Ah January. A time of reflection and inspiration.
Buckle up, my friends!
Unfortunately, it's also the time of year when you are assaulted around the clock with ads from companies trying to get you to pay money to be smaller or a different shape, when it feels like everybody around you is resolving that this will be the year they will lose the weight, when the kale is sold out and the cookies are thrown out, and when it seems all anybody can talk about anywhere is weight loss and the desire to alter bodies.
It's a LOT of pressure and the siren call of weight loss is strong.
I have such compassion for those struggling with the temptation to get on the diet bandwagon this time of year. The effects of weight stigma are no joke and when you are constantly getting the message that if you were smaller, you'd be happier, more successful, more likable, and attract the partner of your dreams, it's pretty hard to resist. Plus, the unspoken message is that you aren't good enough as is, which is a pretty crappy feeling that nobody wants to have. It's only natural to want to try to do what you think will make you good enough. Perhaps you think, "THIS is the year I will get serious about it and finally lose the weight."
However, diets are a bad idea no matter how you look at it. Here are ten of the biggest reasons to resolve to get off the diet merry-go-round this year.
1. THEY DO NOT WORK (this one is kinda long, bear with me while I nerd out with the science of it)
TLDR: All studies of long-term effectiveness of diets show that diets not only don't work, but they consistently cause weight gain.
The truth is, not only do diets not cause sustained weight loss, they actually cause weight gain. Does this surprise you? If you've ever dieted before, please let this fact be validating. Most people who diet are trying incredibly hard to lose the weight and have generally tried everything under the sun. It's NOT for lack of trying (think about how many things you've tried over the years!) and if this wasn't the case, dieting companies wouldn't be striking it rich. I could write an entire blog post on just this topic, but I will try to keep it brief and explain why.
Dr. Traci Mann at UCLA published a peer-reviewed meta-analysis examining the effectiveness of diets. A meta-analysis is a study looking at the collective results of all the available studies on a particular topic together and it gives a complete picture of scientific results, rather than just the result of one study. It is hardcore science. You can read a summary of the study of this study yourself here or the actual study here. You can also read her fascinating book, which I highly recommend.
What she found is that most people lose 5-10% of their weight in the first 6 months, but 1/3 to 1/2 of people had gained more than they lost by 2 years. Among people who were tracked for more than 2 years 83% of people had gained more than they lost!!! They also found that many people gained more weight with dieting than peers who had never been on a diet at all! Not only did the people who didn't diet gain less weight than those who dieted, in many cases they were better off than their dieting peers. Also, one of the strongest predictors of weight gain was having gone on a diet at some point. There are a ton of fascinating biological and psychological reasons for this, but that's a topic for another post (for more, check out Dr. Mann's book).
In reality, even these numbers paint an overly rosy picture. The effectiveness of diets for weight loss is much lower than what the studies show and the number of people who gain weight on diets is likely much higher due to several factors that bias weight loss studies to show that diets work. For one thing, many people drop out of the studies and do not report back on their weight. As you might imagine, it is the people who lost the least and gained the most who are most likely to drop out due to shame about weight gain. She also found other ways that weight loss studies are biased to show they work, including weights being collected by phone or mail rather than in person weighing. As driver's licenses show, most people are not truthful when reporting their weight.
In conclusion, taken together, all studies of long-term weight loss on diets show that diets not only do not work, but they are one of the strongest predictors of weight gain there is. You haven't failed dieting! Dieting has failed you!
2. Body positivity and dieting are not compatible
When you diet, you are essentially saying to yourself "my body needs to be better/smaller/thinner/more toned," which is the same thing as saying to yourself "my body isn't good enough," even if you haven't thought of it in that way before.
You cannot practice body positivity while giving yourself this message. Body positivity is about accepting the body you have, trying to like most of it most of the time (or at least be okay with it), and treating it with kindness and respect. The message that your body isn't good enough goes against these goals. It does not compute, it's an oxymoron, it does not work.
Now, people will often try to rationalize and package body positivity as compatible with dieting. "I'm doing this for ME because I care about myself." "I do accept and like my body, I just want it to be thinner/smaller/etc." "It's because I care about my body that I'm dieting, so I can be healthy." NO. Just no. These are excuses people give so that they don't have to challenge something that we are all taught is the key to health, happiness, success, and romance. It makes sense why people want to hang on to this so desperately. But there are ways to pursue health that have nothing to do with the scale and you can't simultaneously accept yourself and feel your body isn't good enough at the same time.
3. Dieting increases your risk for physical health problems
One of the most common and enduring justifications for dieting is a desire to improve health. However, something that many don't know, and thus fail to consider, is that weight cycling (the repeated losing and gaining of weight that dieting causes) has been shown to put you at greater risk of MANY health problems.
A short list: cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, impaired immune functioning, metabolic problems.
Even if being in a larger body causes health problems (and the jury is out on this - weight gets conflated with eating and exercise behaviors, which do impact health and far more than weight, which is why we see both healthy and unhealthy thin people and healthy and unhealthy larger people), we know that weight loss does not work, and there may be significant risk from dieting itself.
If you want to improve your physical health, you are much better off taking a weight-neutral approach (like Health at Every Size) that focuses on health behaviors (eating more veggies, improving fitness, getting more sleep, etc.), rather than weight loss. This is something I help people with and so can any other HAES health professional.
4. Dieting is terrible for your mental health
For some reason I can't for the life of me figure out, people seem to only consider physical health when thinking about the decision to diet. However, mental health is JUST as important and has a significant impact on physical health (anxiety and depression negatively impact rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, GI problems, respiratory problems, chronic pain, immune function, just to name a few).
Dieting causes anxiety, and especially depression and a poor body image. In children and teens, in adults, even among the very small number of people who maintain weight loss 10 years after bariatric/stomach amputation surgery.
Dieting causes disordered eating and is also the precursor to eating disorders. Ample research shows that pursuit of the thin ideal (the whole point of dieting!), body dissatisfaction, and dieting lead to disordered eating and exercise behaviors, which lead to pervasive disordered eating/exercising and often to full-blown eating disorders. This is particularly true for bulimia and binge eating disorders. In reality, it's hard to separate dieting from disordered eating since calorie restriction and obsessing about food are disordered behaviors.
Even if you just look at day-to-day emotional wellbeing, dieting causes irritability, fatigue, negative body image and self-talk, anxiety around food/social situations, etc.. Life is too short to feel this way!
5. Dieting is a time and energy suck
Look, I'm going to cut to the chase here. Your time is precious and nobody ever said on their death bed "I wish I had spent more energy on dieting." (and if they do, holy eating disorder Batman!).
You may not think you spend much time and energy on dieting, but that's because our brains aren't wired to notice what becomes everyday. However, if you were to track how many times per day you think about meal planning, calories, points, when and how you can exercise, carbs, fat grams, how many calories an activity will burn, tracking on your food log, whether or not you "can eat" at a particular location, macros, studying menus, whether foods are "good" or "bad" or "healthy" or "unhealthy" it would be a LOT.
In fact, if I had a nickel for every time a client who escapes from dieting has said "wow, I am SHOCKED by how much more time and energy and attention I have for the rest of my life now that I've given up dieting," I'd be one rich lady.
6. Dieting totally screws up your relationship with food
We come in to this world being in tune with our bodies, eating when we are hungry and not eating when we are not. Decisions to eat are made according to what our internal needs are (hunger, nutrition, thirst, comfort, connection, cultural expression). We are natural born intuitive eaters.
When you diet, all of your eating decisions become based on EXTERNAL cues, such as time of day, how many calories you are allowed, what types of foods you are allowed, etc.. Your eating habits then become totally disconnected from your body's needs and you lose touch with your body and your relationship with food becomes controlled and disordered. This is the total opposite of intuitive eating, which improves both physical and emotional health.
7. Dieting negatively impacts your sex life
We already know that dieting leads to negative body image, anxiety, and depression, but these things lead to sexual problems. Plus, dieting creates a mindset of self-objectification - where your worth is based on your body's attractiveness and value to others. This has disastrous consequences in the bedroom including not being able to be present in the moment and prioritizing your partner's needs and pleasure at the expense of your own.
All of this leads to problems like having sex less often, difficulty reaching orgasm, and less sexual satisfaction. How on earth can you focus on sexual pleasure and connecting with your partner when you are thinking about how your belly looks from that angle or your partner seeing you nude?
8. Dieting ruins your relationship with exercise
Just like dieting makes your eating behaviors based on external cues, it does the same thing for exercise. Little kids love to move, play, and be active. They are intuitive movers!
When exercise becomes a means to burn calories to lose weight, it becomes criticizing punishment for not having the "ideal" body. It's no wonder that dieters usually can't stick with an exercise routine, and if they do, they hate it and view it as a chore. Movement only "counts" if it burns a certain number of calories. Exercise is about your body not being good enough.
Exercise should be about moving your body because it feels good, challenges you, lifts your mood, and is fun. When you approach exercise in this way, you're much more likely to make it a consistent habit and you develop a healthy, positive relationship with your body, where exercise is about being more, not less.
9. Your diet hurts people you care about
I don't care if you think your diet doesn't impact others - NOBODY likes to hear you talk about your diet. Your loved one may voice support, but I promise you they don't like hearing you criticize yourself, beat yourself up, talk about calories in and calories out, and your scale. They also do not like having to contort around your food rules, even if they are a good sport about it. When you say "I can't have that with you" or "we can't eat there" it negatively impacts connection with others, which is one of the evolutionary purposes of eating beyond nutrition. And I'm not even going to get into the behaviors of rejecting compliments or seeking reassurance that you don't "look fat."
Also, when you talk about dieting, you are saying "I don't want to look like an overweight person." Consider how this feels to the people you love with bodies larger than yours or who society also views as overweight. You are basically saying "Not looking like you is so important that I'm going to revolve my life around avoiding it." Talk about ouch.
Diet talk is also incredibly triggering and harmful to people recovering from eating disorders or their own negative relationships with food and their body.
Finally, diet talk hurts peers and children, even if they are willingly participating in it or you don't think they notice. Studies show that exposure to "fat talk" (talk about how fat one is or feels) and diet talk tank people's self-esteem and cause body dissatisfaction. Plus, exposure to this and dieting behaviors is the precursor to a lifetime of weight struggles and disordered relationships with food and body for children, particularly young girls.
10. You deserve to live your life NOW
A client of mine said it best: "I don't want to keep waiting to live my life until I lose weight."
YES! A thousand times yes!
You deserve to wear clothes that fit your body and that you feel good in NOW.
You deserve to date, find romance, and be loved by a quality partner NOW (yes, I know dating is harder for people in larger bodies, but it is definitely not hopeless).
You deserve to go for your goals NOW.
You deserve to find ways to move your body that are pleasurable and make you feel good NOW.
You deserve to enjoy food, connect with others, and experience pleasure NOW.
You deserve (and I know this is a hard one) to be in photos, feel sexy, attend reunions, and wear a swimsuit or bikini NOW.
You deserve to like yourself and take care of yourself NOW, just as you are. And in fact, as illustrated above, you will be more successful in doing so once you say no to the madness of dieting (here's a great book to help you get started).
Life is too short to wait, and since diets do not work (if you find yourself saying "yeah, but" you may need to reread #1), there is a chance that you will never lose the weight. Do you really want to get to the end of your life having not allowed yourself to live until you experienced weight loss?
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Befriend Your Body with Dr. Linda Baggett
Blogging with expertise, compassion, and humor (and occasional swearing) about all things trauma, sexuality, body image, and diet culture from a feminist, Health at Every Size perspective with psychologist Dr. Linda Baggett.
Dr. Linda Baggett