The word “diet” is seemingly inescapable these days, no matter how hard you might try to tune it out. Television ads, billboards, social media and almost every health, fitness and fashion magazine promote them, critique them and basically obsess over them.
Despite their popularity (the typical dieter in America goes on an average of four diets a year), diets are often ineffective. For the vast majority of people (we’re talking ~95 percent), diets do not result in sustained weight loss. In fact, two-thirds of individuals who diet will actually regain more weight than they lose.
What may be even more surprising is that diets can even be hazardous – both physically and mentally – to your health. Let’s take a look at some of these hidden dangers:
1) Slowed metabolism. Metabolism is the amount of calories needed to fuel our bodies to perform the most vital functions for life. When we eat more, our metabolism increases. When we eat less, our metabolism decreases. In a typical diet, you reduce caloric intake, slowing your metabolism. Yes, weight loss will occur at first due to the caloric restriction, however as time passes, any weight loss will eventually plateau. This indicates one’s internal metabolism has slowed down to match the number of calories consumed.
This often leads people to “push harder” with caloric restriction and/or exercise in an effort to reach negative energy balance. This can result in another bout of weight loss at first, and then as expected, another plateau. The cycle of “pushing harder” continues – as well as disappointment with results. Most of the time, people fall off the diet and revert back to previous eating habits.
2) Easier weight gain “after a diet.” Diets don’t teach us how to eat balanced, control portions, or allow ourselves to truly be mindful and enjoy our food. Diets teach us the foods to restrict, the foods to avoid and the fastest way to lose weight. Here’s the issue – metabolism slows through the diet process (for reference, someone eating ~1,000-1,200 calories per day long-term will have a metabolism that matches this, burning ~1,000-1,200 calories per day). When an individual goes back to their previous eating habits and eating more calories, they gain weight. This is the major reasoning why those who go on strict diets end up gaining all the lost weight back, if not more.
3) Lack of certain vitamins and minerals. By eliminating food groups and specific foods from the diet, you run the risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Take one diet, called the “Mono Diet,” which preaches eating one food exclusively for an extended period of time (from one week to one month). Some examples are bananas, melons or sweet potatoes.
By eating just one food, or a small handful of foods on other diets, you will not ingest all necessary nutrients. Cutting out starches such as oatmeal, whole grain bread, potatoes and rice will decrease fiber and B Vitamins. Eliminating dairy will reduce key sources of protein, calcium and Vitamin D. Abstaining from fruit will lessen many nutrients, some including fiber, potassium, Vitamin C and Vitamin A. Even eating too much protein, a classic recommendation on many diets, can harm your kidneys. Excess protein can stress and dehydrate the body, and in some cases, result in acute kidney failure. When broken down post-eating, protein breaks down into a larger molecule and is harder for the kidneys to process.
4) Fictional Wording. Many diets use wording that can be hard to not believe as it sounds so convincing. Many diets claim to “cleanse” or “detox” our body causing “immediate weight loss and fat burn.” The thing is, our body already has organs, such as the liver, that function to naturally detoxify our bodies. Our intestines cleanse our body via fiber and water. Following a diet plan does not cause true cleansing or fat burn.
Another common phrase is “fast and easy weight loss”. While this may be true, rapid weight loss is very dangerous and not sustainable. When you lose weight over a short period of time, you burn fat faster, which can lead to ketosis – a high level of ketones in the blood and urine which can be toxic. Losing weight too fast can also mean muscle becomes a key source of energy. The more muscles work to burn energy, the smaller they become and the more they weaken.
These phrases cause irrational belief that the diet will “cure-all” and is a “magic pill.” When this is not the case, we feel defeated and often blame ourselves if the diet did not work as we had hoped. This causes more guilt, self-doubt and shame, leading to more dieting and the unproductive cycling continuing.
The next time you think about dieting, take these factors into consideration. Dieting never guarantees you’ll look better, feel better or become a better person. In fact, more harm than good can come from them.
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Bridget Komosky MS, RD, CD-N is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition at Ithaca College and her Master of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition at New York University. She completed her dietetic internship at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York, NY. Her work in eating disorders includes a six-month fellowship at NewYork- Presbyterian Hospital and New York Psychiatric Institute, employment as a dietitian on the inpatient eating disorder unit at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, and now as a dietitian at Walden Behavioral Care since October 2013. Currently, Bridget is the Nutrition Coordinator for Walden Behavioral Care’s CT Region adult and adolescent Partial Hospitalization Programs and the Binge Eating Disorder Intensive Outpatient Program.