano. For me, that felt like the most seductive diet because it French and seemed so real because it’s from another culture. She must be telling the truth! Except, totally not. That was the last diet I went on before I began my HAES journey.
Oh same here. I made the soup in that book and it was horrible. I eat more “French” now but I got fat. But I like the way I eat now, so there Mireille!
The last diet I went on was sort of a misapplication of the intuitive eating principles. I became excessively rigid about eating only when hungry and only what I felt like eating, and turned down many a cupcake because I “knew” I’d feel sick and head-achy after I ate it. Basically, I talked myself into believing that I was practicing IE, when really, I was restricting. I also began exercising regularly at this time, which initially started as a healthy habit change but eventually took on some of the same features of rigidity as my eating had. That, coupled with a period of out-of-control anxiety resulted in a 20 lb weight loss, about 10 lbs more than what I was aiming for, and which I maintained for a year, even after I began to become more flexibility in my food and exercise habits. Then I began to get the anxiety under control, and slowly, the weight crept back on. I don’t own a scale and I don’t make a regular habit of weighing myself anymore, but I was just at the doctor last week and was weighed there. Guess what– 5 years after my last diet, I am only one pound under my pre-diet weight. I’m basically a case study that follows the statistical data about weight loss to the letter! But while I am back at my starting weight, I am managing my feelings much better, am sleeping so much better (at the height of my anxiety– and at my lowest weight– I had terrible insomnia), am exercising and eating for pleasure and well-being. I will take my improved health over smaller pants any day!
So great that you realized your IE practice had turned into a diet. I think it can happen so easily, especially with us former-dieters – we love to do everything perfect!! Glad you’re having a better time of it now!
This is so true. I lost a stone 5 years ago and have now put it all back on.
You’re not alone!! And the diet industry tried to blame the consumer…in what other industry does that happen!?!?
What does HAES mean?
Health at Every Size https://daretonotdiet.wordpress.com/2015/01/05/if-not-dietingthen-what/