Every year, millions of Americans attempt to lose weight on some type of diet. In fact, estimates show the weight loss/dieting industry generates around $60 billion a year. Yes, $60 billion.
Some people diet because a doctor recommended it – maybe there’s a medical condition they are at risk of developing or have already developed. Other individuals do so an attempt to change the shape of their body. In a culture where weight loss is advertised everywhere, magazine images are almost always airbrushed and certain types of bodies are put on display and labeled as “ideal,” we are conditioned to think that it’s normal to spend a great deal of time, energy and money on how we look.
Diets have evolved too, with new “fad diets” sprouting seemingly almost every day. The Atkins diet villainizes carbs, the Paleo diet convinces people to eat like cavemen and the 3-1-2-1 diet promotes cycling between days of “clean” and “cheat” eating. Regardless of the type of diet – or its own rules – there is no research to support the ‘success’ of any diet or weight loss program, when success is dictated by long-term weight loss maintenance (a common goal). Weight loss strategies are only effective in the short-term for most people. The majority of individuals are not able to maintain a 10% loss over one year. More than one-third of lost weight is regained with the first year and the majority is gained back in 3-5 years.
What is really unfortunate is that when people regain the weight, the diet itself is rarely blamed for being ineffective. Individuals blame themselves, believing they lacked the willpower to succeed or were incapable of following the diet. It’s an unfortunate trend that certainly benefits the diet and weight loss industry. They can advertise the diet or ‘lifestyle change’ however they want (not bound by any regulations about being truthful). If you are one of the supposed “few” people it doesn’t work for, that is somehow your fault.
What these companies and industries don’t tell you is that diets are practically destined to fail and it’s only a matter of when. Your body starts working against any weight loss goals almost immediately. There are a number of biological changes that make it nearly impossible to keep the weight off.
The Brain: When you start dieting, your thoughts become more focused on food – you’re more likely to notice it, think about it and crave it. Research suggests that food actually becomes more appealing and tempting when you are restricting it. This helps to explain why so many restrictive fad diets are impossible to sustain. They ask you to cut out certain foods or food types, and once you do, you end up craving these foods more than ever before. That increased craving makes you more prone to overeat those “forbidden” foods when you stray from the diet.
Hormones: There are hormones in our digestive system that communicate to our brain when we feel hungry and full. As you diet and lose weight, feelings of hunger will increase and feelings of fullness will decrease. Your body is essentially programmed to increase caloric intake in response to deprivation, which contributes to breaking diet rules.
Metabolism: Your metabolism, or the way your body processes and uses nutrients, changes when you diet. When your body thinks that you’re starving, it finds a way to use fewer calories to function. This is a remarkable and adaptive mechanism that promotes survival under difficult conditions. However, for the person losing weight, the other unused calories become excess and often get stored as fat – directly contrary to weight loss goals.
All of those features come together to make it nearly impossible to maintain weight loss achieved by dieting. Your body fights against you. If you’re going to do it, you are likely to feel hungry most of the time and maintaining that weight loss will take over your life.
Many people have experienced years of attempts at weight loss followed by weight regain, a pattern often called weight cycling or yo-yo dieting. For some individuals, the restrictive eating pattern will trigger episodes of overeating or binge eating, and can develop into more serious issues such as binge eating disorder. For those people who have binge eating disorder, following fad diets commonly triggers cycles of binge eating.
Now, you’re likely sitting there wondering – “if dieting doesn’t result in sustained weight loss, what are my options?!”
Many people believe that they need to lose “lots” of weight to be “healthy.” Research shows that with just 10% weight loss, people will experience noticeable improvements in blood pressure and blood sugar control, and lower their risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. For those who do not have medical complications related to their weight, balanced eating without any food restrictions and practicing movement on a regular basis will likely help you stay within the weight range that your body naturally wants to be in. In some cases, this may result in modest weight loss; for others it will not.
If that recommendation is difficult to hear, there are some important questions to think about: How important is your appearance compared to the other priorities in your life? Would you rather spend your time focused on changing your weight and shape, or focused on living and enjoying your life? Does happiness and enjoyment have to be dependent upon weight and shape? Do you want to continue to put this much focus and energy on dieting and weight loss? These definitely aren’t easy questions or answers.
If you struggle to find this balance, or believe that dieting may have resulted in binge and emotional eating, you may benefit from additional help.
Dr. Kate Craigen is the clinical director of binge eating and bariatric support services. She is responsible for the clinical development and consistent implementation of binge eating disorder programming across Walden’s inpatient, residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient and outpatient levels. Additionally, Dr. Craigen collaborates with various bariatric providers and partners throughout New England, ensuring both pre- and post-bariatric surgery patients gain the proper behavioral skills to enhance long-term outcomes. Previously, she was a clinician in Walden’s partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs in Waltham. She also served as a postdoctoral fellow and clinical instructor at the Eating and Weight Disorders Program in the Department of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Craigen received her doctorate in clinical psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include the role of supervision and training in the field of eating disorders and the role of gender in the diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders.