Have you tried dieting again and again without long-term success? Here’s the truth: research shows that diets don’t work, and in fact, can often cause more harm to our physical, emotional, and mental wellness. Here are seven reasons why diets don’t work, and what we need to do instead to create lasting health and true wellness.
Have you spent a lifetime trying different diets and ‘lifestyle’ change protocols and programs in an attempt to lose weight… only to find yourself back where you started after a few months (or perhaps, even worse off in the end)?
The usual assumption among non-researchers about why diets fail and why a dieter regains weight is this: it must be because they stopped dieting– which is, in turn, attributed to things like not having enough willpower, personal and moral failure, and terrible generalizations and stereotypes that I don’t even want to repeat here.
However, there are really clear reasons as to why diets inevitably fail and why weight, in fact, is NOT a simple choice based on mere willpower: simply put, intentional weight loss does not work. Not only does it NOT work, it also causes harm to our bodies, along with our emotional and psychological wellness.
Here’s the science-backed truth: weight loss does not meet the criteria for evidence-based medicine. You might be surprised to discover that diets (a.k.a. anything with a goal of intentional weight-loss) have a failure rate of up to 95%.
(Note: I am not referring here to medically necessary diets, such as diets for diabetes, heart failure, celiac disease, etc.)
I’m also not at all saying that we shouldn’t promote healthy habits and lifestyles; I am, in fact, a huge proponent of that! What I’m calling out here is that the pursuit of weight loss specifically may not lead to improved health or the results we’re looking for, and there’s over 30 years of scientific literature to prove it.
No diet has been shown to be effective over the long-term (5+ years) for more than a tiny percentage of the population.
A 1992 National Institute of Health panel found that after completing weight-loss programs, 90-95% of people generally regain as much as two-thirds of the weight they lost within one year and almost all of it within five years. (source)
If anything else had such a sky-high failure rate, people wouldn’t dream of wasting their time and money on it. Imagine if any other product came on the market with a 95% failure rate–people would be outraged, there’d be lawsuits, and no one would keep buying it after realizing it didn’t work for them!
But when it comes to weight-loss programs, we blame ourselves again and again, rather than realizing that it’s really the system and process of dieting that’s failing us.
People have come to think of weight being a choice, completely oversimplifying and cherry-picking the research to prove what they want to see. They say, “Just exercise and eat well, and you’ll have a thin (a.k.a. perfect and ideal) body, simple as that!”
Newsflash: It is not that simple. Weight is not a choice, and body diversity is a real thing, just like race, height, and eye color. (I’ll write another post about ‘Diet Culture’ soon explaining more about this industry and how it much it has taken over what we think of as ‘healthy’.)
The pursuit of weight loss is so problematic; not only is it futile, but it harms your relationship with food, mind, and body. We need to rethink what actually promotes health in a sustainable, inclusive way.
Why Diets Don’t Work
Here are 7 reasons why diets don’t work (click the links to jump straight to that section if you want!):
- Dieting is proven to cause weight GAIN.
- Our bodies are designed to maintain their weight “set point”.
- The body experiences dieting as a famine.
- Dieting slows our metabolism.
- “Yo-Yo dieting” is an independent risk factor for poor health outcomes.
- Body acceptance matters more than weight.
- Dieting leads to shame.
1) Dieting is Proven to Cause Weight GAIN
First, I want to make something crystal clear: I don’t believe weight gain itself is bad, and certainly do not think people who are in larger bodies should be ashamed or feel like they’ve done anything wrong. I fully believe that all bodies are good, beautiful, sacred, and deserving of respect.
But, what I want to point out here is the scientific data that confirms the absurdity of dieting. Research shows that, in the pursuit of intentional weight loss, we have better odds of GAINING weight than losing weight. Think about that for a second. Regardless of your intention for why you want to lose weight and how you go about it, the odds are stacked against you that you actually will.
In fact, not only will you almost certainly gain back all your weight, it’s likely that, ultimately, you’ll gain MORE weight in the process. Despite our best efforts, most of us create the OPPOSITE of our desired outcome in the process and end up at a higher weight! (The diet industry, conveniently, ignores these facts.)
In a 2007 review, Traci Mann and a team of researchers gathered up every previous study that had followed people on weight-loss programs for two to five years, and analyzed the results. Across all the studies, they found that up to two-thirds of dieters gained back significantly MORE weight than they’d lost. (source)
Here are just some of the eye-opening studies showing how dieting promotes weight gain:
- A 5-year study looked at teens. At baseline, the teens weighed the same. After 5-years, the dieting teens had twice the risk of gaining more weight compared to the non-dieters. (Neumark-Sztainer et al. 2006)
- Research on nearly 17,000 kids ages 9-14 concluded that, “in the long term, dieting to control weight is not only ineffective, it may actually promote weight gain.” (source)
- In Finland, they studied more than 2,000 sets of twins ages 16-25. Here’s what it showed: a) dieting itself, independent of genetics, is significantly associated with accelerated weight gain; b) A dieting twin who embarked on just ONE intentional weight loss episode was nearly 2-3 times more likely to gain more weight (compared to their non-dieting twin counterpart); and c) with each dieting episode, the risk of gaining weight increased in a dose-dependent manner. (Pietilaineet et al. 2011)
In sum: dieting consistently predicts future weight gain, regardless of the person’s body size when they start out (and the research also controls for other potentially confounding variables such as physical activity, baseline eating habits, and education level).
2) Our Bodies Try to Maintain Their Weight “Set Point”
Research shows that our bodies have a weight “set point” they’re genetically programmed to try and maintain. Our weight set point is actually more like a weight range that spans a few sizes our bodies are happiest at throughout our adult lives (and where we’re at at any given point within this range depends on our life circumstances at that time, like how stressed we are). (source)
Our bodies’ weight set ranges are as genetic as our height: some 70% of individual differences in body weight are dictated by genes. (source)
This set range is so strong that, if your weight drops below it, your brain senses danger and initiates a series of biological changes to help you regain weight and prevent weight loss from occurring again.
So when you try to force your body below its set range, it may eventually increase that range in order to protect you against future famines (a.k.a. diets), which leads to a higher weight in the long-term.
Which brings us to point #3.
3) The Body Experiences Dieting as a Famine
Dieting is a form of short-term starvation, even when it’s intentional. When we start restricting our food intake (which is exactly what a ‘successful’ diet looks like), your body perceives this as dangerous. Even the most gentle diets or protocols lean this direction (including ‘wellness’ or ‘lifestyle’ diets–again, a topic for another post about these diets disguised as wellness).
Anyone who has ever dieted, short-term or long-term, can relate this pattern: after a certain period of restricting and ‘being good’ and adhering to your diet’s rules, you start to feel intensely desperate and uncontrollable around food (literally, you start to embody the Cookie Monster!). You start thinking about food a lot more, fantasizing about it, and–once you have a single digression with just one bite of something ‘off limits’, you think, “what the hell, might as well eat all of it now.”
In these moments, all intentions to stick with your food plan go out the window. Instead, you may overeat to the point of discomfort (often on those exact foods that were deemed forbidden), binge, and start to feel scarily out-of-control with food, like you have no willpower. You conclude you are a ‘failure’ for not having the strength to stick with your diet/meal plans/food rules.
Here’s what’s actually happening: when you’re deprived of food, your body turns up its food-seeking signals, because it wants you to survive. It thinks you’re in a famine (because you are, even though it’s self-imposed), so to keep you from starving, it:
- pumps out the hunger hormones
- turns down the fullness hormones
- lowers your metabolic rate
This is a natural, biological, predictable, automatic response to famine. When you’re underfed, you will obsess about food. Your body is trying to protect you. Your mind isn’t failing and your willpower isn’t at stake; your body is simply taking care of you.
However, most of us start to think of our ‘failure’ to control ourselves as a character defect, and we slowly erode trust in ourselves with food. This causes us to think that we must need another diet in order to reign in our lack of control and keep ourselves in check, and thus this cycle repeats again and again.
The solution? Get off the pendulum and stop fighting biology. We need to stop pushing our bodies into starvation mode and start nourishing them to allow them to heal.
Like it or not, this innate design is what has helped keep our species alive, and it’s not going anywhere. Now, the ball is in our court to start asking bigger questions like, “Why do I even worship thinness to begin with? Where do these thoughts come from? Who profits off my negative beliefs around weight? What would my life look like if I started focusing on self kindness, practicing self-care, and other things besides weight loss?”
4) Dieting Slows Our Metabolism
Each diet teaches the body to adapt better for the next self-imposed famine (another diet). Metabolism slows as the body efficiently utilizes each calorie as if it’s the last. The more drastic the diet, the more it pushes the body into calorie-pinching survival mode.
Case in point: A study on Biggest Loser contestants found that, six years later, their:
- metabolism was still blunted by an average of 700 calories per day
- muscle mass was lower than their baseline by over ten pounds (source)
Most people get caught in the seduction trap of dieting because, often, your first-ever diet is ‘easy’, where the pounds melt right off (at first). But as we can see, the weight comes back as the body goes into famine, slows your metabolism, and goes into primal survival mode. With each diet, the body learns and adapts, resulting in rebound weight gain.
In a nutshell: if we don’t eat enough, our bodies will compensate and slow down. Part of that compensation is that the body will cannibalize its own muscle tissue to use as an energy source (plus less muscle = lower metabolic rate), and muscle is obviously hugely important to our overall health and longevity.
5) Yo-Yo Dieting is an Independent Risk Factor for Poor Health Outcomes
Okay, by now you’re hopefully starting to see how diets don’t work. But if you’re still not convinced of how they actually cause harm, get ready, because this point is pretty sobering.
The constant gaining and losing weight from dieting is called “yo-yo dieting”, or “weight cycling” in the research. (And because we know that intentional weight loss doesn’t work for the overwhelming majority of people, we can say that ultimately, almost all dieting is weight cycling.)
Weight cycling itself is an INDEPENDENT risk factor for cardiovascular disease, inflammation, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. Yet, it’s rarely controlled for in many large studies that associate weight with health issues.
Two large studies showed that weight cycling accounts for all the excess mortality risks for certain diseases that had previously been linked to body size (which brings up another point: that being in a larger body is shown to be CORRELATED with poor health outcomes, vs. the CAUSE OF poor health outcomes–but we’ll go into the inherent flaws in ‘obesity’ research in another post). (source)
For example, a 32-year study of more than 3,000 men and women (the Framingham Heart Study) showed that regardless of initial weight, people who weight cycle have a higher overall death rate and twice the normal risk of dying of heart disease–and these results are independent of cardiovascular risk factors and held true regardless of a person’s weight. (source)
For now, the point I want to make is that dieting increases your risk of weight cycling, which is proven to have poor health outcomes. Not only do diets not work, but they harm your health in the process.
It’s a vicious cycle. People pursue weight loss with a goal to improve health, only to put their health at greater risk in the process. If and when they develop health problems, they’re told by doctors and Diet Culture to lose weight to cure them (which doesn’t work and is not the solution), and the cycle continues. Are you starting to see the many inherent problems here?
6) Body Acceptance Matters More Than Weight
Are you surprised to learn that a person in a smaller body with a lot of weight-based self-loathing may actually be at GREATER risk for poor health outcomes than a person in a much larger body who has learned to accept their size and fight back against weight stigma?
Let’s break this down further to understand exactly what it means.
First, what is weight stigma? It’s all the weight bias, weight-based discrimination, fatphobia, and stereotypes our culture perpetuates about larger bodies. This includes everything from the fact that people in larger bodies are less likely to get hired for jobs and get paid lower wages than their peers (source), to the bullying and shaming they’re subjected to, to literally being treated differently by doctors (examples: withholding infertility treatments, organ transplants, hip and knee replacement surgeries) to all the terrible stereotypes about people with higher weights.
Weight stigma has been linked to an increased risk of mental-health conditions such as disordered eating, emotional distress, negative body image, low self-esteem, and depression. (source)
Stigmatization feels awful, and it makes sense that people who are constantly exposed to negativity about their appearance struggle with feeling good about themselves. Culturally, we really need to talk about how to be inclusive and respectful to people of all body sizes.
Now, here’s what’s really interesting that no one is talking about: there is abundant scientific evidence showing that weight stigma is also an independent risk factor for an array of negative physical health outcomes, such as diabetes and heart disease, regardless of people’s actual body size. (source)
Yep–research shows that body image is a much stronger predictor of health than body size. A 2008 study of a representative sample of the U.S. population (more than 170,000 people of all races, education levels, and ages) looked at how participants’ body image related to their health. They found that, the larger the difference between someone’s current weight and their perceived “ideal” weight, the more mental and physical health problems they’d had in the past month, regardless of their actual BMI. (source)
In sum: two people of the exact same size could have wildly different health outcomes depending solely on their degree of body acceptance. No matter your size, wanting to shrink your body means poorer health.
Is your mind blown by this too?! 🤯
This shows how treating all bodies with respect, learning how to have a compassionate relationship with your body at any size, and prioritizing the healing of your own body image should take precedence over any attempt to change your body on the outside.
What if you could recognize that the problem isn’t your body, but how you’ve been made to feel about your body?
7) Dieting Leads to Shame
We’ve already touched on this regarding weight stigma (because anyone who feels stigmatized is likely to feel shame), and how dieting overall makes most people feel like an inherent failure. But, I want to dive a little deeper here, because shame is so powerful, pervasive, and needs to be unpacked.
Shame researcher Brené Brown PhD, says, “Shame is best defined as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Shame and guilt are commonly confused. The difference between shame and guilt is that guilt refers to a behavior (example: “I feel bad that I ate those cookies”) and shame refers to an identity (example: “I am a bad person because I ate those cookies”).
Shame variants include self-conscious experiences such as embarrassment, humiliation, chagrin, mortification, feelings of defectiveness or low self-worth. (source)
Brown calls shame “the master emotion.” Other psychotherapists in the field have referred to it as the “emotional circuit breaker”. Shame is a protective emotion. It will shut down other emotions, putting you into survival mode, invalidating pain, and pushing our bodies further away from what is healthy.
Shame disconnects you from those around you. Feeling alienated can cause major distress, emotional starvation, and some researchers even say, “shame can feel worse than the threat of physical pain or even the risk of death”. (source) Yikes!!
Dolezal and Lyons propose that shame’s “impact is sufficiently powerful for it to be considered an affective determinant of health”. Chronic shame can become debilitating or even pathological, affecting one’s life chances, one’s relationships, and one’s health outcomes (like increasing depression, anxiety, stress, heart disease, and decreased immune function). (source)
The crazy thing about shame is that it multiplies. Experiencing shame is itself experienced as shameful, creating a loop or ‘shame spiral’ that is really hard to get out of.
To sum this whole process up and make it crystal clear how it relates to dieting:
Many people diet in hopes of “improved health” and feeling better about themselves. ➡️ Dieting leads us to feel ashamed when we ‘fail’ at it, and oftentimes people are even shamed by medical providers, nutritionists, social media influencers, and others in diet culture. ➡️ Shame feels absolutely terrible and causes us to feel WORSE about ourselves. ➡️ Feeling ashamed creates a shame spiral. ➡️ Chronic shame causes suffering and poor health outcomes (and thus the opposite outcome of what we were hoping for in the first place!).
I personally believe (and research supports) that unpacking shame and become more shame-resilient in our lives is one of the keys to health and happiness.
Conclusion: Why Diets Don’t Work
The simple truth: diets don’t work.
The intentional pursuit of weight loss often damages our physical, emotional, and mental health.
Here’s where we’re at: even if body size is a risk factor for health issues (which, despite the correlations, we don’t know for sure, since the proven independent risk factors of weight cycling and weight stigma have rarely been controlled for in the research, and controlling for them is really hard to do), we still have no safe, sustainable method of producing lasting weight loss.
Weight is not a controllable behavior.
Weight is not necessarily a good indicator of health, despite what we’ve been lead to believe. (Check out Health At Every Size for more research on this.) You can’t look at someone and make any assumptions or judgments about their health based on their appearance.
Our weight, and our health, are not requirements for being treated with dignity and respect.
It’s time to reevaluate what health and wellness really looks like. It’s time to redefine our beauty standards. It’s time to create a world where all body sizes, colors, and abilities are treated with respect and care.
Now that you know the truth about dieting, will you really embark on another diet or ‘sensible’ protocol if you know that it will ultimately fail–and cause more harm?
If you’re ready to say yes to ditching diets for good, here’s what to do next:
1) Take my free Intuitive Eating Assessment to see what areas you can start focusing on to change your beliefs and relationship to food and your body.
2) Join our free Facebook Community! This safe, supportive group is where I share resources, tips, and education to help guide your journey to body respect, intuitive eating, food freedom, and self liberation. Join to connect with other like-minded women who are embracing the non-diet path and reclaiming their inner wisdom! (Note: this is only for people who identify as a woman–sorry, fellas! Men are still welcome to take the assessment above and join the email list to get more content like this–and please, share this content with your lady friends!)
3) Want personal coaching? Work with me! If you could use personal support in breaking free from dieting and learning a new way to relate to food and your body, learn how we can work together here!