Fifty percent of adult women and 90% of teenage girls went on a diet in 2017 according to the Livestrong website. In our crazy, body-obsessed diet culture, these dieters hope to control the size and shape of their bodies by controlling their food intake.
Dieting isn’t just officially becoming a Weight Watchers member like Oprah. Dieting is the deliberate restriction of food with the intention of losing weight or re-shaping the body. Many people swear they are not on a diet, but live locked into a very specific allowance of calories, points, or carbs in order to have their body look different.
Being on a diet was a relatively new concept in the 1960s, and dieting has mushroomed out of control in the last 50 or so years. It started with the Grapefruit Diet and Weight Watchers. Then along came the Scarsdale Diet, Jenny Craig, the low-fat food craze. Now we are onto the gluten-free craze, the Paleo Diet, and cleanses. These diets made food-restricting seem like normal behavior.
Today everyone is on some kind of eating regime. As a culture, we obsess about everything we put in our mouths. We see news articles and Today Show segments where scientists and nutritionists target and eliminate entire food types like sugar and gluten. We have microscopes obsessively focused on each molecule of our food, hoping to find some new scientific information to start the next diet craze. And, diet crazes are big business in the United States. Last year the diet and fitness industry earned $66 billion dollars, says Food-u-cate.com.
DIets don't work
One thing we know for sure, there are lots and lots of ways to get weight off your body. And we've tried them all! The British Daily Mail reports that the average woman goes on 61 diets in her lifetime by age 45.
But, these diets don't keep the weight off your body. As of 20 years ago, we had the data: diets actually don’t work in the long run. 95% of diets fail. You may lose weight in the short term, but 95% of people regain the lost weight -- usually plus more in the next few years.
Not only are these well-known statistics, but all of us know this from experience. Most people interested in reading this blog post have been on many diets. Yet, we are still waiting for the one and done magic diet to appear, despite the fact we might have been dieting off and on for four or five decades!
Diets ignore you
Diets fail because they are often based around one scientific aspect, like "calories in, calories out" -- which works really well when burning food as fuel in a petrie dish. But the human body is not a lab. Each new diet doesn't account for individual human variables, like a person’s individual metabolism and individual caloric expenditure.
Diets don't work because they don't take YOU into account with their one size fits all mentality. They fail to take into consideration YOUR metabolism, YOUR daily expenditure, YOUR tastes, YOUR lifestyle, YOUR psychological makeup, and YOUR eating history.
And, diets also don't take into account YOUR genetics. Judith Matz in Beyond a Shadow of a Diet points out that 50-80% of our weight is the result of our genes. Nearly 80% of identical twins raised in separate households develop fat cells to the same level. So, how your mom or aunt looked at your age is more of a factor in how you look than whether you ate some sugar or gluten today.
Dieting starts out innocently enough, but most often progresses to an obsession with food and your body. Let's look how it could work; a dieter wants to lose weight and starts focusing on her eating. She starts to count her food's calories, carbs or points at each meal and snack, just like the diet d'jour tells her to do. She starts to weigh herself every day to keep track of the progress. Someone mentions to her that she looks great because our diet culture values weight loss and being thin. She realizes that the people who noticed her weight loss are looking at her. She is proud they’ve noticed her hard work, denying herself food. She starts to feel proud of herself, and her self-esteem increases because of her ability to control her food intake. All is well with the world.
However, this isn’t the end of the story for 95% of women who diet. If it were, everyone who had ever gone on Weight Watchers would walk around looking like a Victoria Secret model.
Back to our dieter; our dieter's weight loss is due to her starvation protection mechanisms kicking in. Her body is looking for fuel in her fat reserves to keep her alive. These mechanisms slow down her metabolism to conserve energy when she stops getting enough food. These protection mechanisms also cause her to crave food, so she won’t starve. Her increased focus on food minutia is now at war with her body’s increasing focus on getting more food. She is thinking about food quite a bit now, it all looks and smells so good. She is hungry. She is feeling deprived watching everyone eat. She experiences some stress in her life (because everyone has stress in their lives) and she isn’t able to keep fighting her urge for food and her feelings of deprivation. She “falls off the strict wagon of the diet.” She eats a cookie. Then maybe many more.
Crossing the line from all is well to obsession
This could be the place where her innocent desire for weight loss crosses the line to become an obsession. Crossing the line between all is well and obsession is hard to notice. It happens under the surface of your mind, with no alarm bells triggered when it happens. People who've suffered with eating disorders say that it sneaks up on you. But, you might be able to notice when many emotions are being triggered by the dieting process that it is no longer going well.
Back to our dieter: our dieter starts to feel guilty when she doesn’t eat according to the strict plan she holds for herself. The diet has created a moral universe of good and bad, and she judges herself as bad for what she ate. Then she starts to fear gaining weight. Then she starts to feel angry with herself when she cannot control her eating behavior because she thinks this is all a matter of control, not realizing that she was working against her body’s mechanisms that are trying to protect her from starving.
Then she becomes ashamed that the people who noticed she lost weight might notice that she’s gained some back, seeing herself as an object of their judgment. With her new focus on the scale -- from her dieting -- she might overblow the effects of gaining a couple pounds back, and become ashamed of her body at the higher weight. She judges herself by this number she was able to get to on the diet – which she now thinks is her ideal weight based on nothing that has to do with what her weight is supposed to be. And, she begins to fear the judgment of others. She is now officially obsessed and also, fearful.
HIgh anxiety around food and eating
All this emotion has triggered a number of fears in our dieter, where there was none before she decided she her body was flawed and she needed to lose weight. These fears cause anxiety in her around food and her body. She is afraid of:
- not conforming to our diet culture's appearance ideal
- foods deemed bad in their diet's moral universe
- being out of control around food
- her bathroom scale because it’s become an instrument of torture
- her family or friends judging her body -- thus not fitting in/belonging to these groups
- being fat in a larger, fat-phobic society -- thus not fitting in/ belonging to the larger culture
The obsession and anxiety around food and body cause a number of behaviors that take up the lion’s share of mindshare for our dieters and many women today. Thirty-five percent of dieters go through this cycle again and again, and become chronic dieters. Twenty to thirty percent of dieters develop eating disordered behaviors, such as binging and purging, laxative abuse, over-exercising, and emotional eating according to NEDA. This is why dieting is considered a “gateway” to eating disorders and binge eating.
Back to mindshare
We see these behavior in the obsessed and anxious around food and body:
- Constant body checking, “Am I okay” with scales, mirrors, pictures, fitbit
- Constant counting of food minutia, calories, carbs, micro/macro nutrients, heathy food
- Thinking of food when not at mealtime
- Feeling like an object of others’ gaze: taking pictures, selfies, posing
- And body comparisons of friends, media, strangers
These behaviors add up and bring us back to the orginal problem of mindshare spent on food and eating. Obsession and anxiety hijack mindshare that could be used on other things that make live worth living.
Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
- Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, Body Respect, 2014.
- Paul Campos, The Diet Myth, 2005.
- Carolyn Costin, Your Dieting Daughter, 2013 (2nd edition).
- Renee Engeln, Beauty Sick, 2017.
- Leah Kelm,"They Starved So That Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment," The Nutrition Journal, 2005.).
- Traci Mann, Secrets from the Eating Lab, 2015.
- Traci Mann, "Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer," American Psychologist, 2008.
- Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, 2014 (2nd edition).
- Julia V. Taylor, The Body Image Workbook for Teens, 2014.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch,Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food, 2017.