Why dieting works (for some people, some of the time.)

by Michelle

I don’t actually want to talk about the weight-loss aspect of dieting in this post, even though that is what you’re most likely to think of when you think of whether or not dieting “works.”

If short-term weight loss were the sole barometer of success, then just about every diet you can think of, including the completely nonsensical ones involving cabbage soup or apple cider vinegar + a healthy dose of pseudoscience, works. They will all induce short-term weight loss.

For a very small number of people – those who were going to lose weight anyway because they were somehow temporarily above their body’s naturally-defended weight, or those who have the good fortune to both not regain while still dieting, and have the emotional/physical/financial/temporal resources to devote themselves to the full-time, lifelong project of controlling their weight – they can even trigger long-term weight loss.

That number has never been very high in any diet plan, so it’s hard to count it as a success. By the same marker of “success,” you could say that chemotherapy works, dysentery works, smoking works, methamphetamine works, and chronic alcoholism works – because they all induce weight loss, and yet they are all pretty terrible for one’s nutritional health.

What I’m talking about when I say “dieting works” for some people, some of the time, is the fact that I hear stories from lots of people about how a particular diet approach (which they often insist Is Not A Diet! despite the fact that it comes with a strict meal plan, food rules, or some counting mechanism) helps a person eat normally and feel in control of their eating and feel healthier. To me, these are more important barometers of whether or not something “works” than weight loss ever will be.

So, being a person who is pretty anti-dieting, how can I reconcile the stories I hear about various diet plans making people feel happy and healthy, with what I know to be true about eating competence?

I’ve noticed two common denominators about many of these stories: structure, as in structured meal times, combined with a form of blanket food restriction, like one forbidden food group, counting points or controlling portions, or even a set of complicated food-combining rules. I’m going to talk about structure first, and restriction second.

All by itself, having regular meals at set times, and respecting the non-eating times in between those meals, can give a person a really helpful sense of control over their eating.

In the eating competence approach, structured meal times work for a few reasons:

  1. They are set at reasonable intervals, allowing a person to get comfortably hungry, but not TOO hungry, in between eating times.
  2. Within those times, you are allowed unconditional permission to eat what, and as much as you want. This allows you to have a sense of organization about your eating, but without it feeling restrictive.
  3. Since many cultures, the world over, seem to have organized their eating into mealtimes for much of human history, when you practice eating at meal times, you and your body will fall into a rhythm of hunger and fullness that feels damn near instinctive.
  4. It is also way more convenient if, like most people, you work a day job and don’t have the luxury of simply choosing to drop everything and eat whenever you feel like it.

The second common denominator in many of these stories is a set of food rules or a type of food restriction. Despite the fact that lots of people find rules and restrictions immediately threatening and unsustainable, there are plenty of other people who find them comforting, because they set helpful limits on a world of seemingly endless food choices.

If you just know that you are never going to eat bread (or sugar, or wheat, or meat, or whatever) again, because that’s the universal food rule you’ve decided on, it can making choosing your food much simpler than having to go through the internal mental struggle of asking yourself what you want from the entire universe of foods available, and then filtering your desire through a lifetime of internalized, half-remembered nutrition theories picked up from friends, magazines, family members, Dr. Oz, and diet books.

Similarly, portion-measuring and calorie-counting, while still technically allowing a person to eat any type of food they want, can be comforting because they eliminate the need to decide internally how much you are hungry for, and what level of fullness you want to reach, and then filter that decision through a lifetime of internalized, half-remembered rules about how many calories is too much, what people will think if you eat two sandwiches in one sitting, and whether or not you are a bad person for wanting dessert on top of a really big meal.

Most diets, in fact, attempt to combine a sense of permission within comforting limits, just like eating competence does – low-carb diets pull you in with promises of endless steak while prohibiting mashed potatoes, Weight Watchers says you can technically eat anything you want as long as it stays within your Points allowance, and food combining plans claim you can eat any food as long as it is combined properly with other foods (the upshot being you can never again eat a tuna sandwich or other common food items) – but in my opinion, they fail miserably.

The permission they offer is conditional and incomplete, and the limits they offer are arbitrary, artificial, and sometimes downright cruel, because they disrupt people’s foodways and traditions, and encourage them to override the internal appetite signals that actually are trying to steer them in the right direction.

Unconditional permission to eat food that you truly want, that is meaningful to you (and it might sound silly to say that tuna sandwiches or mashed potatoes have meaning, but they do), in amounts and combinations that feel right in your body, is true permission. Anything less is counterfeit permission.

The helpful structure of predictable, routine eating times interspersed with non-eating times where you are not left hungry or unsatisfied and longing for more, and can actually devote your attention fully to other matters – which requires you to devote enough time and thought to food that you get fed and nourished, but also gives you a break from needing to think about food – is real structure. Other forms of structure are often restriction in disguise.

So why do people find these forms of restriction appealing and helpful? Well, aside from helping people to negotiate a varied, complex, and ambivalent food world, I also believe these things feel comforting because we have been trained to distrust our own appetites.

This is often expressed through the idea of food addiction, which I will talk about in the next post.

You’re welcome to share your experiences, but I request that you not promote dieting or certain diets. People find it triggering, myself included.

Also – apologies in advance if I get a bit overbearing in comments. With the increased traffic and new readers, I’m being extra vigilant, so I may get over-explainy at times.