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Why dieting doesn’t work, and what you can do instead

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Lyndi Cohen in a kitchen

Tired of dieting and not seeing results? You’re not alone. Dietitian Lyndi Cohen shares her story, and the secrets to ditching diets forever to maintain a healthier weight.

Healthy eating used to feel like a struggle for me. I knew what I should be eating, yet every Monday my brain told me I’d failed so I had to start from scratch. I’d eat healthily all day, only to end up snacking all afternoon once

I got home. I spent a decade losing weight, only to regain it again (and more). Until it occurred to me that I’d spent years blaming my willpower. But what if I wasn’t failing diets? What if diets were failing me? I decided to adopt a new approach, and lost 20 kilos over four years. I can assure you, getting to a healthy weight is nice, but living life not controlled by what you eat is even nicer.

Why diets don’t work

The reason diets don’t work is because the action of dieting is an unsustainable one. Most people who go on a diet will end up regaining the weight they lose, and usually more. What’s more, many people are on a diet without even knowing it. Some diets are easy to avoid, as they include the diet name in the title of a book — think paleo, keto and so on. The problem is that most diets these days are disguised. They’re masquerading as ‘healthy lifestyle plans’ even though they’re unmanageable. If dieting actually worked, wouldn’t you be at your goal weight by now?

How diets change your body

For all the time, effort and mental energy you put into dieting, you’d expect to be rewarded with weight loss. While many people do lose weight, most regain this weight two to five years later.

This may be because when you diet by counting calories, the chemical changes in your body can make maintaining weight loss harder. Studies show levels of leptin, the ‘satiety hormone’, decrease, while levels of ghrelin, the ‘hunger hormone’ increase. Even when you reach your goal weight and are no longer dieting, you may continue to experience increased hunger, which makes it harder to maintain your new weight. What’s more, you may find food tastes better than before you started dieting! These biological changes make it difficult to stick to good intentions.

Dieting can also make you crave the very foods you’re meant to avoid. Like a toddler told they can’t have something, when you’re given a list of forbidden foods, you often want them more. And when you do indulge in these forbidden foods, you might feel out of control while you eat them, not knowing when you’ll next be allowed to eat them. Cue binge eating and an obsession with food.

The ill-effects of dieting

But it’s not only your waistline that suffers from yo-yo dieting. Research proves weight cycling — repeatedly losing weight only to regain it — is worse for your heart health than maintaining a heavier weight. And the more your weight fluctuates, the greater your risk of heart disease, stroke and other heart-related conditions compared to people whose weight stays stable.

Your mental health can also be affected. While eating well supports a healthier mood and the prevention and management of mental health issues, dieting is bad news for your mood. It’s hard to be your best self while dieting! You might already be familiar with some of the symptoms of chronic dieting. These include:

  • Food preoccupation
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Distractibility

What’s more, dieting is associated with a tendency to overeat — and even binge eat — which not only jeopardises your weight-loss efforts, but can lead to developing a binge-eating disorder. If you want to take care of your wellbeing and lose weight, then research concludes dieting is not the way to do it.

6 unwanted effects of popular diets

1 Increased hunger

Dieting can affect your hormones, making you hungrier than before you started dieting.

2 Weight regain

The majority of people who lose weight on a diet will regain the weight they lost, plus more weight.

3 Cravings for forbidden foods

You may develop a preoccupation with certain foods, as ’off limit’ foods become more desirable.

4 Binge-eating and emotional eating

Dieting can cause you to feel out of control when you’re around food, and you find it hard to stop eating.

5 Body dysmorphia

You may end up being preoccupied with your perceived body flaws.

6 Isolation

As dieting limits what you’re allowed to eat, it can be harder to eat out when socialising.

I’ve ditched the diet, so what should I do instead?

The good news is that you can be healthy without dieting, and you don’t have to give up 95 per cent of your life to weigh five per cent less. Start with these six steps:

1 Listen to your hunger

Your appetite is an inbuilt weight management system. While dieting teaches us to ignore or fear hunger, a non-diet approach helps you get back in touch with your hunger, an innate bodily cue. Diets make it hard to eat intuitively and listen to your body’s internal wisdom because they cloud your brain with rules and restrictions.

The aim is to eat when you’re hungry and stop when comfortably full. Instead of eating by the clock, tune into your body. Some people thrive on eating six small meals a day, while others feel best having three larger meals a day. Discover what works best for you by getting back in touch with your hunger cues and your appetite.

2 Make health (not weight loss) your motivator

Ask yourself, “Am I doing this new healthy activity to lose weight or to feel good?” If you’re adopting new habits for the sole purpose of losing weight, you might be more susceptible to falling off the bandwagon. Weight loss is not linear and often takes longer than we’re led to believe. If weight loss is the reason you’re adopting new habits, when you don’t lose weight as you expected, or temporarily regain it (as can happen), then you might be tempted to abandon all healthy new habits in the belief they’re not working. On the flip side, if feeling good and being strong is your goal, you’ll have more resilience when your weight doesn’t track as expected.

3 Practise crowding

Most diets have a list of forbidden foods, which is a guaranteed way to crave them. Instead, I recommend ‘crowding’. Focus on what you want to eat more of, such as veggies, fruit, legumes and whole grains. By eating more of the healthy foods, you’ll naturally crowd out the less healthy options, without feeling deprived. Fill your fridge with healthy options and find easy, tasty recipes to enjoy them.

4 Ditch all-or-nothing approaches

Cutting out whole food groups (for example, quitting sugar, avoiding carbohydrates) is unsustainable for most of us. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life missing out on pasta or a flaky pastry? While you might be happy to forgo these indulgences temporarily while on a diet, eventually you’ll want to eat them again. There’s always going to be another birthday, family dinner, long weekend, holiday, wedding, work party or Christmas event on the horizon. Better to adopt an approach without extremes. You can achieve healthy eating by cooking more nutritious meals at home, adding more vegetables to recipes and enjoying food mindfully.

5 Rekindle the joy

When you enjoy doing an activity, it feels easy. Instead of feeling like a punishment, it feels like a choice. If your healthy new habits feel like a chore, they’ll be hard to maintain and require too much willpower to get done. If going to the gym sounds torturous to you, then find an exercise that actually appeals to you. Maybe dancing or yoga. While you might burn less energy doing these preferred activities compared to going to the gym or running, you’ll be far more likely to do them consistently as you enjoy them. Ultimately, the key to good health is consistency. And the key to consistency is enjoyment.

6 Only adopt sustainable habits

When looking for a healthy new habit to adopt, ask yourself, “Can I maintain this for the rest of my life?” Any benefits you get will only last for as long as you can maintain the new habit. If you can only maintain it for a short period, any weight you lose will be regained when you stop the healthy habit.

First published: Jul 2021

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