Regardless of what diet you’ve been on, I bet you I can guess how it started. It started with a set of pictures, right? Both pictures had the same person, except a key difference. One was a version of the person that was larger, and therefore must be unhappy and unhealthy. The other version: smiley, thinner, happier, “healthier”, fully made up, probably frolicking or dancing because of course if they’ve lost weight their life must now be perfect. They claim to be selling you the diet, but what you paid for was the hope of being the second photo. You’ve paid to be turned into the version of yourself that society has told you will make you happy.
Ok, you’ve paid for and started the diet, now what? Instantly we’re having very little to eat. Whether its calories or carbs or fat or whatever the diet has chosen to demonize, the common theme is we’re cutting out something because apparently that is the one thing keeping us from happiness. Or maybe it’s “versions” of your favorite foods, except it’s their version so therefore it’s “healthier”. And I’ll be honest with you: your bodies instant reaction will likely be weight loss. You’ll get that instant high. The reward of “oh wow, I’m getting the happy after photo” will be motivating, because you’ve been conditioned to believe that is the key to happiness and health. But here’s the problem: that weight was achieved by depriving your body of the nutrients it requires and putting you into starvation mode.
Ok, now you’ve had that instant weight loss, but how does your body cope with starvation mode? Fun fact: your body is designed to survive. So, your body will be like “holy crap, we’re not getting what we need, time to hunker down” and go into survival mode. Just like a business or personal finances, when less is coming in the response is to use less to conserve resources. This means burning less calories throughout your usual daily functions. Physically it can manifest as brain fog, tiredness, irritability, forgetfulness, poor muscle recovery and cravings for the nutrients you’re being deprived of. This is your body’s way of telling you that it isn’t getting what it needs to continue functioning the way you need it to.
The natural, conditioned human response to starvation mode is to seek out what we need. That’s how we’ve survived as a species: the ability to seek out the nutrients we need. But the diet will tell you this is “weakness” or to ignore this instinct. At this point, you also may be noticing a slowing or full stop of your weight loss. The diet will also tell you this is due to your personal failings. That what you actually need to do know is commit even more to the diet. Spend more time in the gym, or eat only the diet food and nothing else, or cut even more carbs out. Why would the diet do this? Because as long as you believe you’re the problem and not the diet, you’ll keep spending money on the diet.
The fact of the matter is that the diet is a company. Maybe it doesn’t call itself that. Maybe it’s a “program”, a “club” or a “community” like Weight Watchers/WW or NutriSystem. Or maybe it isn’t a specific company, but it’s a trendy diet with a bunch of bars and supplements catering to it like “keto” or “low carb”. Regardless, you’re still paying into a system. This is capitalism, and the key to success for a company in capitalism is loyal customers. If the diet actually works and you achieve a healthy, maintainable weight then they lose a customer and poof, there goes the customer base they rely on to stay profitable. The diet’s goal is not your health, it’s capitalistic self-preservation. So, they don’t want you to believe you can lead a happy, healthy life without them. To survive they need you to believe that you are incapable of being happy without them.
Often, the diet becomes too much for our system. This can be mentally, physically or financially. So, we go off the diet and lean into the foods the diet demonized even more than we did before the diet. After being in starvation mode, our body’s response is to hold on to the resources we’ve been deprived of to protect against potential starvation periods in the future. So, even if we’re eating less than we were before the diet, we are set up to gain back more weight than we lost in the first place. The culture built around the diet industry will tell us this is due to our personal flaws. We gained the weight back and more not because of the diet not providing what we need or damage done to our metabolism. It was solely our fault. Our lack of will power. Our lack of discipline. It’s not the system that’s set up the fail and continue profiting off of us, it’s the individual people. Cause when 80-95% of people regain weight after diets, why would it be the system’s fault? Nah, gotta be you personally. It’s this belief that you are the problem that really keeps loyal customers in the diet industry, maintaining a $71 billion industry in the US alone.
Let’s loop back to that after photo. The one of the smiling, happy, frolicking, thinner version of the before photo. What do we actually know about this person? How long have they been able to maintain this weight? How much longer will this weight be maintained? Are any of the other indicators of health (e.g. blood pressure, blood sugars, body composition, energy levels, etc.) different or just the numbers on the scale and jeans tag? How many pairs of Spanx are they wearing? How edited is that after photo? Did they starve themselves of food and water the morning of that photo shoot to look their thinnest (hint: yeah, they definitely did)? Are they happy? Have they socially isolated themselves in pursuit of a new figure? Are they able to eat the foods they enjoy in moderation or do they have to be militant about their diet to maintain that weight? Has anything else in their life changed, or are their other problems still there? One thing we can say for sure is that they have paid, and will continue to pay a small fortune to the diet, keeping the company/companies in business.
Ok, so if diets don’t work and the diet industry is trying to profit off of us, what’s the alternative? The alternative is using food for health, fuel and enjoyment through a system of intuitive eating and body positivity. Some members of the diet industry claim that body positivity is promoting obesity, celebrating unhealthy lifestyle patterns and an “excuse” not to be “disciplined” in fitness and health. This is absolutely not true. Body positivity is the belief that being confident, beautiful and celebrating one’s body is not only for people of a certain weight or size. Body positivity does not villainize pro-health activities, it villainizes anti-confidence and size-elitist activities in an effort to promote confidence of people regardless of size and appearance. For many of us this can be very difficult because we’ve been conditioned from a very young age to hate any part of our body that doesn’t look like an after photo. The diet industry has reinforced dysmorphic views of our bodies to profit off of these insecurities. Overcoming these beliefs and embracing the beauty of our bodies will take time, and there will be set backs, but it can be achieved through intention and patience.
These same pro-diet people will argue that intuitive eating is just a license to binge. This is also very untrue. Intuitive eating is an eating pattern that emphasizes listening to hunger cues, considering what our body needs and encourages the enjoyment of food. If we’ve been dieting for a long time, it may take some patient work before these hunger cues will be clear. And there may be also feelings of intense guilt when enjoying moderate amounts of our favorite foods. This is where working with a dietitian can help. Working with a dietitian is different from a diet because the practices are evidence based, everything is personalized to you and the end goal is for you to no longer need to see the dietitian anymore. As dietitians, we have to maintain a licensure and abide to a code of ethics to do no harm. Our goal is for you to eventually be as independent from us as possible. This will look and be different for everyone, but a place of confidence and ease in some form is achievable for everyone. The way to achieve independence, discover your healthy weight and develop a more constructive and positive relationship with food is to actively untangle the messages you’ve been receiving for years. Our role as a dietitian in this area is to guide you through this process, and relearn how to nourish yourself in a healthy, positive and productive way. Learn more about this process by setting up an initial meeting with a dietitian to hear the role we can play in your journey.