Guest Column: Food for thought: top 5 reasons to quit dieting

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11799408103005.jpg’, ‘Image courtesy of‘, ‘Our bodies are wired to fight against weight loss. Each time the body defends itself against a diet, it becomes more efficient at storing fat and lowering metabolism to conserve energy. ‘);

International No-Diet Day, which is celebrated on May 6, began in 1992 as a way to bring awareness to the hazards of dieting. Millions of Americans are currently dieting despite the volumes of research that shows that for 95-98 percent of dieters, short-term weight loss is followed by a regain of pounds in one to five years. In fact, a recent review of weight loss studies revealed that one-third to two-thirds of dieters actually end up heavier than before they started their diet.

Virtually all dieters blame themselves when the weight returns, but the truth is, people don’t fail diets, diets fail people. It is important to understand how dieting actually causes many of the problems it is supposed to solve. Here are five reasons to quit dieting and improve your physical and mental well-being in the process.

1. Dieting leads to overeating and weight gain. On the psychological level, diets set people up to eat the very foods they are supposed to avoid. This might occur at a party where the dessert looks too good to pass up, or it might happen as you find yourself heading straight to the refrigerator after a stressful day at work. It is human nature to want what is unavailable or forbidden. One bite of something off limits is enough to trigger the notion that restrictions are already broken, so eat up now before the diet begins tomorrow, on Monday or on Jan. 1. On the physiological level, the body will defend itself by fighting against restriction and weight loss for its own survival. The human body has been programmed through evolution and adaptation to respond to times of famine in ways that maximize species survival—and our bodies cannot tell the difference between a life-threatening famine and a diet. Our bodies are wired to fight against weight loss. Each time the body defends itself against a diet, it becomes more efficient at storing fat and lowering metabolism to conserve energy. Studies repeatedly show that compared to their non-dieting counterparts, dieters are more likely to gain weight in the long run. In fact, the best way to gain weight is to go on a diet to lose weight!

2. Yo-yo dieting increases health risks. The common response to a failed diet is to begin yet another weight loss plan. This leads to weight cycling where weight yo-yos up and down. Along with the emotional toll of losing and regaining weight are physical risks.

Studies show that the vast majority of dieters whose weight fluctuates up and down have an increased risk for health problems such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes as compared to non-dieters who maintained higher but steady weights. It may be that yo-yo dieting, rather than higher weights, actually cause the problems associated with obesity. Research also shows that people who become physically fit, regardless of their weight, live longer and improve their physical and mental well-being.

3. Diets lead to lower self-esteem and depression. Popular wisdom suggests that losing weight helps people to feel better about themselves. However, research shows that dieters experience an initial boost in self-esteem when the weight comes off, but actually end up with lower self-esteem over time because of the high failure rate of diets. Dieters also score higher on measurements of stress and depression compared to non-dieters, regardless of their weight when they began the diet. The effects of caloric restriction can include fatigue, weakness, irritability, social withdrawal and reduced sex drive. Dieting decreases levels of serotonin, which is needed to maintain a calm and stable mood.

The good news from recent studies is that women who stopped dieting, learned to eat in accordance with their natural hunger, and were physically active, showed increases in self-esteem that were sustained over time.

4. Diets lead to an increased risk of eating disorders. Parents frequently express concern over how they can prevent their children, particularly daughters, from developing an eating disorder. In the United States, as many as 10 million females and 1 million males struggle with an eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia wreak havoc on the lives of families and have the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric illness.

People who diet are eight times more likely to develop an eating disorder. Therefore, it is important for parents to model eating behavior that does not promote dieting for weight loss, and to encourage their children to find ways to feel good about themselves independent of body size. It is also important to question the cultural ideal of thinness and to reject messages that suggest that being thin is the best way to achieve success and happiness. The truth is that the models in magazines, often airbrushed and manipulated with computers, have a body size that is natural to only 5 percent of women. Trying to fit in to that body size leaves girls and women at risk of dieting and developing serious eating problems.

5. Diets get in the way of living a full life. Anyone who has made a career of dieting knows how thoughts about food and weight become a preoccupation. “I was good today,” “I was bad today,” “Should I eat this?” “I feel so fat,” are some of the things that dieters constantly say to themselves. These thoughts take up a huge amount of mental energy and leave little energy for healthier pursuits.

Instead of dieting, learn to become an attuned eater. Attuned eaters use internal, physical cues to tell them when, what and how much to eat. There is no diet to begin and no diet to break. Rather than relying on an external set of rules to follow, attuned eaters rely on listening to their bodies to guide them in nourishing themselves, and, in the process, weight settles in a range that is natural and comfortable for that person. Becoming an attuned eater frees up mental energy for other, more meaningful activities. International No-Diet Day offers another opportunity to get off the diet roller coaster and on the non-diet bandwagon, leading to a healthier and more satisfying life.

Judith Matz, LCSW, and Ellen Frankel, LCSW, are sisters, therapists and authors of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care. You can visit their web site at

from the May 23-29, 2007, issue

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