The Problem(s) With Dieting

Darya Rose
by Darya Rose
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The Problem(s) With Dieting

People rarely argue that eating healthier isn’t a good idea. Of course it’s the right thing to do. Duh.

In the backs of their minds, however, people who want to lose weight are often skeptical. I know, because I’ve been there. The argument goes something like:

“Healthy eating is great and all, but I really want to lose this weight as soon as possible. I’ll just do this ___(insert latest diet)___ plan for awhile until I get to my goal weight, then I’ll start with that whole healthy eating thing.”

It sounds like a great plan. Lose the weight quickly, then when you’re happy, shift to a more “sensible” eating plan for maintenance.

The only problem is that it doesn’t work.

For people who want to lose weight one of the hardest things to understand is that dieting really, seriously isn’t the answer. Not even for a little while. Dieting isn’t some temporary outfit you can just try on for a few months then discard. Dieting changes you, both physically and psychologically, and it’s not for the better.

In the long run, dieting does more harm than good, and actually promotes weight gain, not weight loss. By rationalizing a new diet as something that’s temporary, you are wasting time and energy, and ultimately making it harder to achieve your goals. Here are seven reasons why.

7 Reasons Dieting Makes Losing Weight Harder

1. Dieting teaches your brain to ignore your body.

Dieting is restricted eating, plain and simple. To be successful at losing weight on a restricted eating plan, you need to train yourself to ignore feelings of hunger and desire. The problem is that dieters who do this also appear to lose awareness of when they are full, and have a tendency to massively overeat once the restriction has been lifted. Not being able to recognize hunger and full (aka satiety) signals is a serious problem if long-term weight regulation is your goal.

2. You rely more on environmental cues to decide what, when and how much to eat.

Without internal body signals to guide your eating habits, dieters rely almost exclusively on external cues for determining when, what and how much to eat. When you are successfully dieting this isn’t a problem, since you just follow the rules of the plan. Once you give up the diet though (and you inevitably will), you become subject to hundreds of cues from your surroundings telling you to eat more, and eat worse.

Thanks to advertisements, ballooned portion sizes, and lack of traditional eating culture and norms (believe it or not, it used to be faux pas to eat while standing or driving), we are constantly getting signals that we can and should eat more. These are tough for even a normal, non-dieter to resist (this is one of the reasons so many people are now overweight). But for a dieter who lacks the internal guidance the rest of us rely on, navigating this environment without overeating is nearly impossible.

3. Dieting drains your willpower.

When you are reliant on external cues instead of internal ones to dictate your eating, and especially when you’re trying to lose weight and resist those cues, every mental refusal you make drains a little of your willpower. Remember that willpower doesn’t have an on-and-off switch. Instead it works more like a muscle that, when overused, can become fatigued, no matter how strong it may start the day. Not only does this make you more likely to break your diet and overeat, but it also steals the willpower you need to be successful in other aspects of life.

4. Dieting promotes the what-the-hell effect.

Once you run out of willpower for the day, as a dieter you are likely to give in to the what-the-hell effect and go nuts on that bag of cookies, leaving the virtuous behavior for another day. These binges can undo days of restricted eating. They can also be habit forming.

5. Dieting encourages nutritionism.

Dieting in the 21st century is rarely just about eating less. Most weight loss plans nowadays emphasize restricting certain types of nutrients — sugar, carbs, gluten, fat, etc. — over others. Dieters love to bin foods into either “good guys” or “bad guys,” and forget that too much of either is a problem.

6. Dieting slows your metabolism.

Rapid weight loss slows your metabolism, since it is very difficult to lose fat quickly without losing a substantial amount of (metabolically active) muscle as well. The subsequent overeating that most dieters experience then encourages more fat than muscle to be added back. Eating like a foodist takes the opposite approach, encouraging behaviors that increase instead of reduce metabolism. Slow but steady weight loss is then a happy consequence of these metabolic improvements, so you are working with your body instead of against it.

7. Dieting distracts you from what actually works.

Dieting doesn’t work in the long run, but building a healthstyle around a set of enjoyable habits does. When you diet, not only are you making it more difficult to reach your goals, but you are also wasting time and energy that could be going toward the actions that will actually help you. Focus your efforts on forming 2–3 enjoyable habits at a time until they become automatic. If you can get to a point where the majority of your high-impact habits are healthy (e.g. breakfast, lunch at work, snacks and weeknight dinners), then you no longer need to worry about occasional indulgences here and there. When you stop dieting, you win.

About the Author

Darya Rose
Darya Rose

Darya Rose, Ph.D, is the author of Foodist, and creator of Summer Tomato, one of TIME’s 50 Best Websites. She eats amazing things daily and hasn’t even considered going a diet since 2007. For a free starter kit to help you get healthy and lose weight without dieting, sign up for the Summer Tomato weekly newsletter.

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32 responses to “The Problem(s) With Dieting”

  1. Avatar eamonn says:

    What’s the difference between calorie controlled healthy eating and dieting?

    • Avatar Walt Corey says:

      It’s less the calories consumed and more the effect those foods consumed have on spiking insulin. To answer your question, my take is none as a diet is simply what one eats. There are good choice diets and bad choice diets but they are both diets.

      • Avatar Eamonn says:

        Agreed. Just you can’t lose weight without the old adage. Eat less move more.

        • Avatar Walt Corey says:

          Yet moving has virtually nothing to do with weight loss. We live in the age of sound bites. As with most sound bites, as spoken, they are wrong. One could eat more broccoli and still lose weight. Or, eat less broccoli and gain weight.

  2. Avatar Aaron says:

    Uh…where did you get your degree from…because the only way to lose weight…is to create a caloric deficit. So you either need to keep Calories the same and workout a lot, or eat less.

  3. Avatar cheerfulmind says:

    Wish I hadn’t clicked on this one. Maybe it’s valuable for the Cabbage Diet (or what’s the latest fad–is this one too 1995?!) followers but most of us need to restrict to create a calorie deficit to lose weight. It’s not an advocation for gluttony in January and anorexia in February; it’s just the truth of weight loss. It’s even the truth of switching from “everything goes” to a healthier “in moderation” lifestyle.

  4. Avatar barbara allen says:

    Really, do not diet? You are posting this on my fitness pal. Everyone on this is interrested in losing weight. Are you trying to discourage us. I think UA should prohibit your blog.

    • Avatar TheRedWolf says:

      Dieting is not the culprit, dieting where you cut out all of your favorite foods is the real problem. It’s mentally unsustainable and requires a ton of willpower to pull off, which is why most people relapse. The important things to know are to cut back your calories, eat veggies, whole grains, and fiber rich foods, get your healthy fats, get enough protein, and occasionally enjoy a little ice cream or pizza when it fits your calories. Just don’t completely cut out the things you love to eat or you’ll be essentially torturing yourself.

  5. Avatar Aaron says:

    Dumb article. The only way to lose weight is be in a caloric deficit, aka dieting or doing extra cardio to get you there. There is nothing wrong with dieting, you can still enjoy all the foods you want, as long as you eat under maintenance calories. How did you graduate college?

    • Avatar Chris says:

      No need to be pejorative, Aaron. Of course losing weight requires a calorie deficit – I believe everyone knows that.

      If “dieting” refers to a temporary set of eating habits intended only to create a calorie deficit, then I did not lose 35 pounds by “dieting”. Rather, I did it by making some difficult changes back in October that are shifting me to a set of eating habits that are healthy, that have created a calorie deficit, that I enjoy a great deal and that will be hopefully sustainable over the long-term.

      • Avatar Walt Corey says:

        Actually Chris, ‘everybody’ doesn’t know that. What most people do not know is the body reacts, rather poorly, to restricted diets by lowering the amount of calories it burns. One sees this in the results of a followup on Biggest Loser contestents (see NY Times recent article. As Dr Fung points out, the body is not a scale, cals in vs cals out, it is a thermostat and will try, very hard, to maintain weight. That may actually be maintain fat reserve. It is tens/hundreds of thousands of years of evolution involved here. The body does not want to enter a famine depleted of reserves and tries very hard to counteract that. Congrats on 35 lbs. I am dangerously close to 100lbs but the slope of the line has significantly flattened. Please review Dr Jason Fung, MD six part series on You Tube. It is incredibly enlightening.

    • Avatar mrgfg73 says:

      I agree with you Aaron. Dumb article. Kept thinking it all the way through, especially on MyFitness Pal where the main point is be on a “diet”. I try to hit all of the food groups but stay under my calorie goal for the day. So far it’s working because I’m down about 40 lbs on the year. I “eat amazing things” also and exercise daily. Yeah, the willpower is hard but the alternative of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a great candidate for type 2 diabetes wasn’t looking too great either. Hopefully Darya Rose will get kicked out of here.

  6. Avatar Chris Coutu says:

    Wow! Seems like a lot of haters. It’s obvious that the author knows that less calories= weight loss but it’s the psychological long-term effects she’s mentioning. As far as I can observe with all the cyclic dieters around me, the article is spot on. Better to make small enjoyable eating and exercising habits than go in sacrificial mode that never lasts. On top of that, weight yo-yoing is linked to all sorts of serious illnesses, so much so that it is one of the 1st questions asked on many life insurance forms to evaluate your coverage.

  7. Avatar Christine Messenger says:

    There seems to be a consensus that a “lifestyle” and a “diet” is more or less the same thing. It means “I have to eat less of what I love and less of everything else”. There are situations where specific health issues such as cholesterol, high blood sugars etc actually require the elimination of certain foods. For me, it was important to first understand what my body is doing. In consultation with my doctor, following blood work and scans, the advice I got was to immediately exclude carbohydrates and sugar, in conjunction with a calorie controlled eating plan.
    One size doesn’t fit all. It never will. But being well informed and monitoring progress is extremely important.
    It ultimately comes down to a battle you have with yourself and priorities… what’s more important… and for some of us, we need lots of help and support on the journey!

  8. Avatar Q says:

    Ugh, I hate misinformation. It’s believed (and studies support) that willpower expands and grows more powerful with repetition- it’s not a battery that gets depleted. It’s odd to acknowledge the first point yet illogically conclude that by resisting things you burn out your willpower. Guess that means we’ll all eventually slap our bosses or tell off that annoying neighbor, huh? Ridiculous. Making healthier choices and saying no to poor ones, in any aspect of life, becomes easier with practice and repetition. The thing that will serve you best is patience and not being too self-critical of stumbles along the way. It’s our self-judgement and criticism that increases the odds of making poor choices.

  9. Avatar Sarahb29 says:

    This is frustrating to read. Are you trying to give people on Myfitnesspal who are here to lose weight more excuses not to diet? Or is Myfitnesspal trying to misinform their consumers so they don’t lose weight and have to keep this app?

    I agree it has to become a lifestyle change but I disagree that restricting carbs and sugar is restricting nutrients. You can’t label a cup of broccoli which has carbs as equal to two slices of white bread – they are both carbs but one has way better nutritional value and fiber to keep you full, while the other will make you hungry in an hour. One is a “good guy” and the other is the “bad guy”. And let’s face it, sugar is not a GOOD nutrient, it’s going to make you gain weight.

    In order to lose weight you have to have a caloric deficit as others have said, PLUS the quality of the carbs you’re eating has to be worth it, ie broccoli offers fiber and vitamin C, cauliflower also offers vitamin C, etc. Everyone should be restricting sugar if they are dieting, but that’s a no brainer.

    • Avatar Walt Corey says:

      Sarah, carbs don’t keep you satieted, fats do. What fiber does is slow the digestion of carbs so the effect the digestion has on insulin production and release is reduced. What you don’t want to do is create a lot of insulin. Insulin == weight gain. So it is really not a calories in vs calories out rather it is the speed with which those calories are absorbed as that reflects the amount of insulin you body produces. It’s all about the insulin. Remember too, while there are essential fats and essential proteins, there is no such thing as an essential carb. Removing / reducing simple carbs (processed/refined foods, sugars, and starches is the bulk of the battle.

  10. Avatar Walt Corey says:

    The problem I have with this is:
    diet(n) – the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats. Everyone has a ‘diet’. diet(v) implies a specialized non-habitually eaten class of foods to achieve a specific goal.

    dieting lowers your metabolism. Well, yes it does. No magic there as if you diet(v) to lose weight your metabolism will slow as there will, hopefully, be less of you to have to feed, as in glycol for your cells, less/smaller cells, less glycol needed, less heat needed, less cell maintenance needed etc.

    The good news Barbara is by changing your diet, that is changing some foods you regularly eat you can accomplish your goals. MFP is very good at leading the way for you. The first important thing is to know, by way of a food diary, everything you put in your mouth that is swallowed. What MFP is not so good at is differentiating between good food to ingest and bad food to ingest. By bad food I mean food that spikes your insulin levels. One gains weight by increasing insulin (Fung) so by reducing those foods that cause insulin spikes one will reduce insulin and, wait for it….lose weight. So the first thing is reduce/remove sugars and refined foods from those things you ‘habitually eat’. Increasing physical exertion is also beneficial ut actually not so much for reducing weight (Fung). What increased physical exertion will do is help preserve lean muscle mass as the body digests that as well as fat but if/when you regain weight it comes back as all fat so it’s a double whammy. Please google Jason Fung MD and review his 6 part series.He dispells many myths associated with this subject. Also get familiar with glycemic index and glycemic load as well as insulin index.

  11. Avatar Jon says:

    “you need to train yourself to ignore feelings of hunger” part of the first point and probably the most ridiculous thing to write in a healthy eating blog!

    • Avatar Walt Corey says:

      If you look at the results of the long term study of Biggest Loser season 8, in NY Times yesterday I think, they determined the leptin levels of the contestants was essentially gone, this years later. So in the absence of any hormonal trigger to signal ‘full’ or satiated, yeah, one needs to learn to ignore the ghrerlin trigger saying you are still hungry. It’s an honest thing to write and sometimes honesty is well, what you want and expect as opposed to ‘it’s your own darn fault”.

  12. Avatar Mj D'Arco says:

    portion control and physical activity

  13. Avatar Rebecca says:

    Will someone please tell me why there are straws in the French fries. It’s the only reason I clicked on the article and I still don’t know the answer.

    • Avatar Grace Nam says:

      Haha! Maybe it’s one of those milkshakes where they place a smaller cup of fries on top so you can eat both while carrying it around!

  14. Avatar John says:

    How else are you suppose to lose weight unless you go on a diet, i.e. caloric deficit?

    Dumbest article I have ever read.

  15. Avatar Rick says:

    Terrible book promotion. I Wanted to Learn how to lose weight, not to read advertisements. Screw this

  16. Avatar Bianca lynn says:

    Really enjoyed this article. I have a friend who yo-yo diets and he loses about 10 lbs in a week then gains them right back. Why? Because he thinks that those 10 lbs are going to stay off when he goes back to eating the way he’s used to eating. I keep telling him that in order to keep the weight off he needs to make a lifestyle change. I understand that most people want to lose weight “fast” but you didn’t gain it overnight so you’re not going to lose it overnight. I started my lifestyle change last March and I never feel hungry I’m always eating and back then I started at a 2100-2300 calories a day. I thought it was a lot and I was wondering how in the world I was going to lose weight in that calorie range. Well I did and now I’m 70 lbs down from last march and 107 from my heaviest. If you’re diet isn’t working maybe you should give this a try.

  17. Avatar Josephina Haros says:

    Diets DON’T WORK she is right. You have to choose to eat healthy and clean as a permanent lifestyle not just to lose weight and forget about it when you hit your mark. I don’t like to say I am on a diet but that I am on a new way if life eating healthy.

  18. Avatar HeatherK says:

    I find it incredibly tone deaf that this article was posted on My Fitness Pal. The writer makes it clear that she’s not just talking about fad diets or crash dieting, but just “restricted eating, plain and simple”. What else is anyone else using this app for? How lovely for her that she hasn’t considered a diet since 2007. Some of us aren’t so lucky, but this is not the place to tell us that our efforts are pointless.

  19. Avatar Marilyn allison says:

    Great article. It seems those taking issue with it skimmed it or just repeated what another wrote. The only way to lose it and keep it off is to be aware of what and how you eat. Fads and crash diets lessen that awareness. ::::hands out Snickers minis to the cranky people:::::

  20. Avatar Jessica Suarez says:

    I would have to agree with the article though, we shouldn’t be on a diet… We should be on a lifestyle change to eat healthier always and stop making our health only a temporary thing!

  21. Avatar Jamie London says:

    I suspect most people criticising this article have been on numerous diets in which they lost weight at first but later regained it. And after each failed diet they found it harder to lose weight next time. This is usually because diets slow down your metabolism and bodies fight to regain their original heavier weight.

    Losing weight is hard, but keeping it off is even harder.

    The author is stating, correctly, that you need to develop a lifestyle that you are able to maintain for the rest of your life – sensible, healthy eating that doesn’t leave you undernourished and drive you mad with cravings, and enough physical activity to keep your body and internal organs strong.

    Also, the author does not suggest food choices do not affect your weight, she simply emphasises that your eating habits must be maintainable over a lifetime, not simply the period of the diet.

  22. Avatar Jack says:

    This is disgusting and you should be ashamed of yourself.

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