Why Are We Already Failing at Our New Year's Diets?

The diet trap and how intuitive eating can show us a way out.

Posted Jan 14, 2020

Corey Doctorow/Flickr
Why do treats have such allure when we are on a diet?
Source: Corey Doctorow/Flickr

Ashley is stressed out at work. She feels unappreciated at home. She believes she would be more respected by her colleagues and family if she lost a few pounds, so she often restricts her food intake by eating very little during the day.

However, she reports that she “loses control” when she gets home from work, and she often overeats the very foods she has been restricting all day (mostly carbs and especially sugary snacks). Disgusted with herself, she vows to “do better tomorrow”—but her pattern continues to persist.

It is now January, a New Year, New Decade, so Ashley makes a resolution to go on a new diet and “really stick to it this time.” She thinks, “If I can just lose 15 pounds, I would have more confidence, I would respect myself more, I would be less stressed, and I would feel more in control of my life.” So she implements strict rules over her eating: “Only clean eating allowed. No sugars or processed foods. No carbs like chips, pasta, and bread.” She also sets stringent limits on the number of calories she will allow herself per day. 

Question: Can you predict what will happen next? If she is like the vast majority of us, Ashley may be able to follow her rules through strict willpower for a few days. But what will likely happen if she insists on adhering to her plan?

Answer: The likelihood is that she will not be able to maintain such a restrictive diet, she will continue to overeat in the evenings, and she might even end up at a higher weight than her pre-diet weight. The reality is that 95 percent of dieters gain all of the weight back that they lose during any diet, and one-third to two-thirds of dieters ultimately end up at a higher weight (Mann, 2017). In addition, Ashley is likely to remain frustrated and guilty for “failing” at her diet yet again.

And why can we predict this? There are three aspects to understanding this problem: One has to do specifically with the low-calorie intake of her diet, and the other two reasons result from her many restrictions and rules.

First, Ashley’s own body will fight back against her attempts at weight loss through a low-calorie diet. It will send out warning signals that she is not getting enough energy so that she will be driven to take in more fuel. When your brain thinks it is in starvation mode (as in times of famine), it is designed to do whatever it needs to do to ensure your continued survival. Even though the “famine” is self-imposed, your brain and body do not know the difference.

Neurologically, your brain will change the way you perceive and think about food (hint: you will think about it a lot; see the classic 1944 Minnesota starvation experiments by Keys) so that you will want to eat more. Hormonally, the chemicals in your body that help you feel satiated start to decrease so that you are hungrier, and it takes more food for you to feel full. And physiologically, your metabolism will slow down.

Weight loss is accompanied by a slowing of your resting metabolic rate (also known as metabolic adaptation). In other words, your metabolism slows down, so you need fewer and fewer calories just to maintain your current weight; this is why so many people regain all of the weight lost during a diet and often end up at a higher weight (Mann, 2017).

Second, the more Ashley imposes restriction and deprivation on her life, the more she will experience what is termed as “psychological reactance”—an internal battle that ensues anytime we perceive that our personal freedoms are being restricted (Brehm, 1966). We simply don’t like being told what to do, even when it is our own rules we are following!

Ashley might have thoughts like, “I know I shouldn’t have this pizza; it’s definitely not on my diet. But why can’t I eat what I want when everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves? I have a hard life, so I’m going to relax and do what I want!” And so she will eat the pizza but feel guilty afterward, forcing herself to start a diet yet again.

Third, she will think about, crave, and eventually overeat the very foods that she has ruled “off-limits.” She will likely eat more, not less, because of her rules. Anyone who has ever dieted is familiar with this principle—foods become more valuable and alluring when they are “forbidden” and in limited supply.

So when you say, “I can never have cookies,” you start to think about cookies a lot. And when you take a bite of one, you end up eating far more cookies than you ever intended. This is the abstinence violation effect (or the “what the heck, I’ve eaten one cookie, I might as well eat the whole box!”). See the classic experiments of Herman and Polivy, who widely researched this concept (Herman & Polivy, 1984).

I have had clients relay their internal dialogue like this: “When I had chips at home, I ate the whole bag to get them out of my house so the next day I could start clean”; “I ate the whole carton of ice cream so I could just get it over with!”; “I knew I better eat the candy now because it is definitely banned tomorrow!” And so the cycle continues.

What Can Ashley Do Instead?

So if most diets end up in weight regain and frustration, why do people like Ashley continue to pursue them in an endless cycle of diet-break diet-overeat-self-flagellation-diet? For starters, we are bombarded by messages that encourage us to adopt a diet mindset: That you must always be working on improving your weight/shape/appearance. That diets must work, because why else would they be so popular? That if you try hard enough, you can succeed this time. And yet what actually happens with repeated, yo-yo dieting is a slower resting metabolism, increased health risks, more stress, and lower quality of life. The diet mindset becomes what Christy Harrison refers to as “a Life Thief” that steals your joy.

Instead, what if the answer to Ashley’s problem is to ditch her diet mindset, accept herself as she is, to eat according to what her body needs, and to cope with her feelings in ways other than through reaching for food? Although completely countercultural, this is entirely possible. Here are a few ideas to consider:  

  • Change the diet mindset and get rid of all “forbidden foods” and food rules. Christy Harrison writes about the harms of diet culture (see her blog here) that cause us to easily slip into this type of thinking (e.g., restrictive beliefs like diets are mandatory, we need to be always working at shrinking our bodies, or we can only eat foods we deem “good” or “clean”). When our brains and bodies sense that we are deprived, we stay trapped in a cycle of dieting, breaking our “rules,” and beating ourselves up about being “out of control.”
  • Choose Intuitive Eating instead. Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch have written extensively about the principles of Intuitive Eating. For a brief overview, see their 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating. The basic philosophy is to declare a truce over your war with food, to stop labeling food as “good” or “bad,” to start trusting yourself and listening to your body about what it needs and what you are truly hungry for, and savoring your food as you learn to derive satisfaction from your food choices. It might seem like a radical approach to give up rules that you think will help you to lose weight, but Intuitive Eating research shows that when you learn to listen to your body and to give it what it is hungry for, you will be satisfied—no longer be driven to keep eating in excess of what you really want. As an experiment, before your next meal, ask yourself: What am I really hungry for right now? And what will bring me the most satisfaction? (See Beyond the Shadow of a Diet by Metz and Intuitive Eating by Tribole & Resch.)
  • Notice when you are using food as a way of coping. Food is often used as a way to avoid or numb our negative emotions; it helps us “tune out” and does provide temporary relief from distress. However, the relief is only temporary and does not help you manage your feelings directly, thereby enabling these feelings to persist and even intensify over time. Strategies for addressing this type of emotional eating are beyond the scope of this blog (see Farkas, 2019; Metz, 2014; Pershing & Turner, 2018, for additional resources). For now, note that if you are not hungry, and you are still drawn towards overeating, examine what is really bothering you. Spend some time examining what is underneath the drive for food. Can you describe how you are really feeling? And can you tolerate these emotions without turning to food? Do you need to find other, more effective ways of coping with distress? It might be helpful to seek a therapist to help you sort out the answers to these questions.  

To conclude, we return to Ashley. She decided to allow herself to eat more often during the day. Rather than depriving and restricting herself, she asked herself what she was truly craving when it was time for meals or snacks, and then she allowed herself to enjoy those foods.

For example, she learned to eat more slowly and truly savor her food. Whereas she previously ate cookies as quickly as possible, she was surprised to learn that when she slowed down and enjoyed the flavors and textures of a cookie, most of the time, she usually wanted no more than one or two. It helped her to know that she could have cookies tomorrow if she wanted them; the cookies were no longer going to be banished as part of a new diet. Because she was more satisfied with her daytime eating, she noticed that she was actually eating less overall, because she no longer felt the need to binge in the evenings.

She was then able to examine the sources of stress in her life and decide how she wanted to address these emotions directly. Throughout the day, instead of reaching for food when she was not hungry, she learned to take a mindful pause, allow her difficult feelings to emerge, to sit with them, and instead of turning to food to numb her feelings, she decided to do something that would actually help her feel better in the long run. This process helped actually to lower her stress and make decisions for positive changes. Best of all, it freed her from preoccupation with diets and weight and instead allowed her to focus her attention on living a meaningful and purposeful life.

References

Brehm , J. W. (1966). Theory of psychological reactance. Cambridge MA: Academic Press.

Farkas, H. (2019). 8 Keys to end emotional eating. New York: W. W. Norton Company

Herman, C. P., & Polivy, J. (1984). A boundary model for the regulation of eating. In A. J. Stunkard & E. Stellar (Eds.), Eating and its disorders (pp. 141-156). New York: Raven.

Mann, T. (2017). Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, The Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again. New York: Harper Wave.

Metz, J., (2014) Beyond the Shadow of a Diet: A Comprehensive Guide to Treating Binge Eating Disorder, Compulsive Eating, and Emotional Overeating. New York: Routledge.Tribole & Resch  Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary program that works. New York: New Harbinger Books.  

Pershing, A., & Turner, C. (2018). Binge Eating Disorder: The Journey to Recovery and Beyond. New York: Routledge.

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary program that works. New York: St. Martins Griffin.