Updated: 4 days ago
For women who want to lose weight, the first reaction is to go on a diet. No matter if its Noom, Optavia (formerly Take Shape for Life), BODi (formerly Beachbody), WW (formerly WeightWatchers), or something else - dieting is the first reaction to wanting to lose weight. But will a diet actually work for weight loss long term?
Short answer: Yes!
Long answer: It will in the short term, but not long term unless you can follow it until the end of time.
It seems like every time we lose weight as the result of a diet, we end up gaining it all back (sometimes with interest). Today I'm diving into the science of why that is and what we can do instead to save us all the heartache that dieting brings.
Instead of dieting today only to throw your hands up in the air in a few months, let's save you the stress on the front end. Keep reading to find out why diets don't work and what to do instead!
What Does a Diet Mean?
To start our question of asking 'do diets work', we need to define what we’re talking about when we say “diet”. What does a diet mean?
There are two different ways to talk about diets; as an adjective or as a verb.
We can use the word diet as an adjective. In other words, to describe the composition of what one eats in a day. For example:
What does your diet look like?
What does your diet include?
Diet NPO (nothing by mouth)
Diet restrictions include…
But then we can use it as a verb. We can describe it as something we are doing such as "I'm going on a diet" or "I am dieting".
When we go on a diet, this involves restricting foods to reach a certain goal, and that goal is usually weight loss. Other times, it’s to manage a medical condition.
Today, I’m talking about the word 'diet' when we use it as a verb and specifically when we discuss dieting to lose weight.
Why We Diet
Typically women (and men) diet to lose weight. This decision is usually met with thoughts of, “maybe I can do it in a way that will actually work this time”. But something I want to highlight here is that if you have to keep restarting different diets, do diets work? Seems like they don’t.
But we still do it because we are desperate to lose weight in order to be accepted, valued, loved, and admired. This is largely due to the media's influence on women.
Media has a huge impact on us and on our decisions to view our bodies in a certain way. There's a really fascinating study that was done showing how women were not self-conscious of their bodies until after they were introduced to televisions.
In the past, curvy figures were viewed as more valuable because it was a sign of wealth i.e. being able to afford food. Today, if you see somebody who's really thin, we put a higher status on them because they must be wealthy enough to afford ‘healthy’ foods, dietary supplements, a gym membership, liposuction, etc.
As a result of this, the weight loss market in 2021 was valued at $73 billion, which is absolute madness. But not surprising because of this constant attack on our self-esteem and self-worth.
So hang on, do diets work if the weight-loss industry is worth $73B? That doesn’t check out. If diets really did work the weight loss industry would be worth very little because, theoretically, there should be a 1-time purchase for each person.
Let’s talk more about how messed up this industry is, and why dieting is actually shown to increase your chance of weight gain.
Why Diets Don't Work
There are a lot of intuitive eating dietitians out there who will say 95% of people who diet will gain the weight back. I have tried very hard to find that statistic and I can't seem to find one that is more current than 1959. So I'm not going to sit here and say 95% of diets fail.
However, it is no secret that they do have a high failure rate (whatever that rate technically is). I have had hundreds, if not thousands of women tell me “I have dieted and I always lost weight, but then I gained it back”.
So do diets work? In many cases, they don't work long term. Let's dig into why we gain the weight back.
Why Did I Gain Weight After Eating Less?
The first time we diet, we usually lose a lot of weight. In fact, it’s usually the most weight we’ll lose in our lifetime of dieting.
Every time after that, we lose less and less weight, and gain more and more back.
This was my problem, too. Every time I lost weight I would gain it back, plus interest. And it would come back fast.
Dieting is so maddening because we lose weight on the front end and it makes us absolutely giddy - but this is mostly water weight.
Water exits the cells in times of low-carbohydrate intake (which most diets are designed to be). Once carbohydrates are reinstated, water returns to the cells. Hence the rapid return of weight that was lost.
These diets do a really great job of helping us lose weight, but they do a really crappy job of helping us keep it off. That’s because diets don’t take into account all of the different mechanisms in our body that kick in, which are just trying to keep us alive.
But the companies behind the diets don’t mind. All that means for them is that they will have repeat customers.
Why Can't I Lose Weight with Diet?
Our bodies actually resist losing weight when it's the result of extreme calorie restriction that we see with dieting.
What it comes down to is that our bodies don’t know the difference between us being on a diet for the sake of having a bikini body versus starving in a desert. Either way, it's registering that not enough food is available.
For example, let’s say our diet has us eating 800 calories a day but in reality we need 2,000 calories a day. That is less than HALF of what that person needs to function. So, you better believe that our body is registering that as a "WHAT IS HAPPENING?" situation.
We might lose weight in the beginning phases of a diet, but over time the body starts to fight back. It does this in a few different ways:
As a result of dieting, our metabolic rate slows down a bit. This is called thermodynamic adaptation or metabolic adaptation, and it happens for a few reasons:
For one, if weight has been lost on the diet then our bodies don't need as many calories (smaller bodies = less energy needs).
The other thing is that we may be moving less due to lower energy levels that typically accompany a diet (less movement = less energy being spent).
We also use energy to consume our energy. Meaning, when we eat we are actually burning calories as we use energy to digest/absorb our food. When we diet, we're typically eating less food (less food = less energy being spent).
Metabolic adaptation is not as severe as a lot of people claim it to be, but it is a small factor. With the metabolic rate slowing down, we may be preserving what we can on our bodies, making fat loss difficult.
That's usually where we see a weight loss plateau; people don't account for the fact that their energy needs are now lower from when they initially lowered their calorie intake. Does that mean that it's a good idea or healthy for them to keep lowering calorie intake and/or increasing calorie expenditure? Not necessarily.
In times of starvation or semi-starvation, the body increases biological cravings for food. This happens in a variety of different ways:
Fullness hormones decrease (takes more food to feel full)
Hunger hormones increase (feelings of hunger more often)
Increased carbohydrate cravings (our bodies really want to drive us to have the favorite source of fuel, which is of course carbohydrates. There’s a reason you dream about bread when you’re dieting).
Increased Food Cravings
Our nervous system does a fantastic job of connecting the brain and the body so they are on the same page. When we are dieting, the body sends signals to the brain that we need more food; the brain then puts thoughts of food at the forefront of our minds.
But in the state of dieting we try to white-knuckle it. We tell ourselves we can make it through. Even though we’re thinking about food, even dreaming about food, we’re going to make it through without eating it because we are SO determined to lose those last 5 pounds. But as we know, that doesn’t last for long.
The process of dieting lends itself to increased food cravings, and now that we have a slower metabolism (see above) it doesn't take as many calories as it used to in order for weight gain to happen.
I’m Not on a Diet, but I Still Struggle with Binge Eating. Help!
You might be thinking, “I don't diet:
I'm not doing Optavia,
I'm not doing a low-carb diet,
I'm not on keto,
I'm not even restricting myself to 1200 calories a day,
but I still struggle with binge eating and I still struggle with giving into food cravings… I don't know what's wrong with me?”
There’s something that I want you to hear if that's true for you: You may be psychologically restricting certain foods, and your body is still registering that as physical restriction (a diet).
For example, maybe you still allow yourself to have pizza. But if in your mind you think “I really shouldn't be eating this”, your brain is registering, “I'm not going to be able to have this again.”
Now you want it even more because you are putting yourself into the circumstance of food scarcity, even though you're not necessarily on a diet.
You might not be wondering “do diets work” and know that they don’t, but you may still be experiencing the symptoms of a yo-yo dieter without ever being on a diet purely because of the relationship with food you have.
What is a Yo-Yo Diet?
Yo-yo dieting is when we get stuck in a restrict-binge cycle and yo-yo back and forth between restricting/dieting and binge-eating/overeating.
Yo-yo dieting can look like:
You start a diet to lose weight, only to go off plan, give up, and gain all the weight back
You fast for 5 days of the week then have ‘cheat meals’ for 2 days
You start over every Monday
You are binge-eating in anticipation of a diet starting tomorrow.
Hopefully by this point, you see that dieting drives us towards food even more.
When we are driven towards food:
we end up binge eating,
we feel out of control,
we gain all the way back,
we gain more weight back than we lost because we slowed our metabolism down and it now takes less food for us to be in a surplus of calories compared to what we're burning.
Do Diets Work? If Not, What Do I Do Instead?
Do diets work long term if they just lead to weight GAIN? Nah fam 😂
If you're reading this and feel like it describes a lot of what you’ve experienced, I want you to understand that you were never the problem: the diet was.
I'm hoping that you can feel a sense of freedom and understand that these diets are not the answer. It doesn't matter if it worked the first time, we know what happens next and we know that that cycle is going to continue.
So what do we do instead?
What I've come to in my own story, research, and working with clients is that we need to make sure first and foremost that our relationship with food is in a solid place. The best solution for starting that process is intuitive eating.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is listening to and honoring our body's cues. It's taking away the restriction mode that drives us into a slowed metabolism and binge eating, which of course is contributing to the weight gain we see in the aftermath of a diet.
It’s deciding, “I'm done. I'm done with the things that are giving the diet industry more money which will only make me gain more weight in the end. I’m done being a slave to calories. I’m done torturing myself. I’m ready to live my life again.”
If the goal is to lose weight, dieting doesn't make any sense. Why do something that is going to lead to weight gain? Why do something that makes you miserable? Why do something that makes you obsessed with food and takes up so much mental real estate to the point where you can't focus on things in your life that make you happy, bring you joy, and make your heart grow?
Intuitive Eating How To
The beauty of intuitive eating is that it allows you to really listen to what your body is requesting. What your body is requesting is what's best for your body because your body is on your team. It not only wants you to survive, it wants you to thrive.
Our bodies were intelligently designed by a Creator, and if we really do pay attention to the cues that have been given to us then we will be fueling our bodies well.
This is how we reverse chronic diseases. This is how we find a healthy weight and stay there. This is how we stop obsessing over food and find freedom so that we can focus on what actually matters in our life and make a positive impact in the world.
Learning how to apply intuitive eating into your life can be tricky. You definitely don’t want to make the same intuitive eating mistakes that I see a lot of people making, which only leads to more confusion, binge eating, and yo-yo dieting.