January, a.k.a. National Dieting Month, is once again upon us. Before you sign up for another a restrictive eating plan that has been designed by someone who doesn’t even know you, here are five reasons to opt out of diet culture this year.
1. Diets don’t work. Anyone who says they have found the proven way to lose weight and keep it off is selling snake oil, and counting on repeat customers. When you restrict calories enough to drop below your body’s natural set point weight range, your body will push back, causing you to regain weight. Over time, repeatedly losing and regaining weight (yo-yo dieting) may leave your health in a worse place than if you never dieted. This is a bitter pill, especially if better health is one of your motivations for losing weight.
2. Weight does not equal health. People can be healthy or unhealthy at both lower and higher weights. Even in research that shows an association between weight loss and improved health, it’s unclear whether it’s the weight loss that’s responsible for better health, or the behaviors people adopt in an effort to lose weight, such as better nutrition and regular physical activity.
3. Dieting gets in the way of lasting change. In other words, it doesn’t help you develop sustainable habits. When you treat nutrition and physical activity only as a means to weight loss, you’re not likely to eat well or be active if your attempts don’t lead to the results you want – and you’re more likely to return to old habits even if you do lose weight.
4. Dieting takes up mental bandwidth. Because most people feel as though there aren’t enough hours in the day, why spend precious time obsessively logging your food and tracking your calories or macros? Why exhaust yourself worrying about whether the food at a restaurant or party fits your diet rules or beating yourself up because you ate food that’s not “allowed”? You may think that weighing less will free you from body image concerns, but dieting to improve body image is futile, because any newfound self-esteem will evaporate when you regain the weight.
5. Restriction can lead to bingeing. Dieting and food restriction have been shown to increase the risk of binge eating. When you feel deprived, you’re more likely to overeat once you stop restricting. This restrict-binge cycle is the opposite of a moderate, balanced, peaceful approach to food and eating.
Giving up one habit without replacing it with something else can create an uncomfortable vacuum that may suck you back into the diet culture. Here are four things you can do to move toward health and away from dieting.
1. Investigate intuitive eating. Babies and very young children instinctively know when and how much to eat, based on innate hunger and fullness cues. We start to unlearn those cues once we’re encouraged to eat “just three more bites” or to clean our plate – or are taught that there are “good” and “bad” foods. The good news is that intuitive eating is a skill we can relearn, and the outcome is far more fruitful than what comes from continuing to diet. The book “Intuitive Eating” by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch provides the ultimate guide.
2. Focus on wellness, not weight. Embrace new habits that are good for whole-body health regardless of whether they lead to a change in weight. Because it’s pretty clear that exercise and nutrition improve health, why not just focus on building better habits on those fronts, letting weight take a back seat? Eating foods that provide balanced nutrition,are delicious and leave you feeling good has inherent value. So does moving your body regularly. So does getting enough sleep and managing stress. Research shows that a Health At Every Size approach improves health regardless of weight.
3. Cultivate body respect. When you diet, you are trying to make changes from a place of body hatred. This year, why not work on making changes from a place of body respect and acceptance? Weighing less is not the path to happiness, and when you feel good about your body only when you’re losing weight, that’s a temporary body image boost. People who accept their size – regardless of what that size is – tend to take better care of themselves and enjoy better health.
4. Say “no” to weight stigma. Weight stigma, especially when you internalize it, is toxic. In fact, weight stigma may be responsible for most of the health problems that are typically ascribed to higher body weights. Why? Because people who take weight stigma to heart are less likely to seek preventive health care and more likely to engage in behaviors that harm them. We can all benefit from increasing compassion, acceptance and respect for all people, of all body sizes – including ourselves.
Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.