Evidence has shown for decades that diets don’t work.
Most of us know it, and science has shown it time and again: most people who go on a diet will eventually gain back the weight lost, and very likely more.
Along the way, dieters may also mess up their metabolism and their relationship with food.
And yet it seems human nature attracts us to diets and restrictive ways of eating. That temptation is particularly strong after times of indulgence – cue the festive season, after which we atone for our dietary excess by embarking on whatever weight-loss regime is currently in the limelight.
It’s the promise of the quick fix that attracts us, as diet creators know.
And yes, if you diet you can lose weight – there are rules and restrictions, after all. Whatever the plan – fasting, low-carb, raw – there are foods that are banned, meaning we’re almost certainly going to eat less.
But we also know that the only way we can keep weight off is by sticking to that diet for life. As anyone who’s ever been on a diet knows, that is next to impossible.
A recent survey showed that almost one in four (23 percent) respondents said they had followed a weight loss diet in the last year. Women outnumbered men, and 20 percent of respondents said they’d tried a low-carb diet, 17 percent had tried intermittent fasting, and 11 percent tried the keto diet. There was probably some crossover between these groups from people trying more than one diet.
“There’s evidence that the younger a woman is when she starts her first diet, the more likely she is to use extreme weight control behaviors by the time she hits her 30s.”
It’s disheartening to see young people most attracted to dieting. The numbers jump to one in three on weight-loss diets among those aged 15-34. A quarter of this group had also tried low-carb and fasting diets.
The reasons for this are not clear, but the effects can be bad. There’s evidence that the younger a woman is when she starts her first diet, the more likely she is to use extreme weight control behaviors by the time she hits her 30s. Dieting young also makes women more likely to misuse alcohol, and, ironically, they’re more likely to be overweight or obese as they get older.
Restrictive eating can also mess with our heads. It changes our relationship with food from simple – about hunger, satisfaction and pleasure – to complex – about deprivation, denial and self-judgment. For some people that can mean a descent into disordered eating.
Dietitians and registered nutritionists are increasingly following a ‘no diet’ approach; refusing to even weigh people who come to them for treatment, in favor of focusing on other benefits that people may gain from body acceptance and eating for health.
So if not dieting, what?
The answer may lie in simply changing how we think. It means a change from diets to diet: from short-term to life-long. And to think about diet the way we approach other things we do for our overall health.
Nutrition expert Dr David Katz, founding Director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, puts it like this: “We don’t ‘go’ on exercise; we exercise, and generally with the hope of getting fitter, and keeping at it.”
So when we make changes to the way we eat, it’s important to consider whether the change – giving up carbs or cutting out dairy or any other restrictive ‘rule’ – is something we can keep up for the rest of our life. If the answer is no, we might be better off reconsidering.
In general, small changes work better than drastic ones. And a series of small but sustainable changes will be far better for our long-term health than jumping on the diet-regain-diet cycle.