This is a question that many people are asking, especially as we hear more and more about the Anti-Diet movement, which claims that not only do diets not work, but they can even make your health worse. With it being the month of January, we are now surrounded by the topics of New Year resolutions, dieting, and weight loss more than ever, so it begs the question, can dieting actually be bad for you?
What The Research Says
You may have heard of some of the potential negative effects of dieting, which depending on the source might include increased risk of disordered eating behaviors, psychological distress, weight cycling, and even weight gain (1,2,3,4). Weight cycling, or body-weight fluctuation, is often induced by dieting due to the high prevalence of weight regain after weight loss. This is problematic given that it indicates that dieting doesn't typically work in the long term, and because research also suggests additional health risks associated with weight cycling. These include increased risk for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and morbidity of cardiovascular disease and hypertension (5). Weight cycling has even been associated with increased risk of diabetes and insulin resistance as well (6).
On the other hand, a majority of studies indicate that intentional weight loss from dieting is associated with a reduced risk of death (7), and for those who are overweight, we know that losing a small amount of body weight (just 5-10%) has many metabolic health benefits including improved blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure (8,9). Research has shown that intentional weight loss from dietary interventions can lead to improved psychological health as well (10), despite studies that suggest the opposite.
So, what’s the deal? Why does the research seem so inconsistent?
Because it’s not dieting itself or weight loss that’s to blame here.
It’s the way that we’re doing it.
What Does “Dieting” Even Mean?
Diet: the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats.
First of all, I want to emphasize how incredibly ambiguous the definition of “diet” and “dieting” has become. People have highly varied views of what these terms mean, which is a huge part of the problem. Listed below are some definitions that I found online for “dieting”, which I’ve separated to reflect unhealthy dieting vs. a healthier type of dieting.
A regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one's weight.
Abiding by a special course of food to which a person restricts themselves, either to lose weight or for medical reasons.
Restricting oneself to small amounts or special kinds of food in order to lose weight.
These definitions reflect the unhealthy type of dieting because they indicate that you can only eat sparingly (NOT TRUE),
that you can only eat small amounts of food (NOT TRUE),
and that you need to “restrict” yourself (NOT TRUE).
Abiding by a particular selection of food, especially as designed or prescribed to improve a person's health or to prevent or treat a disease.
Regulating your selection of foods, as for medical reasons, health reasons, or reducing weight.
Selecting the food one eats in a certain way to improve one's health or to lose weight.
These definitions reflect a healthier type of dieting because they indicate a certain way of eating in which you’re making food choices in a more structured and intentional way that promotes health. It’s important that none of these definitions imply restriction, however, which can lead to craving, binge eating, and very unhealthy relationships with food.
The Issue with Restriction and the Quick Fix
The problem that most people encounter during the dieting process is that they choose the wrong type of dieting, i.e. the “quick fix.” What this means is that people tend to choose extreme meal plans that are too restrictive, ultimately stress them out, foster an unhealthy relationship with food, and aren’t sustainable. This translates into quick weight loss, but at some point, this weight is usually gained back. This can be attributed to a combination of the effects of stress and the fact that people eventually quit these meal plans because they can’t keep up with them long term.
Redefine What Being Healthy Means
Let me first of all say, if you’ve fallen prey to the quick fix in the past: this is not your fault. Mainstream media and the weight loss market puts such a strong emphasis on body weight and self worth that it inevitably makes many of us feel ashamed and want to lose weight fast. Furthermore, there is messaging EVERYWHERE telling us exactly what we need to do and buy to make that happen. However, the quick fix is a gimmick. We need to redefine the reason that we decide to get healthy and what being healthy means. Make it about YOU, being strong, and wanting to feel good. Make it about celebrating all the truly wonderful things that your body can do. How you look shouldn’t be part of the equation.
There’s nothing wrong with you wanting to change your eating patterns or adopt a new meal plan in order to get healthier. In fact, that’s awesome! But we should make sure that we’re doing it for the right reasons. And secondly, we need to make sure that it doesn’t become a stressful and negative experience. If a certain way of eating or living stresses you out, then something is wrong. Either that meal plan isn’t for you, or we may need to work on mindfulness and body positivity for a while, or maybe both.
While I certainly encourage mindfulness and listening to your body, don’t be afraid to pair that with the structure that a meal plan can provide. Many people find structure and guidance helpful in a meal plan as they get healthy, although this structure should of course be flexible and allow you to listen to your body’s hunger and satiety cues. It’s important to note that there are many medical conditions that even necessitate the structure of a meal plan, including but not limited to diabetes, kidney disease, and congestive heart failure.
But because the term diet has a negative connotation and suggests a temporary and negative state for so many people, I like to call it something else. Meal plan, health plan, lifestyle, health journey. Whatever you’re comfortable with and feels positive. So, as you pursue say, your health journey, choose a way of eating and living that seems achievable for you long term. This should mean something that allows for moderation and flexibility.
True wellness is about pursuing an overall, ongoing pattern of behaviors in our lifestyle, daily eating, physical activity, and self-care habits that promote health in the long term. And yes, this means occasionally eating cake.
If you want to lose weight, be ok with doing it at a slower rate. Losing weight at about 1 lb per week has been shown to be more effective than diets that induce quicker weight loss. And if your weight loss ever stagnates, be ok with that too! It is very normal for this to happen (because physiology and metabolism are complicated). Make sure to remind yourself that all those healthy decisions you make on a daily basis are making a big difference, even if your weight remains the same. For example, as you become more physically active, you can have clinically meaningful changes in your body composition (decreased body fat and increased muscle mass) that are associated with no change in body weight, or even sometimes increased body weight. The state of your health is ultimately much more complex than just that number on the scale.
Remember to start with small goals, and then go from there. It’s ok to make changes along the way as needed, too, because there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution when it comes to health. What works for your neighbor or that girl on TV may not work for you, and vice versa. We are all unique in so many wonderful and beautiful ways, and that includes the ways that our bodies work.
If You Struggle
My last piece of advice is: if you ever struggle with finding the right meal plan for you, please consider consulting a registered dietitian. They can answer all of those pressing questions and/or concerns that come up along the way, help you problem solve, and be your own personal cheerleader as you pursue your health journey. Because it’s about being in it for the long haul, you need to have a strong support system in place for when the goating gets tough ;)
Happy eating and health journeys to you all <3