Your Unreliable Friend


Your Unreliable Friend

How many people do you know in your life that are currently on, or have previously used some form of a diet? Better yet, it may be easier to consider how many people you know that have never been on a diet. Any takers? The American culture is infamous for supplying about a million and two different ways to diet, which from now on will be understood as a fancy word for “using a rigid and restricted way of eating and/or drinking in hopes of shrinking a body.” This is clearly not an actual definition, just my own, but I want to be clear that I am writing about the usage and effects of a very specific way of eating – this does not mean to include those with allergies and/or other medical diagnosis that require abstinence of particular foods [I will forever be heartbroken for those with peanut allergies and Celiac disease].

There are a lot of reasons why people choose to start eating a certain way – whether it be concern for health sparked by a doctor or event, something to do as part of a social thing with friends, sometimes it’s part of a competition, and many times it’s related to the desire for weight loss, to look a different way, to feel more confident, etc. No matter what the enticement be, the biological and physiological response is the same. IT. ISN’T. SUSTAINABLE. Now, I’m not that naive. I’ve seen and known tons of people to actually achieve weight loss with a diet, so if you’re looking for a “quick fix,” although I wouldn’t recommend it, you can make it happen. But brace yourself, because unless you are the coolest and most special of all statistical unicorns, the results will almost never last [sorry, not sorry].

The way I see it, dieting has a few consistent factors: fearing mongering, the dieting itself, the body’s response, and the shame spiral. So, here is a general example of how this diet path might go:

  1. Fear Mongering:

For decades our country has been talking about the “Obesity Epidemic” [cue eye roll] as a way to scare us all into believing that body size is a direct sign of health. {Please check out ASDAH for more information and research behind HAES®!} Who doesn’t want to live their longest, best life? Of course, we’d all run for the diet hills and hope for some weight loss. But did you know that while we are all missing out on pizza, counting points, and throwing weights around, the number of “obese” Americans by BMI standards has only increased? Twenty years ago, about a quarter of the population was “obese” and currently, at least two-thirds of America now fits that BMI category (1). So even though we’ve been taught to fear weight gain and strive for weight loss as a sign of health, bodies have simply gotten bigger. [Side note, I hate the word obese and I think BMI could essentially stand for Bull**** Measuring Index, but this is still how our country presents data. It’s simply fatphobic and oppressing.]

Now that we’ve learned there has to be something backwards about the way we’ve attempted weight loss in the past few decades, it’s time for some other truth bombs. The diet industry, also known as the wellness industry and many other sneaky names, has grown in almost $20 billion in just the past ten years (1). Yep – the very industry we are buying into is making BILLIONS off of people often acting out of fear, guilt, and shame, for an idea that has yet to work in over twenty years.

2. The Dieting:

It is so important for us to realize how we have come to make connections between body size and health. The statistics previously mentioned show that we hold a lot of trust in messages about our health and well-being, about our ability to live an optimal life. But have you considered some of the not-so-subliminal messages within that?

Fat = unhealthy & Unhealthy = bad … therefore … Thin = healthy & Healthy = good

It’s something we are often embarrassed to talk about, because we all know how insanely judgmental this is, but also something most struggle to ever question the truth of. This is why, today, when I refer to dieting, I’m talking about a good ‘ole restrictive method with a goal of weight loss or body manipulation. It could be avoiding a certain food group, counting, measuring, or weighing foods in some way, or simply placing moral value on whatever foods you do choose to eat – it’s deprivation. When working within a constrained eating pattern like this, research has shown that up to 95% of dieters will not be able to sustain weight loss after 2-5 years (2). In the wonderful words of Robyn Nohling, The Real Life RD, “We don’t even know how to help people lose weight and keep it off. Recommending {weight loss} to someone is like recommending a medication that we know only works 5 percent of the time, and under extreme circumstances.” (3)

3. The Response:

Any form of restricting your body of it’s typical, expected energy intake will most often elicit the same response: protection and survival. All of us have an individual BMR – basal metabolic rate – that is in charge of determining our basic energy needs for survival. Any threat to this causes our body to immediately determine the next best way to preserve energy, and keep us alive. [Thank you ancestors!] So picture a fire. It is summer time after all. To keep your fire at s’mores status hot and toasty, you keep throwing logs in. This is similar to keeping our metabolism going – we keep fueling it with energy from the food we eat. Any time you slack on the logs, your fire gets smaller and weaker. Without the fuel, your fire simply calms down in order to use what little fuel it does have. Our bodies do the same. Restrictive dieting causes the body to decrease our BMR, creating a way for us to simply survive off of less [again, thank you ancestors!]. (2)

Like we’ve noted, people can and have done this and lost weight for periods of time. The body isn’t broken, it’s actually really good at helping us survive. But our metabolic adjustments aren’t the only response happening. Our bodies will continue to throw out smoke signals to reverse the deprivation as persistently at it can. Say hello to hunger and cravings, and goodbye to fullness. Not only will the “hunger hormone” ghrelin increase, but the “satiety hormone” leptin will decrease, all while the brain screams and yells for more carbs, carbs, fat, and more carbs. [Here’s a fact – the brain NEEDS carbs and fat for energy and adequate neurological communication. There’s a reason people rarely crave vegetables and chicken while dieting.] At some point it is likely that we respond to this annoyance by “falling off the wagon” and eating in a less restrictive way, but now with a slower metabolism and higher potential to eat past fullness. Hello, weight gain. (4)

Not to beat a dead horse, but those health factors you were hoping to improve? We now know that this weight cycle can also be linked to things like increased cortisol (stress), heart disease, HTN, insulin resistance, and inflammation. (4) *Big Sigh*

4. The Shame Spiral:

We know why it makes sense, that despite our efforts, bodies have not shrunken to our desire over the past twenty years. Now, don’t go get angry at that beautiful bod of yours, it’s simply providing you the unconditional love and care you deserve. If anything, get angry at diet culture. There is only ONE industry I know of that profits off of our continued fear, guilt, and shame. Have you ever been this victim? If so, please remember, it was the diet that failed you, not your efforts or your body. Sometimes the worse we feel about “failing” a diet when it is marketed as something that “works,” the more intrigued we are to try a new one. THIS time, it’ll happen for me. I’ll keep the weight off. See how easy it is for this business to profit? There is a reason why there are a million and two different diets to try.

The perfect diet is similar to a super unreliable friend. As a good friend you still want it to work. Sometimes you go out of your way for the relationship in ways that aren’t best for your life. It feels great for a little while, lovely even, until ultimately, they prove unreliable yet again. You may keep trying until an actual friend reminds you that you deserve better. I am that friend right now [the reliable one], simply validating that your efforts to lose weight and eat a certain way are nothing to be judged. In fact, it makes so much sense to me it hurts. However, you deserve better. And for as long as you are unsure about it, I’ll be your reminder. The reminder that you deserve joy, and fun, and a sense of accomplishment. Not guilt, shame, or fear. So question what you think you know, with curiosity [ditch the judgment]. It’s time to move on from your unreliable friend.

  1. International Franchise Association. Aug 9, 2018. Weight Loss Industry Analysis 2018 – Cost and Trends.
  2. The institute for the Psychology of Eating. Aug 9, 2018. 3 Reason Why Diets Don’t Work.
  3. RD Real Talk Episode 108: What does Health at Every Size (HAES®) really mean? June 14th, 2019.
  4. Harriet Brown. Aug 9, 2018. The Weight of The Evidence.

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Welcome! I’m Kelsey, a Registered Dietitian and young woman on a mission to contribute to anti-diet culture. I’m so excited to have you along for this journey!