• Lauren Feder

The Harms of Dieting

Diet culture fuels a multi-billion dollar industry that works strenuously to communicate a single message: “There is a thinner human living inside of you who is dying to break out.” I can’t help but wonder; if diets actually work, then why does this industry even exist? If a specific diet was scientifically supported to be effective and achievable, everyone would know. We would never have to pay a cent to another greedy fatphobic advertiser again. The unfortunate reality is that each year a new diet, one that is more promising takes the spotlight. And so many, of course, take the weight loss bait.


While I have succumbed to numerous product advertisements (hence my new air fryer and foam roller), I have become increasingly furious with the plethora of diet advertisements I come across. Diets can be extremely harmful and can have many direct consequences. Most significantly, diets are a powerful catalyst for the silent formation of serious eating disorders.


Diet plans are also not commonly tailored to individual consumers and are responsible for endangering the physical and mental well-being of those who seek weight loss. The language I spoke about in the previous blog, making up for so-called bad food, is similar to the thinking framework of folks suffering from eating disorders. This binary thinking is often accompanied by profound guilt that frequently manifests in dangerous compensatory behaviors.


The diet industry plays a central role in moralizing food choices; through strategic marketing techniques, they produce a culture that implicitly and often explicitly informs consumers that particular food groups are forbidden, while others are idolized. Through this process, diets distract individuals from their innate desire for nourishment and are instead plagued with guilt and shame for deciding to engage with their body’s intuitive need for nourishment.


Intuitive eating is a way to change your relationship with food, reject diet culture, and start living healthily without deprivation and the constant worry of food. We all have experienced glimpses of intuitive eating. As children, we might have craved uncommon combinations like pickles and jam or informed our guardian that we were full only to be instructed to finish our plate. We were practicing intuitive eating by listening to what our bodies desired and in doing so nourishing our bodies effectively. Through this lens, as children, we were gifted a brief moment in which we were not impacted by diet culture and its dangerous ideology.


Below are important points that I gathered from literature; I hope to plant a seed of questioning the diet that’s tempting you:


Diets don’t work:

Aside from the harm they do, diets do not produce sustainable weight loss. A 2007 study by Traci Mann analyzing 31 long-term diet studies found complete weight regain in the majority of participants, with participants often gaining more than their start weight. Individuals who did participate in weight-loss programs gained significantly more weight over a two-year period than those who had not participated in a weight-loss program. While this might seem shocking, there are plenty of studies that have reviewed numerous diets (including paleo, keto, or “clean eating”) that found that within a year's time, the weight was gained back. Diets are essentially working against your brain's desire for energy and therefore make a dieter more sensitive to stress and the rewards of high-calorie foods. These effects remain in the body long after stopping a diet, with restriction and high cortisol levels often leading to binge eating.


Diets Are Not Only Ineffective but Harmful:

Yo-yo dieting is a term used to refer to the instability of dieting and the cycles of losing and regaining weight. Yo-yo dieting increases the risk of heart disease and has negative impacts on metabolism. Because your body thinks it is being starved, vital processes such as metabolism and brain function are slowed to conserve energy. Dieters often have compromised working memory from consistent food anxiety, and chronic dieting is often linked with stress, depression, and weakened self-esteem. UCLA Professor of Psychology Traci Mann remarks, “Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people.”


Despite the harm of diets, diets hook consumers with their initial “honeymoon phase.” Dieters frequently experience weight loss within the first week of a diet, while it increasingly becomes more difficult to sustain and increase weight loss over time. Consequently, many dieters experience feelings of failure. In reality, this inability to lose more weight is a biological defense against self-imposed starvation. Any restriction puts our bodies into a state of biological questioning: do we need to go into survival mode because resources are scarce?


Dieting Can Be Disordered Eating:

As much as I am against dieting, I want to extend immense compassion to those who are stuck in the diet cycle and attach their worth to numbers on a scale. Chronic dieters are often suffering from eating disorders, enduring a mental illness, and are not being treated due to lack of significant weight loss and particularly because of the normativity of dieting. Eating disorders occur in individuals of all shapes and sizes. Similar to the often empty promise of weight loss from dieting, eating disorders do not always result in extreme physical changes. One’s appearance does not take away the severity and pain one is experiencing.


If you have been a victim of diet culture I offer you these words of advice: You are not a failure for not successfully dieting. Diets are ineffective to begin with, and if you do not lose weight, perhaps you can commend your body for working so hard to keep you nourished.


What if you are having a hard time letting go of your desire to diet?

I suggest that you contact a professional, engage in your own research, and consider integrating intuitive eating into your life. Consult a nutritionist and therapist if your intrigue in dieting is persistent, particularly if you find yourself skipping meals or avoiding entire food groups.


Stayed tuned for next month’s blog: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Wellness Culture. This blog will offer tips on how to spot diet culture being simply but dangerously rebranded.


Other Recommended Readings: https://www.intuitiveeating.org

https://christyharrison.com/book-anti-diet-intuitive-eating-christy-harrisonhttps: //www.npr.org/2021/12/23/1067210075/what-if-the-best-diet-is-to-reject-diet-culture


Image courtesy: Shutterstock


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