9 Reasons Diets Don't Work (Because You Should Probably Just Eat The Damn Cake)
May 6 is No Diet Day — an annual holiday devoted to raising awareness about how destructive to your health, body image, and well-being dieting can be. Founded in 1992 by British author and anti-dieting activist Mary Evans Young, No Diet Day challenges us to spend the day (and hopefully, many of our future days) celebrating our natural bodies and the diversity of healthy body shapes and sizes out in the world. It's about supporting and promoting positive body images for people of every size; fighting fatphobia and other forms of discrimination based on our bodies; and challenging the cultural attitudes that encourage us all to diet constantly, hate our bodies, and become preoccupied by our weight.
No Diet Day also encourages us to learn about the difference between healthy eating that supports your body and well-being, and restrictive, unhealthy dieting that can compromise our health and chip away at our self-esteem. So, in honor of No Diet Day, here are nine reasons to take a pass on dieting.
Do it for yourself, do it to be a role model to your little sister, do it to say screw you to the multi-billion dollar diet industry — but if nothing else, do it because no matter who you are, or what is going on in your life, a diet is not probably just not the answer.
1. Diets Are Designed To Fail
To start with the most basic of facts: diets don't work. Though exact statistics are hard to come by, by some reports, up to 95 percent of dieters gain back whatever weight that they lost within three years of completing their diet. And that is because a diet, by very definition, is an unsustainable set of eating patterns — i.e. the exact opposite of working towards developing healthy eating habits that can last your whole life. Making the decision to start eating healthier, or to listen to your body's natural feelings of hunger and fullness, is great. But eating healthier, or listening to your body, are not the same as dieting.
Dieting is based around restricting calories, cutting our certain foods, or engaging in other habits that aren't realistic to keep up for a lifetime (and wouldn't be healthy if you did). Diets are about cutting out whole food groups — carbs! Solid foods! — or eating specific and restrictive meals that require you to expend vast stores of mental energy not on experiencing the pleasure of food, but on the psychology of restricting yourself. They monopolize your time, suck up your energy, and give you a one-track mind. Of course no one can (or should) keep that up!
2. Diets Mess With Your Sense Of Hunger
Your body knows when you're hungry and when you're full. We can put off eating when we're hungry, or eat past the point of fullness because we feel like it, but we're hopefully still aware of our body's natural signals.
However, many diets encourage you to ignore your body's signals of hunger on a regular basis. This can have a long-term impact on the way we relate to our own feelings of hunger — when we look outside ourselves to know when to start or stop eating, we don't connect with our actual hunger, which is at the heart of healthy eating. If you spend enough time ignoring your hunger, it can become like background noise — and estrange us from our bodies in the process.
3. Diets Convince You That There Is Morality To Eating
Have you ever seen someone eat a piece of chocolate cake, then snicker about how they're "so bad"? Or read a menu where a dessert was described as "guilt-free"? Well, that's more than bad water cooler humor — that's the warped sense of morality inherent in dieting.
Rather than allowing us to view foods in a straight-forward way, where we can assess their pluses and minuses and make a rational decision about whether we feel like eating them, diets mark some foods as "virtuous" and other foods as "decadent," turning eating into its own religion — and your body its holy war (if you ask me, the same can be said for the phrase "clean eating").
Will you be "good" and eat a salad for dinner? Or will you go "bad" and eat a burger? While this might all seem harmless, it actually gets into our heads — to the point where many of us have felt real, palpable guilt over eating this or that "fattening" food item, the same way you would over having told a lie.
This is BS. It's not a battle for your soul; it's just a f***ing slice of cake.
4. Diets Gloss Over Our Emotional Issues With Food
This isn't to say that we all inherently have perfectly healthy relationships with food. Many of us (myself included) sometimes eat long past the point of fullness because it feels comforting, or eat foods that aren't healthy and don't make our bodies feel good, because they give us a self-soothing emotional high in the moment. Due to our messed-up, food-and-diet-obsessed culture, most of us have emotional issues with food, and we'd all be better off it we thought deeply about them and how they impact us.
But diets don't ask you to think about why you eat the way you eat. Diets won't encourage you to think about why you're, say, self-medicating with sugar, and how it goes back to your childhood and the ways that your family dealt with sadness and pain. Diets encourage you to think that the problem is all in your body — and that if you can succeed in controlling your body, you'll crush the emotional problems that inform your issues with food, too.
This, of course, is not the truth — ask anyone who's gone on a crash diet, only to find that all their emotional hang-ups still fit them, even if their clothes didn't. A diet won't make you understand why you do what you do — and it certainly won't help you work through your feelings about food so that you can develop healthier eating patterns that make you feel happy and your body feel good.
5. Diets Are Designed To Make You Feel Bad
Even though diets are unsustainable, we're trained to blame the dieter, not the dieting industry. Can't resign yourself to spending the next sixty years not eating bread? You're the problem, lady! Can't survive a week consuming nothing but lemon water with cayenne pepper? It's because you're a loser, not because the human body was not built to be treated like this. When a diet inevitably fails, we're trained to blame ourselves for our "lack of willpower," rather than the fact that a diet isn't sustainable.
But eating healthy and living a healthy life has nothing to do with the willpower and brute force extolled by dieting. If anything, they require the opposite — a willingness to listen to and accept your body.
6. The Diet Industrial Complex Makes Millions Off Making You Feel Bad About Your Body
Despite the fact that diets don't work, that doesn't stop them from costing you a ton of money. Dieting is a $60 billion dollar industry in this country, which means that companies have to constantly come up with new products and programs that convince you that there's something wrong with you — and that this program is the only thing that can fix it.
7. Dieting Sets A Poor Example
Unfortunately, most women have a memory of their mother on a diet, one that has colored their own relationship with food. My mother had a magnet on our freezer of a hippo bearing the warning of "A Moment On The Lips, A Lifetime On The Hips." It was supposed to keep her from eating ice cream, which she often used to self-soothe about her failing marriage. The magnet didn't keep her from the ice cream; but it did make her feel like a failure, and it made me wonder why I, one day, when I was a grown woman, it would no longer be OK for me to eat ice cream.
Similarly, a co-worker tells me she recalls watching her mother eat plain tuna for dinner, and thinking that forsaking all pleasure in food, in the name of weight loss, was what being a woman was about. Diets send the message to the younger women in our lives that suffering to achieve a particular appearance is more important than eating foods that are nourishing and delicious; and with 40-60 percent of elementary school girls already expressing unhappiness with their bodies, we owe them better than that. We should send the message to the young women in our lives that being a woman is not about sacrificing having full, nejoyable lives in favor of obsessing over our bodies.
8. Diets Can Hurt Your Health
In the short term, a diet that severely restricts your calories can make you lose muscle tissue, lower your energy levels, and force your body to lower its metabolism — if your body thinks it is starving, it will burn energy at a slower rate, and, ironically, make it more difficult for your body to burn calories in the end. And the longterm effects of long term dieting are far worse. Folks who yo-yo diet — that is, have fluctuating weight due to going on and off diets — are at a 70 percent higher risk of heart disease than those who maintain a stable weight.
And that's not even touching on the fact that many eating disorders begin as diets. 20 million American women suffer from an eating disorder, and those 20 million cases have their roots in our diet-crazed culture. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 91 percent of college women have dieted, half of teenage girls had tried to control their weight through disordered behaviors like fasting and vomiting, and 25 percent of college women used bingeing and purging to manage their weight. In a weight and appearance-obsessed culture such as ours, the line between dieting and disordered eating can be so thin, many don't realize that they've crossed it until things have gotten really bad.
9. You Just Don't Need To
I'm not going to say you're perfect the way you are, or some empty platitude like that. None of us are perfect, all of us have stuff we could work on or work out, and for some of us, living a healthier lifestyle and developing a better understanding of our relationship with food is definitely on that list.
But we need real help that respects us and values our health, not the shaming, negative, unhealthy world of dieting. We don't need special low-calories meals in a box, or a trainer shouting at us, or an app we use to log every calorie that touches our lips. We deserve to be healthy inside and out, to treat our problems holistically, and to not restrict our access to anything — especially our ability to love and accept ourselves for who we are.
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