Why dieting doesn't work

Have you given up on your new year's diet - or are you quite a few along by now? We’ve all been there. Dieting is a normal part of our culture, with diet rates flowing in waves around the media cycle of post-Christmas restriction and summer beach body readiness campaigns.


In a rush and want to hear this article instead? Listen to the podcast version of 'Why diets don't work'.

Dieting is a business - a multi-billion dollar business. And what happens if your diet works, you’re happy in your body and you never buy a 12-week slimming plan again? The money runs dry. These programmes are designed to work in the short term, but with maybe an initial high or victory to keep you coming back.

But, ultimately, diets don't work - and it’s not your fault. It is the way they’re designed.

Dieting makes you more preoccupied with food, makes food the enemy and leads to guilt being the main emotion you feel around food. And that’s often when you’re not even officially on a diet.

You might have heard of the term the 'dieting cycle' or the 'dieting paradox'. The root of the term is the same - the harder you try and diet the harder you fall. You diet and restrict. Initially, it’s OK and you feel like you’re doing well, but then you can’t stick to it and so you eat something your diet says is 'off limits'. And before you know it, you’ve binged or overeaten or ‘fallen off the wagon’. And you feel terrible, as is to be expected really.

So you think this is it, starting Monday or tomorrow, you’ll go back on the diet. Maybe even restrict a little more than you did last time. And this time you won’t fall off the wagon. It’s always the last time.

Do you experience any of the classic symptoms of diet backlash?

  • Eating less food but being hungry all the time.
  • The thought of going on a diet brings about cravings.
  • You don’t trust yourself around food.
  • You’re experiencing social withdrawal.
  • Maybe you use caffeine or energy drinks to survive the day.

What is diet culture?

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that make health a moral virtue with the thin ideal as the goal. This means weight loss is the ultimate goal to achieve a higher status, and a focus for your time, energy and funds. Diet culture demonises certain ways of eating and praises others - with people that don’t match up to this being outcast. No wonder it affects a large number of people’s mental and physical health.

Some things to consider:

What’s the reason?

Think of the last time you went for a drastic haircut or colour. Was it because you wanted to feel more in control of your life, or transform at a time when you felt stagnant? Or maybe you use dieting to socialise with friends?

Are you pseudo-dieting?

Physical dieting might have stopped but you’re still mentally restricting aka the brain is still on a diet. Examples include strict calorie counting, eating only ‘good’ foods, drinking coffee/soda to feel full, only eating at certain times of day, etc.

Are you ignoring the lows of dieting and only focusing on the highs?

Dieting decreases metabolism, the risk of heart disease, and cravings.

What will happen if you stop dieting?

Worried that ceasing dieting will make you feel lost and out of control? When you’re done with dieting, you’ll experience a paradigm shift. The following will happen, you'll... 

1. Recognise the damage dieting has caused you - it can’t be part of your solution. Maybe it’s affecting those around you too. If you're experiencing an eating disorder, seek professional help.

2. Start to recognise diet mentality traits - ignore what you ‘should’ be eating, move away from ‘willpower’ and having the motivation. Focus on what your relationship with food can teach you and know you can’t fail.

3. Ditch the scale - if you haven't already. Using weight as a metric is never a good idea as it varies with hydration, muscle mass, etc. It will always let you down. Gain weight and you feel bad, lose weight and sometimes you feel bad.
Know you're gonna be pulled back in - you may have been on a diet from a young age. It takes a while to shake it. Just one more diet is a very common phrase.

There will be repercussions, your hunger levels might vary and you may feel a little out of control as you start the journey to eating more intuitively. That’s all part of the process as you start to tune back into the body’s natural cues.

If you want some support to cut ties with dieting, you can book a free discovery call. 

(As always, a dedication to Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and their Intuitive Eating Framework and training).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
London, Greater London, SE21
Written by Kacie Shoulders, ANutr
London, Greater London, SE21

Kacie Shoulders is an associate nutritionist and yoga teacher based in South London. She takes a HAES approach to working with clients and focuses on Intuitive Eating and movement.

Show comments

Find a nutritionist dealing with Weight management

All nutrition professionals are verified

All nutrition professionals are verified