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Is Dieting Ruining Your Life?

The latest dieting trend may be undermining you, like many trends before.

Key points

  • A review of the long-term outcomes of calorie-restricting diets assessed whether dieting was an effective obesity treatment.
  • Results showed that one-third to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets.
  • There is little support that dieting leads to long-term weight loss or health benefits.

While kids trickle into schools nationwide, it is still summer until September 22. You likely started the season scouring Instagram for your #bodygoals because you’re convinced your body is #unacceptable. As the temperature was rising, so was your anxiety.

When the threat of bikinis and booty shorts looms, you turn to your trusty dieting trend as an escape. Did it “work” this time? I will venture a guess that it did not. And spoiler alert, you’re about to discover that your buddy–the diet–has been secretly undermining you the whole time.

Full disclosure: I am a psychologist who follows a Healthy at Every Size approach with my patients. I do not assume how healthy or unhealthy someone is by their body size. I staunchly believe that many types and sizes of bodies are healthy.

A common misconception about Health At Every Size practitioners is that we are against weight loss. That is untrue. Many of my patients engage in weight loss without engaging in diet culture. Many more grow to accept and love their bodies without the need to change a number on the scale.

Person sitting on the floor by a scale
Source: CameraCraft/Shutterstock

I am here to blow the lid off diets again. The information I share here is not new. It’s been out in the world for ages, but we don’t listen.

I am prepared to be ignored as well. Here goes: diets don’t work. In 2007, a review of the long-term outcomes of calorie-restricting diets assessed whether dieting was an effective obesity treatment. Results showed that one-third to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets. Review findings led the authors to summarize that there is little support that dieting leads to long-term weight loss or health benefits.

What we see dished out by diet culture pushes particular images of beauty. Diet culture leads us through myriad fad diets that few people can follow long-term. When these fads encourage intense restriction, it often leads us through a binge-diet cycle. It encourages us to have an unhealthy relationship with food which I will review in this article.

Diet Culture Encourages Us to Restrict

The first part of the binge-diet cycle is the process of restriction. Diet culture encourages us to follow external rules about food, and often these rules are extremely rigid. For example, a diet that says you can’t eat anything after 6 p.m., and if you deem yourself sufficiently starved and must eat something, it can only be a slice of toast with a glass of water.

Other forms of restriction include intense calorie counting, removing certain foods from your “acceptable” list without a medical reason, and frequent detoxing. These behaviors can make us feel like food is in control of our lives instead of fueling our bodies and, in many ways, a source of pleasure (which is ok!).

Diet Culture Teaches Us to Be Deprived

The second part of the binge-diet cycle is typically feeling deprived. When deprived, you tend to start obsessing about food. Do you know the feeling of being hungry for days on end? Or having intense cravings for foods that you “can’t have”?

Many patients say things like “I can’t wait until my cheat day” or “I am going to eat an entire cake on day 31 of this whole 30.” Deprivation states are counterproductive to weight loss for most of us, as the overeating phase can negate any weight loss you experience. Additionally, deprivation is easily confused with discipline when in reality, deprivation teaches you to punish yourself.

Diet Culture Can Lead to More Overeating

Restriction and deprivation are on one end of the diet pendulum. After you deprive yourself, it swings to the other side and most often in the form of overeating or bingeing. Black-listed foods are now on your mouth’s most wanted list, and you eat them in larger quantities or more often than you may have before deprivation.

Diet Culture Elicits Shame

I heard a speaker once say, "you can tell you’re on a diet if you can fail.” How many diets have you “failed”? I’ve failed every single diet I’ve ever been on, and I’ve been on a few. This was coming from a woman who had lost over 200 pounds.

When we fail, it elicits all kinds of feelings, mainly shame. When you talk about the food you’ve eaten, do you make a statement like “I’ve been bad today”? How about putting foods on good and bad lists like you’re Santa Claus? Do you imagine that if your body could be smaller, all your problems would evaporate?

There are dozens of ways that shame appears. What your ever-present friend, the diet, doesn’t tell you is that shame leads you straight back to restriction and deprivation. Which makes sense, right? Because what does a bad person deserve? Punishment.

You are in an unhealthy relationship with your friend, and it’s time to break up! There is hopeful news. You can do it, and I’m here to support you through it.

Pursue Health Over Weight Loss

My first tip is to urge you to pursue health over weight loss. Earlier I said that I have some patients who lose weight and others who have come to accept their bodies as they are, without losing an ounce. This tip relates to both groups.

It’s not about whether you lose weight or not, but how you go about it. If your sole focus is weight loss, then a fluctuating number on a cold bathroom scale dictates your value.

When you focus on health, you can concentrate on implementing positive behavioral changes that will make you feel good inside. It can be introducing more veggies and fruits, swapping out your soda for bubbly water, resting when you need it, or going on more walks. These behaviors can lead to weight loss or not, but don’t need to involve a process of restriction.

Remove Judgments From Eating

Remove the notion of good foods and bad foods and ditch the idea that how worthy you are is based on what you eat or your size. All foods serve a purpose. Some foods are more nutrient-dense than others, but that is not necessarily good or bad.

When I am focused on overall health, I am also intentional about meeting my nutritional needs while relishing the pleasure that food can provide. I can eat a salad for lunch and a serving of ice cream at night, and I feel great both ways and have ruined nothing!

Make sure you find a wide variety of foods that satisfy your flavor palette and nutritional requirements. I have a huge sweet tooth, and if I only meet that need with cookies, I might have a problem on my hands. Instead, I know that green grapes, watermelon, and gala apples can also satisfy my cravings. So it’s important to add them into the rotation as well.

Honor Your Hunger

Diet culture may imply that hunger is a weakness when it is a way for your body to communicate a need. We may have to relearn this language of our body, so patience is important. One way might be by understanding your physical hunger cues, which can include: a growling stomach, thoughts about food, low energy, difficulty concentrating, headaches, and a cranky mood.

Honoring your hunger is also about satisfying your cravings within reason. Sometimes patients tell me they are eating plenty of food but aren’t satisfied. That’s typically because they are restricting certain experiences.

Remember my sweet tooth from earlier? There have been times when only cookies could satisfy it. However, I have gone through the process of relearning what satisfies my body and introducing new foods into my life.

When honoring your hunger, increasing your mindfulness around it is critical. Ask yourself questions about your hunger. For example, am I craving something hot or cold? Crunchy or soft? Do I desire dairy? In my experience, if I want something cold and sweet, that could be green grapes that I’ve chilled in the fridge or a bowl of gelato.

As I’ve practiced being more present in my decisions about food, I can tell the difference between the two. When a bowl of grapes will suffice, I eat those, and when all I want is my favorite frozen Italian treat, I eat that.

Embarking on this journey can feel daunting, but each mindful choice will be a healthful step to the best version of yourself, where you can develop a middle ground and stop the pendulum from endlessly swinging.

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