A nutritionist explains why diets don’t really work
The word “diet” feels like a relic of the past, but some modern eating plans can be just as restrictive as the cabbage soup diets of yesteryear. As McKel Kooienga points out, these trendy, quick-fix plans don’t help people develop healthy habits with food. Here, the Well+Good Council member makes the compelling case for leaving diets in the dust—and developing a different, more positive relationship with what you eat.
Have you tried a diet before? When we have new clients in our Wellness Coaching practice, our clients on average try three diets, plans, or trends prior to coming to see us for sustainable solutions. And they’re not alone! This is becoming increasingly more common with so much information online, new trends, and new quick-fix plans coming out weekly.
But here’s the thing: the very idea of dieting is incompatible with developing healthy habits around food. Diets don’t work for most people—and here’s why.
1. Dieting encourages short-term thinking
Dieting isn’t sustainable, or else it would “work” for everyone for life, and we wouldn’t see so many diets and trends pop up. We all have unique lifestyles and bodies to honor, and most diets don’t consider pillars of our health beyond size and weight. That also goes for diets and plans that have a start and end date: 21-day this, 30-day that, 5-day other. What are you supposed to do after that time period?
Most people who find themselves in this start-and-stop cycle end up dieting for years, which takes them further from finding a balanced approach to eating they can live with. This all-or-nothing mentality makes it impossible for people to make a lifestyle change through behavior changes that will last longer than the diet’s expiration date. It also takes them further away from tapping into their own unique needs. Developing healthy, sustainable habits that a person can maintain for life is key to maintaining health.
2. Dieting can increase the risk of developing disordered eating habits
Having a history of dieting or other weight-control techniques can put a person at risk for binge-eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Even if your goal is not to lose weight, but to reach a certain ideal of health, severely cutting food groups or counting calories and macros can easily get obsessive and dangerous.
“Clean eating” and orthorexia nervosa is defined by someone who takes “health” to an extreme with dieting thoughts, actions, and behaviors to achieve this ideal. This is characterized as disordered eating and can impact those who are dieting for weight loss or those dieting to reach an ideal picture of “health.” The more someone obsesses about food choices, the greater the risk for developing disordered eating habits.
3. Dieting can increase the “lack mentality”
If you’ve ever been on a diet before, this might sound like a familiar situation. You go out to eat or go to a social gathering while on a diet and are offered foods you “can’t have,” which increasingly makes you hyperaware, hypersensitive, and focused on that food choice.
Dieting or eating foods tightly regulated by counting calories, macros, or any kind of measuring may make a person dieting feel isolated. In addition to the fixation on food, it’s a fixation on the lack mentality—that can’t have, aren’t allowed to have, off-limits terminology—that strengthens a storyline that some foods are bad. Placing moral values on the foods we eat has the tendency to creep into judgments we place on ourselves, and self-worth shouldn’t be defined by what we eat.
Food is far more than just nourishment for our cells. It’s tradition, culture, pleasure, and joy.
4. Dieting can take the joy and pleasure out of the food experience
If you’ve been on a diet before, then you know that we don’t need science or any study to tell us that dieting can take the pleasure and joy out of the eating experience. We’ve worked with clients in our Wellness Practice who used to measure every ounce of food they ate, counted every calorie, and added up every macronutrient. This not only made them preoccupied with food choices, it also took any joy from the experience.
Many mainstream diets require constant, incessant tracking of food on a day-to-day basis. While it may begin with good intentions, this hyper-focus on food and its intake can lead to a negative association with hunger and mealtimes. The use of said tracking devices can absolutely be necessary on a case-by-case basis, but a constant use when not medically necessary can do much more harm than good.
Food is far more than just nourishment for our cells. It’s tradition, culture, pleasure, and joy. At Nutrition Stripped, we help people reach their health goals without dieting. That involves intuitive eating, reframing ideas of “healthy” and “goal weight,” defining health outside of numbers on a scale, and guiding people to cultivate a healthier relationship with food. If any (or all!) of this sounds good to you, I invite you to join my free 5×5 Framework workshop. It’s designed to help you maintain a healthy relationship with food, feel energized by your meals, and find out exactly what works for you.
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN is a registered dietician nutritionist and the founder of Nutrition Stripped, which treats healthy food as more than just fuel—and gives expert advice on using its nutrients and flavors to make you feel amazing.