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Why Diets Don’t Work (and what to do instead of dieting)

I’m Kayli Anderson, dietitian and natural foods chef. PBM is your headquarters for empowering, woman-centered plant-based nutrition and lifestyle guidance. 

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If you have ever found yourself caught in the diet cycle – attempting to follow a set of strict food rules, which leads to feeling deprived, which leads to feeling out of control and breaking the rules, which leads to shame and guilt for “falling off the wagon”, which leads to punishing yourself by reinstating the strict (or even stricter) rules – there is something you need to hear. It’s not you, it’s them. And by “them” I mean the diet industry and the diet culture that they perpetuate. The weight loss industry is estimated to be worth almost $279 BILLION by 2023. Yet, it’s also estimated that 95% of all diets fail.

Let’s talk about why diets don’t work (hint: they aren’t designed to work in the first place) and what to do instead of dieting to finally feel at peace with food and your body.

The Diet Cycle

If you’ve ever been on a diet, then you’ve found yourself spinning around in the Diet Cycle: restriction and hope, followed by feelings of deprivation and loss of control around food, followed by guilt and shame.

It’s like a treadmill that you feel like you can’t step off of. You might go around and around with the same diet, or you might swap in a new set of rules and restrictions, but you always seem to end up right back where you started. Each time it feels a little more disempowering, demoralizing, and humiliating. It chips away at your self-esteem. It makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you.

I’m going to tell you something that I bet on some level you already know to be true: dieting is a setup. Dieting is specifically designed to keep you coming back again and again and keep you blaming yourself each time you fail.

6 Reasons Why Diets Don’t Work

1. They’re designed to be unsustainable

Part of the allure of diets are their clear rules and short-term timeframes. Every fad diet comes with a do’s and don’ts list, right? And they almost always have a time frame attached that is short enough to entice you – 30 day challenge, fast one week per month, etc. This is just enough time to make you buy the book, order all the products, and feel hopeful. But you are going to eat about three meals a day for the rest of your life, so don’t you want guidance to that will support you for a lifetime – not just the next 30 days?

 

2. They rely on the wrong type of motivation

Many people believe that motivation is a talent – you either have it or you don’t. This isn’t necessarily true. Motivation is more like a skill. It’s something you have to build and strengthen, and the type you cultivate matters. Extrinsic motivation comes from something outside of ourselves – a reward, someone else’s approval, conforming to society’s definition of beauty, and even the avoidance of punishment or rejection. This is the type of motivation dieting relies on. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within us – doing something to achieve rewarding feelings like joy or pleasure, or doing something because it is connected to our core values. For example, exercising to reach a certain number on the scale is extrinsic, while exercising because it improves your mood is intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation can work in the short-term (the first few days and weeks of a diet, for example), but its power is short-lived. For something to be truly sustainable, intrinsic motivation must be in play.

Related:  What is Intuitive Eating?

 

3. Your pleasure is missing

Have you ever felt guilty or embarrassed for loving to eat? I am giving you permission to drop those negative feelings right now because you are intelligently designed to enjoy food! Eating ensures your survival, so if you didn’t enjoy it the human race would be in big trouble (kind of like sex!). In fact, studies show that we absorb more nutrition from a meal when we enjoy it. Your pleasure is literally part of your health equation. Most diets do not include pleasure. At best, they ignore it completely. At worst, they shame you for enjoying eating. Studies have shown that dieting perpetuates fixation and stress around eating – the opposite of what we want for optimal nourishment.

 

4. Diets harm your relationship with yourself

I’m going to get a little feminist with this one… Dieting is based on a very patriarchal structure. You are given a set of rigid rules by an all-knowing diet and expected to comply. If you don’t, you are bad. This structure encourages you to outsource your power, ignore your innate wisdom about what is best for your body, and look to external sources to tell you how to do something that is so incredibly basic to human life – eating. It actively encourages you to distrust yourself and your body, framing your body as something that needs to be fixed or controlled. In research, dieting is associated with feelings of low self-esteem, social anxiety, and failure. Like most patriarchal structures, dieting ultimately severs the connection between your mind, body, and spirit.

5. The most common outcome is dangerous to your health

The common outcome of dieting is repeatedly losing and regaining weight, called weight cycling. Weight cycling is very detrimental to your health. It disrupts your hormones including those that regulate your hunger and satiety, blunts your metabolism, increases inflammation, and puts you at higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. In a study of Biggest Loser contestants, the former contestants’ metabolisms were so blunted that on average they only burned about 700 calories per day even six years after being on the show! This is a very low number. For comparison, healthy adults need roughly 2,000 calories per day on average.

 

6. A diet doesn’t address the real reasons why you diet

Diets make the promise that if you just eat *these* food and avoid *those* foods, you will get the body you want. But body shape, weight, and health are about SO much more than food, and the deeper reasons why people seek diets usually have nothing to do with just losing a few pounds. For instance, traumas experienced in childhood, called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), are a predictor of adult body weight. The more ACEs someone has experienced, the more likely they are to be categorized by the body mass index scale as obese. In other words, a fad diet is not the answer to the need to process traumas. You may also be pursuing diets because you have internalized the cultural thin ideal and assigned meaning to having a certain size body. In this scenario, it is the toxic messages in our culture that need fixing, not your body. Dieting is almost always a bandaid for deeper healing that needs to be done.

Related:  How To Appreciate Your Body

5 Things To Do Instead of Dieting

Now that we know why diets don’t work, let’s talk about what you can do instead of dieting to put yourself on the path of true health and healing.  

1. Start a reflective practice

Step one to better health is creating space in your mind. With every situation life presents, we have two choices – to either react or respond. The difference between reacting and responding is space in your mind. You can visualize this by imagining yourself taking a giant step backward so you have more space between you and whatever is in front of you, a wider view of the situation, and a better vantage point to observe and process what’s happening internally and externally. Mind space comes from reflective practices. This can be meditation, but it can also be journaling, talk therapy, time in nature, time in the bath… any activity or place that allows you to reflect on your life and begin to notice your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. After you get in the habit of noticing, you can then start to question why certain feelings are triggered by certain events, why you behave in the ways that you do, where your repetitive thoughts and beliefs originated, and whether it’s time to let them go. This might not sound as sexy or straightforward as a flashy new cleanse, but I deeply believe that it is the golden ticket to better health and a better life. 

Try this: Every morning or evening, set a timer for 5 minutes and either write in a journal or record a voice memo journal about your day – how you felt, what came up for you, any high points, and any low points. Over time, start to notice any themes and patterns.

2. Learn to respect your body

The way that dieting keeps you the Diet Cycle is by keeping you in the false belief that you body is flawed and needs to be fixed, manipulated, and controlled. The way you step out of the cycle is by learning to respect and trust your body. Have you ever thought about what a complete freaking miracle your body is? Have you thought about the incredibly slim odds that worked in your favor for you to be born on this Earth? The fact that your heart has been beating on its own since you were in the womb? That you can sleep, work, and juggle a million thoughts in your mind while your body keeps remembering to breathe? I could go on and on. You are a damn miracle, so regardless of whether you like the look of your body, I want you to start thinking about respecting your body. Learning to respect your body leads you back to the innate desire to want to care for your body, and the desire to care for your body leads you to make decisions in your life that benefit your health. Now that is intrinsic motivation!

Related:  6 Techniques to Reset When You Feel Triggered

Try this: Every morning or evening, come up with 1-3 things that you appreciate about your body. Write them down or say them aloud to yourself.

3. Use your self-care filter

Just because diets don’t work doesn’t mean that nutrition doesn’t work. There are essential nutrition practices that are backed by sound science and worth incorporating into your life (check out the Nutrition Basics For Women resource library for more on those practices). The key to approaching these practices is replacing your diet mentality with a self-care filter. When you encounter a nutrition practice, ask yourself, “Will this practice enhance or harm my self-care?” This self-care filter ensures that any new food habit that enters your life is there to serve your highest purpose, caring for yourself. 

Try this: Reflect on your personal definition of self-care. Write down your definition so that your self-care filter feels really clear to you.

 

4. Find meaningful ways to measure your health

Most diets measure your “success” with the number on the scale, calories or macros, or how well you followed their rigid rules. The truth is that none of these metrics are good indicators of your health (topics for another day!). I want to invite you to measure your health by more meaningful metrics. If you are focused on a certain health condition, then track your lab metrics like your cholesterol. If your goal is simply to feel better, track how you feel. Energized, balanced, peaceful. Other ideas: the quality of your sleep, the reduction of obsessive thoughts about food, or how present you felt during meals.

Try this: Choose one meaningful metric to check in with at a cadence that makes sense for you (everyday, once per week, etc.)

 

5. Let your satisfaction be your guide

I am a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, and Satisfaction is considered the hub of intuitive eating. Your satisfaction includes your pleasure and enjoyment, but it also includes how you feel in your body, your health, and your alignment with your values. So, when you let satisfaction guide your eating decisions, you make choices around food that balance all of these aspects. You may turn down a glass of wine because part of your satisfaction is high-quality sleep. Or you may say yes to an ice cream cone because sharing a child-like experience with a close friend is aligned with your core value of nurturing important relationships. Or you may say no to a burger and fries and yes to a salad because you know the salad will feel better and more energizing in your body that particular day. Satisfaction is personal, multifaceted, and ever-changing, but it is a trustworthy guide. 

Try this: Start to ask yourself this question after your eating experiences: “Do I feel satisfied?” Notice patterns with experiences that feel satisfying vs. those that don’t. Through these patterns, your personal definition of satisfaction (your eating manifesto) will begin to emerge.

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