It’s that initial rush. You start a diet. You immediately lose a few a pounds. It’s working! The diet is working! But then, it’s not working. The diet becomes difficult to stick with. The diet takes things away – fun things like eating out with friends or spontaneously participating in the office lunch. The diet stops working. The weight loss stops and in the long term, the weight may come back. Or you might actually add more weight than you lost.
Here is a cold hard fact: Diets don’t work, at least not in the long term.
Research shows that 95% of dieters end up gaining back the weight that they lost. Some dieters, about ⅔ of the 95%, gain back the weight that they lost and then some. Dieting is a predictor of short term weight loss AND long term weight gain.
Dieting also has several side effects that don’t help with the intended goal of the diet. Side effects like binge eating, developing eating disorders, eating when not hungry, emotional eating, and eating simply because food is present.
So why do we keep dieting?
It’s that initial rush. Losing those first few pounds is exhilarating and it gives you a feeling of accomplishment. For the first 6 – 12 months, a diet works. People who diet can lose 10% of their body weight during those first months. However, the weight will be back. One study examined women who lost weight during a 6-month weight loss program and found that after 5 years, the average weight of the women was 7.9 pounds heavier than their starting weight.
Then, there’s the diet industry. The diet industry wants you to believe that your weight is a behavior that you can control. But, weight is not a behavior. It is a consequence resulting from a variety of factors such as genetics, age, gender, and lifestyle. The diet industry wants you to believe that you have direct control over every single pound because they want you to keep coming back for more diets to the tune of billions of dollars every year. Dieting promises are wrapped in messages that dieting is the answer to many things – health, happiness, illness, and more.
But if not dieting, then what?
Focus on health, not on weight. No matter a person’s size, health can be improved by making changes toward healthier habits. A study from 2012 looked at the association between healthy lifestyle habits and mortality. The healthy lifestyle habits were eating 5 or more fruits and vegetables per day, exercising regularly, moderate alcohol consumption, and not smoking. This study took the weight, based on Body Mass Index, of the individual into consideration and concluded that adopting healthy lifestyle habits decreased mortality no matter what the person’s weight happened to be. In fact, if all 4 healthy lifestyle habits were adopted, the risk of death was almost the same, regardless of weight.
Recognize that your weight does not show how healthy you are or aren’t. The number on the scale does not show the full picture of health. Is a thin person who does not eat any vegetables and who does not participate in physical activity any healthier than a larger person who exercises regularly and gets at least 5 servings of fruits and veggies per day? Absolutely not.
Center your health and wellness goals on your values. A value is a lifestyle change that you want to make because it matters to you. Why does it matter? Figure out the meaning and purpose behind the changes that you want to make. This will help you create health and wellness goals based on your values. It’s perfectly okay if this starts with a desire to lose weight. Why do you want to lose weight? Explore this question. Your why can’t be feeling words. Your why can’t be “I want to lose weight so that I feel better.” Look deeper – what is it about losing weight that would make you feel better? Maybe you feel better because when you lose weight, you’re eating better and when you eat better, you feel better. You feel better because you’re properly nourishing your body. With this lens, the value is nourishing your body. Once you identify your values, your can start making an action plan to get there.
Foster GD, Wadden TA, Kendall PC, Stunkard AJ, & Vogt RA. (1995). Psychological effects of weight loss and regain: a prospective evaluation. J Consult Cin Psychol, 64(4), 752-757.
Mann T, Tomiyama AJ, Westling, Lew AM, Samuels B, & Chatman J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist, 62(3), 220-233.
Matheson E, King DE, & Everett CJ. (2012). Healthy Lifestyle Habits and Mortality in Overweight and Obese Individuals. J Am Board Fam Med, 25(1), 9-15.