Why diets are stupid.

If you don’t already know, I’m going to be the one to break it to you…and you can trust me on this. Diets are stupid.

The word ‘diet’ has become terribly perverted from its original, life-affirming definition. In the original sense, diet meant: “food and drink regularly provided or consumed; habitual nourishment.” (www.webster.com.) In the last century or so, it has taken on a second, uglier definition: a particular way of eating, especially to achieve weight loss (or, euphemistically, to achieve health, which 95% of the time includes losing weight.) THAT is the kind of diet I’m talking about.

Let me fill you in on a couple things. First of all, a diet in the secondary sense is always temporary. Even if you call it “a whole new way of eating” or a “lifestyle change.” If you’re really and truly making a lifestyle change, it’s probably going to be so gradual that you can’t refer to it collectively. It’s going to fit in seamlessly with your life so that it doesn’t NEED a name all its own. This is the point.

Anyone who says they are embarking on a “lifestyle change” is going on a diet, plain and simple. Sometimes they will insist that the “maintenance” period (which comes after the weight loss) PROVES that what they are doing is for life. Actually, it proves the opposite. If you go from ‘actively losing’ to ‘maintaining’ you have been on a diet. Maintaining itself is a type of diet, though typically not as restrictive as the original weight loss diet. And the funniest part about maintenance? Ask anyone who’s done it: maintenance is hard…even harder than weight loss.

Why is that? Well, one, because the thrill of seeing your body change is gone. The excitement and novelty have worn off by the time you’ve reached maintenance. Now you’re down to the dirty work of trying to convince your body to behave at a certain weight…for the rest of your life. To eat a certain amount, to do a certain exercise. Maintenance is rigid control and every bit as dysfunctional as weight loss…though you may get to eat a whole extra 200 calories per day (yippee.) It’s not surprising that many people succeed at losing massive amounts of weight, only to trip up during the maintenance period.

For this reason, even supposed “lifestyle changes” and “maintenance plans” can be considered dieting. Why? To recap: because they’re restrictive, unrealistic in the long-term, and represent a rift in your life where you’ve abruptly gone from one mode of living to another…one different enough to be affixed with a label. No matter how you spell it, the label always reads “DIET.”

What about those people who have credible success stories? Those people who have lost lots of weight and kept it off (by doing the “diet” thing) for quite a long time? These stories are easy to access on the Internet. But you have to know that you cannot rely on anecdotal reports as evidence that something is true (this is a basic tenet of critical thinking.) The thing is, everyone is different. Why this worked for someone is a great mystery…but chances are, the same thing isn’t going to work for you. I have also noticed that, while on the surface it appears there are a great deal of success stories to be read (especially on the Internet) if you read enough of them, you start noticing that there are probably less than a fifty, just very well recycled.

For statistical evidence, check The National Weight Control Registry, an organization which boasts 3,000 registered members who have successfully kept of about 30 pounds for five years or longer. This sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it? It gives a weight-watcher reason to hope. But wait a second. According to the Calorie Control Council, there are currently 51 million dieters in the U.S. alone. Of these 51 million, only 3,000 are KNOWN to be successful. What kind of success rate is that? About 0.00006%. You’d be better off spending your Healthy Choice frozen dinner money on lottery tickets.

Not only is dieting a dismal failure for 99.99994% of those who attempt it, studies have shown that dieting is harmful to your health. Restricting food intake can lead not only to nutritional deficiencies, but psychological stress and eating disorders. Excessive exercise can cause physical injury and can be addicting. And yo-yo dieting, the phenomenon whereby most people who lose weight gain it back (and then some) precipitating a cycle of repeated dieting and regain, has been scrutinized in research which suggests it leads to higher mortality rates and can actually make a person FATTER in the long run.

Now, if you’ve ever been duped into dieting, I’m not saying that YOU’RE stupid: not at all. In fact, based on popular information from both media and government sources, you made a pretty reasonable choice. And of course not everyone has the time to be a nutrition scholar. That’s why we have Registered Dietitians and other professionals to help guide people whose lives revolve around things OTHER than nutrition.

To help you make better choices about what to believe in the future, I offer the following advice: do not listen to the popular media when it comes to your health. In most cases, the media is there to provide hard news information and entertainment. They are not health gurus. Journalists do an admirable job to dig up interesting stories, but when it comes to health, this can only make things more confusing.

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  1. Posted November 23, 2009 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for another awesome article!

    • Posted November 23, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Thank you! It’s only seven years old!

      (Meaning, I haven’t read it in a long time, so I’m not even sure what the hell it says. But I linked to it in some other post, so I thought I should add it to the archives here.)

  2. michaelr
    Posted November 24, 2009 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I very much agree with your rant about nutrition information and the popular media. NPR’s On The Media did a segment about that very subject a couple of weeks ago:


    But it also seems like there’s a disconnect in academia between the biochemists who are trying to understand obesity from a purely biological or systems level and people like the Rudd Center at Yale, who are trying to influence food policy. The people trying to make policy seem to be yelling a lot louder and are being heard a lot more, and they’re not necessarily the right people to listen to.

  3. Posted November 25, 2009 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Woooo!! Another win article from you, awesome lady. This one is being tweeted!

  4. Posted March 26, 2010 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    I think the most important thing you say here is to not listen to mainstream media when it comes to advise on eating and nutrition.

    I think you could write a book about navigating the media when it comes to health and nutrition.

    I look forward to buying your first book which I sure will be a valuable addition to my book collection.

  5. Posted May 5, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Love the sentiment as well as the technical accuracy. I am a nurse trying to get similar message out as well as other things regarding health and misconceptions thereof. Just starting, so your blog is an inspiration. Look forward to following you in the future.

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