Why Dieting Doesn’t Work
Spring is finally here, with blooming cherry trees, and apple blossoms, white and luminous. I love the first weeks of this season, which always comes early to the Northwest. We have even been blessed with a couple of sunny days!
It’s easy to get ahead of ourselves and dream about lazy summer days, floating on our backs in a nearby lake. But oh no! What about those several pounds that I gained over the winter? I guess it’s time, once again, to “go on a diet” and lose my winter weight.
We are truly fortunate. The 60 billion dollar per year diet industry keeps launching new diet programs that are guaranteed to work. Low fat, high protein, low carb, no carb, grapefruit, and apple diets, sprinkled with protein shakes rain down every year like manna from heaven.
The only problem—they don’t work.
Studies show that over 95% of dieters gain the weight they lose back, and then some. Of course that doesn’t stop most of us from “going on a diet”. We either feel desperate or eternally hopeful, neither of which is very good motivation to do something that is guaranteed to fail. In fact there is some evidence that dieting actually sets in motion a complex set of psychobiological mechanisms that will trigger weight gain!
Dieting interferes with our natural mechanism for experiencing hunger and fullness, both of which are necessary for normal eating. Depriving oneself of specific, desired foods results in a disinhibitory response when we are offered that food. In a classic study of dieting, dieters and non-dieters were presented with ice cream, after drinking either one or two milkshakes. As you might expect, the non-dieters ate less ice cream after the milkshake(s). But what about our dieting friends? They ate more ice cream after drinking two milkshakes than after they drank only one! Once those restricting gates are let down, watch out! Let the good times roll!
Genetics play an unpleasant role in overweight too. Identical twins that were reared apart resembled each other’s weight and shape more frequently than their adoptive parents shape. Resting metabolism, which is the rate that your body at rest consumes calories also seems to be genetically set. It is difficult to reset our “set point”. When I was a young man, it used to kill me that my wife could eat two sandwiches, two desserts, topped off by a milkshake and want to eat again in two hours! She was as slender as a racehorse, but she burned calories like a bird.
Other researchers focus on our physiology, which is still based on our “hunters and gatherers” biology. Our appetite is stimulated when there is a food supply, so that we will store fat for lean times. During lean times, our metabolism slows. Dieting may actually reduce our metabolic rate and make it harder to lose weight. It’s all about survival on the plains of Africa, not fitting into Madison Avenue’s idea of beauty.
So how does one fashion a healthy relationship with food, eating, and their body? (Now that’s the 60 billion dollar question!)
- Focus on internal cues of hunger and fullness. Ask yourself before you eat– am I hungry? After you eat something,–ask yourself, am I full? So much of feeding is schedule based, rather than hunger based. Eat with your body, not your mind. Become attuned to the messages you are receiving from your body.
- Don’t restrict your diet. Do you want some ice cream?-eat some. Do you want a cookie?–have one. See how allowing yourself to eat a broad range of foods impacts your appetite. Over time, you will be less a victim of your cravings that are intensified by restricting your food choices.
- Become aware of what you are feeling. Are you eating because you are bored, angry, or sad? What are you feeling? Sometimes we respond to “emotional triggers” without realizing it. The more aware we become of ourselves, the more we can make better choices, rather than behaving automatically.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself, love yourself for who you are, and make peace with your weight and shape.
What’s been your experience with dieting?