Why diets do not work

The average woman spends 31 years of her life on a slimming diet and at any given time two out of three women in the UK are on some kind of weight loss regime. As we are the fattest nation in Europe, with over 50% of the population classified as either the obese or overweight, this is hardly surprising. Yet other statistics show that 97% of diets fail, with the original weight being regained (often with a few additional pounds) within one year. What’s more, about one in two female dieters are actually within their healthy normal weight range so do not need to lose weight! They may just need to work on their body composition to gain more muscle and lose body fat. So why are we wasting all this energy on a fruitless activity that does not work, makes us fatter and more miserable, and which may not be necessary or helpful for us?

The truth of the matter is that we live in a confusing cruel environment where the food, fashion and slimming industry make billions of pounds every year getting us to eat and drink fattening foods, advertising clothes on size zero models and then getting us to pay more good money on diets and diet products supposedly to lose the extra pounds! Yet when we fail, we are denigrated for our lack of will power and “greed”. It is no wonder then that dieting often results in eating disorders such as binge eating, bulimia nervosa and anorexia.

So why do diets fail? There are a multitude of reasons for this, some physiological and others psychological. Dieting can play havoc with your body’s hormonal system, disrupting hormones that govern metabolism, stress, fertility, mood, libido and appetite. Diets can also lower your nutrient status, which in turn makes you more vulnerable to infections, digestive disorders, food intolerances and nutrient deficiencies e.g. iron and B vitamins. Did you know that chocolate craving can be a sign of iron deficiency?

Slowing of metabolism is one of the better known reasons for diet failure. This is particularly associated with yo yo dieting, crash diets such as juice fasts, detoxes or ultra low carb diets. These diets often result in rapid weight loss over the first week or so, but the weight lost is likely to be a combination of glycogen (your body’s energy stores) and water with very little fat loss. Healthy lean muscle tissue is likely to be lost as well, resulting in decreased muscle tone and lower metabolism (so your body burns fewer calories). Beware, this is even more likely if you are normal or underweight to begin with! Once you come off the diet and start eating “normally”, weight is rapidly regained often in the form of more body fat, particularly visceral fat, the dangerous invisible fat around the heart, liver and organs which is linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, fertility problems, depression, high blood pressure and dementia.

Another issue is that dieting is both physiologically and psychologically stressful, leading to hormonal imbalances that create more body and visceral fat, and reduced muscle stores. When we get stressed we are more likely to crave sweet foods and drinks. Yet over consumption of these types of food/drink can lead to overproduction of insulin resulting in fat storage around the middle of the body and more visceral fat. Overproduction of insulin is linked to diabetes and polycystic ovarian syndrome, a leading cause of infertility. What’s more, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol block fat burning, and break down muscle tissue to use as energy. Overproduction of cortisol uses up your body’s raw materials for sex hormones so your libido can be lowered too.

Finally, one paramount reason for failure is that overly restricting food can play havoc with the hormones that govern our appetites. The importance of food becomes magnified in our brains, and can result in cravings for “fattening” foods such as chocolate, ice cream, cakes, biscuits, fizzy drinks etc. When we give into our cravings we are more likely to feel guilty and ashamed, resulting in lowering of self-esteem, which in turn can result in comfort eating leading to weight gain and yet more low self esteem until we start the next diet which promises to be the answer! Thus a destructive cycle is set up and we fall into the trap of being either  “on” or “off” a diet (yo yo dieting).  

“Fattening” foods such as chocolate and even normal everyday foods such as bread, potatoes become demonised, resulting in black and white thinking leading to a lack of perspective about food and reduced ability to eat moderately or according to our body’s natural hunger cues. What’s more, over restriction of carbohydrate foods can lead to lowered serotonin, the body’s happy hormone.

With all this to contend with it is no wonder that at least 50% of overweight or obese people are classified as emotional eaters, that is they eat in response to their feelings e.g. stress, anger, boredom, low self esteem, low mood, loneliness etc. rather than true hunger.

There is hope however, as recent new insights and practices have been developed which have been demonstrated to successfully help emotional eaters, chronic dieters and anyone who wants/needs to reach a healthier weight to break out of destructive patterns to form new habits. It is possible to reprogram your mind and body with simple techniques that do not take much time. This can lead to more permanent weight loss, improved health and nutritional status as well as a healthier relationship with food and your body. If you would like to learn more about these techniques then contact a nutritionist who has received specialist training to support people with compulsive eating and body image issues.

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Joanna Oates

I provide consultations in a GP Surgery & other clinics in West London. I also run workshops on stress & healthy eating in companies/schools & currently work at health fairs for Transport for London. My aim is to provide realistic, practical, dietary advice to suit individual lifestyles and budget.
I recognise the importance of food as a source of pleasure and its valuable role … Read more

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