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Diets – why they will not help you lose weight

Despite the number of different diets on the market, they rarely achieve sustainable weight loss.

Case study

Until she had children, Sophie was a healthy weight. Her weight ballooned during her last pregnancy, however, and now she was feeling fat and unattractive. Despite losing a few kilos while breastfeeding, she was 20kg heavier and four dress sizes bigger than she was pre-children.

Sophie did what everyone else did, she went on a diet. With extreme willpower she lost 10 kilograms, but this was soon regained. She tried a different diet with the same result. The pattern repeated itself over the years and despite all her efforts she was now 32kg heavier and six dress sizes bigger than she was before children. She blamed herself for her ‘failure’ and her self-esteem was at an all-time low.

Diets don't work

Sophie is not alone. Diets, gimmicks and quick-fix solutions didn’t work for her, as they don’t work for the rest of us; this is because they set us up to fail. They ask us to deviate from our normal way of living, for a fixed period of time or until we have reached a goal weight. They ask us to give up our favourite foods and drinks, without considering our genetic drive to eat or the emotional and physical toll this will take. They make unrealistic promises and encourage impossible weight loss goals. It is assumed that if we ever get there, we can ‘go back to normal’ and live happily ever after!

Sadly it doesn’t work this way; weight loss is usually as temporary as the diet itself. This is because going back to normal habits means a return of the weight that supports those normal habits; a lesser weight can only be maintained if long-term lifestyle habits are changed to support it.

So why do we continue to diet?

Firstly, apart from drastic measures such as drugs and surgery, there is little else on offer. Secondly, even after trying diet after diet unsuccessfully, people blame themselves not the diets. What a fantastic position for a business to be in; their product fails every time and customers don’t complain!

Lastly, the desire to lose weight is so strong that we are putty in the hands of the diet industry. We are so easily seduced by their promises that logic goes out the window. There is also the hope that this diet, product or particular formula will be the ‘magic bullet’ – the one that will solve all our problems!

Reasons why diets do not work

  • They do not address the long-term habits that cause fat gain.
     
  • They encourage impossible goals, eg. lose 5kg in 10 days, which set us up to fail.
     
  • They focus on an end point rather than an enjoyable process of change: if we don’t get there, we feel like a failure; if we do get there but are unable to stay there, we also feel like a failure.
     
  • Food deprivation causes the body to go into survival mode; it does not know that the famine created for it is deliberate. Survival mode means:
    –  lean body tissue (muscle) is broken down to slow metabolism. A lower metabolic rate makes weight loss difficult and encourages weight gain when normal eating resumes;
    –  the body screams with hunger. It is designed to have a regular food supply and when this is threatened, the hunter-gatherer genes kick into action and trigger the appetite;
    –  the body becomes better at storing fat. It does not know how long it will be in semi-starvation mode so takes precautions!
     
  • Many diets are nutritionally deficient. They focus on kilojoule restriction often at the expense of nutrients we need to stay well.
     
  • They demand huge amounts of willpower that cannot be sustained for any length of time.
     
  • They promote food obsession and disordered eating behaviour. Seasoned dieters frequently binge before a diet (‘last supper’ effect), binge when self-discipline finally caves (‘I have blown it now so what the hell’ effect) and binge at night (‘halo’ effect from ‘being good during the day’).
     
  • Diets make us miserable and destroy self-confidence; there seems little choice between ‘suffering and losing weight’ or being ‘fat and unhappy’. Either way we lose out and life is too short for that!

If we don’t diet, what DO we do?

Enjoying food and a healthy weight at the same time IS possible without dieting or deprivation. The secret is to focus on health gain rather than weight loss and to make small, gradual habit changes to achieve this. It is about changing your normal way of doing things so that what you do promotes health and a healthy weight. Then it is about practicing this so that your new ‘normal’ is the enjoyable and preferred way of doing things. Once you come to love the foods that look after your health and weight, you have conquered your battle over food. While weight loss may not be immediate (it takes time to change), the rewards will be in the new energy, vitality, better health and better looks you reclaim each day. You can take heart knowing you are changing your version of ‘normal’ into one that promotes and maintains a healthy weight for life. You will then become the ‘best’ version of you!

Remember the story of the hare and the tortoise. Most diets, like the hare, aim for too much, too soon and run out of puff before they achieve victory. They also leave you feeling like a loser. Developing a healthier way of eating and moving is a slow, steady, enjoyable journey that, like the tortoise, puts you on the winner’s podium in the end!

Bronwen

Bronwen King is a NZ-registered nutritionist and qualified chef, and regular contributor to Healthy Food Guide magazine. She specialises in population health nutrition and weight management and currently manages Appetite for Life, a primary care-based healthy lifestyle and weight management programme in Canterbury. She enjoys everything about food! Check out Bronwen's personal blog, www.eatlosewin.com.

First published: Sep 2012
Last updated: April 3 2017
Last science review: October 10 2016



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