Shattering the Health Halo of Diets

 Peanut butter and animal cracker carousel kids' snack; why diets don't work

Peanut butter and animal cracker carousel kids' snack; why diets don't work

One of the things I hate most as an RD (and generally as a person) is seeing new weight loss supplements/diet trends making crazy claims. Pills that promise to block certain nutrients? No. Wrapping yourself in glorified Saran wrap? No thanks. Cleanse drinks that promise to help you drop X pounds quickly and are "white pants approved"? Hellllll no. 

But these claims are so bright and shiny it's hard not to let them grab your attention, even if it's because they're so ridiculous. And sometimes, they're enticing. Because yeah, it would be easier to take a quick pill of "greens" rather than eat a salad - especially if we're leaning into the notion that the only way to achieve health is through diets, strictly eating produce and protein, and staying away from all grains/carbs/desserts/pleasure foods. That train of thought makes fruits and vegetables an obligation - a chore to check off the list and something to begrudgingly eat in replacement of things that you really want.

 tacos; why diets don't work

tacos; why diets don't work

First things first, recognize that when things sound too good to be true, they probably are. Let's break down a common food restriction - carbohydrate deprivation.

When things sound too good to be true, they probably are.

For example, a low carb eating pattern will indeed lower the number on the scale, because carbs require a good amount of water for digestion and absorption. When the body isn't provided with carbs, we release some of the water that's not being used, meaning the number on the scale is no longer reflecting a vital part of the utilization of an important nutrient.

Since our brains use glucose (aka, highly broken down carbohydrate) as their primary energy source, our bodies become smarter than the diet we're putting them on. When we starve our brains of their best fuel, they demand to be fed - usually in the form of strong cravings that feel uncontrollable.

 strawberry banana peanut butter oatmeal bowl on wood background

strawberry banana peanut butter oatmeal bowl on wood background

Your body needs a variety of nutrients to work properly - to breathe, think straight, digest food correctly, etc. These nutrients are like Jenga blocks, making up a tower that is physical, mental, and emotional health and functionality. When you start to remove blocks, i.e., nutrients, the tower may stay standing for a while. Some bodies may be able to withstand the removal of more blocks than others. But in the end, all of the Jenga towers topple.

 why diets fail

why diets fail

You can read more about why diets don't work in this book, but essentially our bodies are too smart to be deprived and they'll retaliate with crazy cravings, lack of regulation of hunger and fullness, and weight fluctuations.

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Another good read is this piece onthe Minnesota Starvation Experiment (trigger warning: content contains references to calorie content of diets). In short, the Minnesota Starvation Experiment took place in the mid-1940's and its purpose was to examine the effects of prolonged starvation. It included phases of weight loss, inadequate nutrition, and unlimited restoration periods where subjects could eat as much and whatever they wanted. Over this year-long period, starvation turned healthy young men into food-preoccupied and emotionally distressed versions of their former selves. They experienced:

  • Preoccupation with food (constantly thinking about food - what to eat next, what you're eating now, what's in your food, when you'll get food next)

  • Decreased metabolism

  • Depression

  • Decreased sex drive

  • Social withdrawal

If you've dieted in the past, this may sound all-too-familiar. The Minnesota Starvation experiment is often used to approximate the physical, emotional, and mental effects of dieting and eating disorders - an example of what happens when the body doesn't get what it needs. One way to avoid those side effects is to never diet, and in a perfect world nobody would. But if you're reading this post/are interested in intuitive eating/are human, you probably have dieted before. So where we can start is by slowly and surely ridding our lives of diet culture (Kylie has a good post here).

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When we make a conscious effort to tune into our bodies and give them what they need, they in turn provide us with less distracted minds, energy to get through the day, and better sleep - among about a million more things.

Are you feeling stress, anxiety, or worry about food? The National Eating Disorder Association has a questionnaire to help you figure out if you need help. To reach the NEDA hotline, call 1-800-931-2237.