Why Dieting Doesn’t Work

As a culture, we are obsessed with dieting. The $20 billion industry caters to well over 100 million dieters, about 85 percent of whom are women. The Internet and social media have compounded these numbers, proliferating an array of new trends ranging from cleansing and juicing to gluten-free and vegan diets.

However, researchers are increasingly finding that dieting doesn’t work. Frequent dieting disrupts our body’s natural relationship with food, tends to lead to weight gain rather than loss, and stands as one of the primary predictors of eating disorders.

Diet vs. Famine

Our bodies are smart. Since the era of our hunter-gatherers, the human body has known what to do to survive and propagate the species. When food was scarce, the body accommodated by slowing down its systems to conserve energy. Then, when food was abundant again, the body regained its lost weight to protect itself in the event of another food shortage.

Your body doesn’t differentiate between a famine and diet. Restricting your food intake signals that there is a possible shortage, to which the body responds by entering “starvation mode.” In starvation mode, the body slows or halts certain processes so that it can devote the caloric energy it is receiving to important processes such as brain and heart functioning. In the meantime, overall body temperature lowers, metabolism slows, and, in females, menstrual periods halt (because it knows that it would not be able to support a pregnancy without proper nutrition).

Triggering the physical effects of starvation also has certain emotional and behavioral consequences. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which was conducted at the University of Minnesota during World War II, showed that prolonged starvation led to increased depression, anxiety, hypochondriasis, irritability, apathy, lethargy, social withdrawal and isolation, diminished sexual interest, and decreased concentration. Even if a person is only restricting certain foods rather than skipping meals altogether, chronic under-eating can also cause these symptoms.

Set Point Theory

According to set point theory, each one of us has a certain weight range at which our body functions optimally. Each person’s set point is different, determined by our unique biological and genetic makeup. Although it is possible to move outside of that set range by gaining or losing weight, it’s very difficult to remain there. The body—specifically the hypothalamus, which regulates various body functions, including hunger—does what it can to remain at that set point. The process is similar to a thermostat in a house: if the cold enters through an open window, or the house is warmed by a lit fire, the thermostat will kick on or off to maintain the temperature of the house at its set range.

Click here to read more about set point theory.

Why Dieting Doesn’t Work

Many people who diet eventually learn the frustrating truth that cutting calories tends to in fact lead to weight gain. Like our early ancestors, our bodies put on weight following what they perceive to be a famine. When you diet frequently, your body eventually learns and adapts to the erratic eating schedule and protects itself by holding onto weight.

Under-eating or eating according to a certain diet schedule also interferes with your body’s natural hunger and satiety cues. This can make you more prone to eating when not hungry. In addition, ignoring hunger cues and becoming overly hungry can increase the risk of binge eating, because the body is desperately seeking food.


Common Dieting Myths

We’ve heard them all: coffee facilitates weight loss, low-carb and fat-free diets are healthier than regular diets, eating at night will make you gain weight. There are a myriad of so-called “facts” surrounding dieting. But how many of them are true?

Here are a few of the most common dieting myths:

MYTH: Eating after 8 p.m. causes weight gain.

  • FACT: Weight loss or gain has nothing to do with the time of day you are eating. Rather, people tend to choose less healthy snacks when they are tired-for instance, at night.

MYTH: Skipping meals will help you lose weight quicker.

  • FACT: Skipping meals makes you prone to overeating at the next meal because you are overly hungry.

MYTH: Eating low-fat or fat-free foods helps with weight loss.

  • FACT: Fat is a crucial element of a healthy diet. It plays an important role in metabolic function, it is a key source of energy, and it is crucial for brain functioning, blood clotting, managing inflammation, and many other anatomical processes. Low-fat and fat-free foods are made by incorporating sugars, chemicals, and thickeners to make up for what is lost by removing fat.

MYTH: You should avoid gluten because gluten isn’t fully digestible and can also raise insulin levels.

  • FACT: There is no scientific evidence that gluten causes health problems or that avoiding it promotes weight loss. In fact, eliminating gluten from your diet can cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

What to do Instead

Do away with dieting. Instead, try “mindful” or “intuitive eating“. Eating mindfully means listening to your body for internal cues about when and what to eat, rather than going by external rules, such as those of a diet.

The basic principles of mindful eating (as laid out by the Center for Mindful Eating) include:

  • Become aware of your hunger and satiety cues, and allow these to tell you when to begin and to stop eating.
  • Eliminate all categories and judgments such as “good” and “bad” when it comes to food. Allow yourself to eat all foods with the awareness that food is meant to be a positive, nourishing experience.
  • Choose food that is pleasing and beneficial and allow yourself to savor it.


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Additional Resource:

The Urge To Diet After an Eating Disorder
Why Your New Year’s Diet Will Fail
Dangers of the Wedding Diet
Challenging Diet Mentality

About The Author:

Joanna Kay is a New York City writer in recovery from anorexia nervosa. She has written for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), Healthy Minds Canada, and several other well-known websites. She is the author of a blog that deals with issues facing people who are midway through eating disorder recovery. Find Joanna on Twitter.

Written – 2015