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Why Diets Don’t Work (and What You Should Do Instead)

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Tried everything to lose weight and left wondering why diets don’t work for you? In this post we reveal the harmful effects of diet culture, why dieting is failing you, and what to do instead of intentional weight loss in order to create health-promoting, sustainable habits and happiness. 

Why Diets Don't Work

This guest post is by Dylan Murphy, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and owner of Free Method Nutrition, a virtual group nutrition practice that exists to equip women with the skills to overcome and the wisdom to move beyond the narratives of diet culture. Living in a diet saturated world, Dylan knows it can be overwhelming to establish a healthy relationship with food. Women are constantly fed lies that happiness is found in the size of their jeans, the number on the scale or the cups of celery juices they can drink in a day. She is committed to helping women break outside of that mindset.

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Between her Food Science and Human Nutrition Degree from Clemson University, Dietetic Residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and individualized nutrition coaching for over 300 clients, she provides well-informed, personalized and realistic nutrition and mindset coaching. She believes that eating disorder recovery is possible, that you can get to a place of respecting your body and that mindset work is a crucial component to creating lasting health habits.

In her practice, Free Method Nutrition, she and her team use Dylan’s signature process, The FREE Method, that is designed to take women from fed up and overwhelmed with diets and body dissatisfaction to freed up and empowered with lasting habits of Intuitive Eating and body respect. Dylan’s specialty areas are eating disorders, disordered eating, chronic dieting, body image concerns and women’s health.

Over to you, Dylan!

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The Truth About Dieting + Intentional Weight Loss

If you knew that a plane had a 5% chance of landing safely, would you fly in it? Probably not. Interestingly enough, when you start a new diet, you are starting a journey that you have a 5% chance to succeed in.

Based on research studies, 90-95% of dieters (source) gain back all or most of their weight lost within five years. And to clarify, when using the term diets here, we are not referring to medical necessary diets, such as diets for diabetes, heart failure, celiac disease, etc. What we are referring to when using the word diet is the intentional pursuit of weight loss and the system that promotes this approach, diet culture. 

So what is diet culture?

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that tie your health and happiness to your body shape. It elevates people who shrink themselves while robbing them of finding pleasure and purpose in life.

Diet culture is woven into our society. You see it in overt ways like using BMI as a primary health marker or primarily seeing thin people in the media. Once your eyes open to diet culture, you’ll see it in sneaky ways like when someone praises you for resisting dessert or complimenting weight loss or even news of the next “superfood”.

And then it can get twisted even further when people are promoting “lifestyle changes” for health or wellness, which are just diets in disguise. 

When we are dieting, we are also experiencing calorie deprivation. And this deprivation is likely occurring for weeks and months (if not years). Calorie deprivation has many harmful effects on our body, such as:

  • slowing our metabolic rate
  • increasing our stress levels
  • increasing ghrelin (hunger hormone) levels
  • decreasing leptin (fullness hormone) levels
  • increasing preoccupation with food and body image
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Why Diets Don’t Work

Now you may be wondering, why do diets not work? Here are two of the many reasons why diets have such a high chance of failure:

1) Diets aren’t sustainable

In starting a diet, you are likely having to cut out certain foods, eat fewer calories throughout the day, or eat during specific time windows. Maintaining those limitations may be easy at first, but as the weeks and months go on you may start to realize how it’s impacting more areas of your life than you anticipated.

Depending on the diet you’re on, you may find you now have to say no to your favorite foods, skip brunch with your friends or spend double on your grocery shopping due to the array of health foods you’re having to purchase.

2) Diets ignore the root issue

Diets focus on symptoms versus behaviors. When you are starting a diet seeking to lose weight, you are likely to do whatever it takes to get the weight off quickest. In doing so, you aren’t addressing health behaviors, genetics and other factors that can impact your weight. 

The difference here between symptoms and behaviors is this: symptoms are factors such as weight and the size of your clothing, and behaviors include intake of plants, water intake, movement levels and practices to support your mental health.

Sure, quick fixes may give you temporary change of symptoms, but they aren’t going to give you long-term results. Focusing on health-promoting behaviors, while also working to improve your body image and disconnect weight from your worth, will lead to lasting health habits.

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What Should You Do Instead of Dieting?

Since we know why diets don’t work, it’s important to focus on what we should be doing instead: 

  • In making the choice to walk away from diets, it’s helpful to ensure you’ve silenced the noise of diets as much as possible. What this may look like is unfollowing diet- and weight loss-focused accounts on social media, throwing away your scale, or deleting MyFitnessPal. Steps such as those help to set you up for success in never dieting again.
  • Revisiting the power of behavior change, doing an audit of your daily routines and habits can help you discover areas of your life that may need improvement. By focusing on behaviors, you are ensuring that you are creating health habits that are sustainable. As you implement new behaviors, you want to do this from a place of mindfulness and self-compassion. Change takes time and is definitely not an overnight fix.
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As you work on those behavior changes, use those markers as your measure of success instead of the number on the scale. We like to refer to those as non-scale victories. Some examples may include eating breakfast daily, drinking more water, implementing a morning routine, and noticing improvements in your body image.

Shifting your mindset away from diets and weight loss is hard. Especially when we live in a culture that places high value on appearance and image.

As you begin the journey away from diets and into a more intuitive and mindful approach to food, remind yourself that little successes deserve to be celebrated. And the further you walk away from diet culture, the stronger your health-promoting habits become and the more confident you will feel!

Thanks again, Dylan, for sharing your wisdom with us!

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Follow Dylan on Instagram Free Method Nutrition and Free Method Nutrition, and download her Free Method Nutrition to create sustainable change in your health, mindset, and body image. You can also start your food freedom journey with her self-paced course, Free Method Nutrition.

Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser

Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. Please note that I've linked to these products purely because I recommend them and they are from companies I trust. There is no additional cost to you.

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