The ‘D-word’08 Dec 2019
How many times have we heard the word ‘diet’ recently? It may have popped up in a conversation, or you might have come across a post on social media about the latest ‘Keto’ diet. But what is the truth behind diets?
It has become well-known that diets don’t work long-term. Ask anyone today, what happens when you stop following a diet? They will tell you: relapse. What many of us don’t realise, is that diets have an 80% failure rate! And it is not individuals who are to blame, but the estimated $176 billion diet and weight loss industry (Insider, 2017) who sell us this ideal body shape that is based on disordered, restrictive eating, with the promise of looking good and being healthy. What we unfortunately fail to grasp is the unrealistic and unhealthy impact that these pseudo-diets have on us. And the funny thing is, you often hear people saying: I’m not on a diet, I am eating healthy. Which is in fact still a diet! We are constantly bombarded with these dieting and weight-loss messages, that we can no longer distinguish a normal relationship with food from an unrealistic one. We are subliminally told the less you weigh, the better. And that is what doctors sell, knowing full well that it can lead you to a downward spiral of ill-health.
It usually begins with a desire to be thin or to lose weight (sometimes, coaxed with health) and we begin to follow a certain set of rules that we believe will help us achieve that. People might see some success initially, but this is also commonly accompanied by cravings and hunger. The more we restrict ourselves from certain foods, the more we want them. We can’t constantly ignore these bodily signs. Eventually, this leads us to give in, and then be consumed by a surge of feelings of extreme guilt and failure. We may then decide to give the diet up for a day, a month or a year. But sooner or later, we start another diet, especially since our weight has probably increased more than what we started with. This causes the next diet to be more restrictive and even more intense. This yo-yo dieting continues for decades for most of us, and we don’t ever break the diet cycle.
A meta-analysis of 29 weight-loss studies found that 77% of participants regained the weight they initially lost within 5 years (Anderson et al, 2001). When certain weight loss programmes were analysed, the amount of weight lost was not even clinically relevant (McEvedy et al, 2017). And that is why we have a billion-dollar industry that profits from this.
Initial weight loss might happen whilst on these diets. But at what cost? Your body’s metabolism slows down as a result of dieting. It can’t distinguish a diet from starvation, so as a protective mechanism, it conserves more energy and stores it as extra fat. This also means that your body will regain the weight, and sometimes even more than you had initially started with. Dieting also entails resisting our biological nature to eat, hence causing us to overeat or binge. Furthermore, we stop listening to our body’s natural signals which tell us when we are hungry or full, as we are relying on external information to tell us how our body should feel. We don’t truly know if we are eating too much, or not enough, because we are dependent on a diet plan that overlooks the differences that exist between each individual body. Following them strictly could lead to some level of disordered eating and obsession with food, such as skipping meals as punishment.
The intention of weight loss is not in itself inherently bad, especially if you genuinely think it is about health. The reality that we tend to miss or ignore is that these diets are not healthy, and that weight (or BMI) is not an indicator of health.
So, what steps can we take to address the D word?
- Recognise that diets do more harm than good and that you are not to blame. It’s the diet that let you down and not your body.
- Understand more about diet culture and speak up against it.
- Do not equate weight with health.
- Learn how to listen to your body, rather than relying on external factors.