The Real Reason You Can't Stick To A Diet

Happy New Year! I can’t believe I’m even typing that - wasn’t it just January of 2018?! Either way, 2019 is here and it brought tons of diet ads and “new year, new me” posts. I’m here to share two truths with you: you don’t need to seek out a new version of yourself just because you had to buy a new calendar, and the best way to improve your health this year is to not diet.

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I’d like to start by saying that if you’re dieting, restricting, or just here to read with zero plans for intuitive eating, there is still space and compassion for you here. I’m just here to offer up another option, because as a healthcare provider, I cannot ethically make the recommendations of dietary restriction (beyond medical necessity, like food allergies) or intentional weight loss to my clients.

To start the new year, we’re walking it back to the foundations of intuitive eating, beginning with ditching the diet mentality. To begin, we’re starting with one of the first questions people usually have when hearing about intuitive eating for the first time: why can’t I stick to a diet? Before we get into the answer, we need to dig into set range weight theory.

Set Range Weight

There’s several different systems in place in your body to regulate things like breathing rate, body temperature, and blood sugar. They’re called “homeostatic mechanisms” and their function is to keep your body at equilibrium around a set range. For example, when you’re in a hot environment, your body sweats to release heat - but when it’s cold, you shiver to produce heat.

Each of us lives in a body that has a preferred weight, similar to a homeostatic mechanism. It’s usually referred to as the “set range weight” or “defended range.” It’s important to refer to this concept as a range, not a point - I’ve heard several estimates for how wide this range is, but it’s likely anywhere between 10-20 pounds.

Your body’s job is to defend this range, i.e., to keep your body at the same relative weight. Contrary to what we’ve been taught, we don’t need to micromanage our body weight - our body does it for us through a complex set of mechanisms. It appears that the bottom of our set range weight is defended more strongly than the top, meaning that we resist weight loss more than we resist weight gain. How do you know if you’re in your set range? It’s the weight your body reaches when:

  • You're not dieting or restricting

  • You're moving your body in a joyful, life-enhancing way

  • You're providing your body with its energy and pleasure needs through food that nourishes your body and soul

  • Your brainspace and energy are directed towards living our your life and not obsessing over your weight

So, what happens when we diet and attempt to push our body weight below our set range weight?

Your Body On Diets

To begin, it’s important that we clarify that diet can mean either “eating pattern” or “attempt at weight loss” and I’m referring to the latter throughout this post. Any conscious attempt to lose weight, restriction of calories, elimination of whole food groups, etc. is a diet. To illustrate what happens to your body when dieting, let’s take a look at the diet-shame cycle.

The Restrict-Shame Cycle

This cycle is often referred to as the “diet-binge” cycle, but I know that while the word “binge” doesn’t always resonate, “shame” often and unfortunately does. I’ve also heard this referred to as the “restrict-rebel-repent” cycle, which I love for being a quick and accurate description. This cycle is a great, quick way to illustrate why diets set us up for failure and keep us in a perpetual rhythm of dieting.

We begin a diet due to a trigger, whether that’s an ad, a magazine article, a friend telling a “success story,” a doctor making comments, a celebrity testimony, or another event. We cut out calories or food groups, decide on a “clean eating” pattern, or track food on an app. In the background, our body is panicking due to underfeeding. It increases stress hormones, hunger hormones, and fat storage hormones and decreases fullness-producing hormones to protect us from starvation. Eventually, we become more and more preoccupied with food and our body’s cues begin to outweigh our self-imposed diet rules. We eat, and feel like failures for doing so. So we resolve to start another diet and try harder this time.

Dieting: What You Think/Feel

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Dieting: What Your Body Thinks

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Diets themselves point to the binge/shame point of the cycle as the problem, citing that with more willpower, we can successfully stick to a diet. However, the willpower argument fails to acknowledge the several physiological systems we have in place that override our will to diet. What if the restriction side of this cycle is the problem rather than the solution?

Side Effects of Dieting

So, why can’t you stick to a diet? You’re not designed to. Your body is too smart to let you intentionally underfeed it - and while it can’t tell the difference between intentional restriction and starvation, it has protective mechanisms in place in case of the former. Unlike with medications, we’re not typically warned of the side effects of diets before they are prescribed.

In addition, diets aren’t effective in producing long-term weight loss - only about 5% of people can maintain a weight lower than their set range weight, and the total amount of weight loss is often negligible. This is often the part of the conversation where people bring up friends, loved ones, influencers, or others we know/have seen who have lost weight. When this comes up, I ask clients to reflect on these thoughts:

  • Even though long-term weight loss is only seen in about 5% of dieters, we’re likely to know a few. But since our culture values weight loss and a smaller body size, it can feel like that 5% of people is given 95% of the voice and attention.

  • Things you cannot tell when looking at someone: their relationship with food, exercise, and their body, anxiety, stress, lab values, healthy relationships, and more. Things you can tell when looking at someone: what your own thoughts are regarding body size (inspired by Anna Sweeney).

  • Short-term weight loss does not equal long-term weight loss does not equal health.

I’d like to end by taking a moment to pause and normalize what you’re feeling right now, whether it’s validated, angry, sad, shocked, skeptical, or anywhere in between. We certainly have been brought up in a culture that values specific body sizes and shapes, views body size as controllable, and sees anyone in a different body size as less-than or lacking willpower (this is interchangeably called “fatphobia” and “weight stigma”, and we’ll talk about that, too).

If you’re feeling angry or sad at this information, and wondering how a dietitian can sit here and tell you that diets aren’t the key to improved health - please stick with me over the next weeks as we dig into intuitive eating and non-restrictive ways that yes, you can eat with regard to your health.

If you’re feeling skeptical or doubtful of this information, that’s okay too. You may have come here hoping for answers and what feels like a solution to why you can’t stick to a diet, and this wasn’t what you expected at all. I’d also like to invite you to sit with me over the next few weeks while we talk about why diets aren’t a prerequisite for health, why your weight isn’t a measure of your health, and what we can do instead.