Have you ever considered dieting? Or maybe dieted more times than you can count? Have you ever thought to stop and ask yourself – what your TRUE motivations are? When we strip away the desire to lose weight – have you considered what is driving your weight loss goals? And perhaps, how diet culture promises a certain result, yet, time and time again, were left wondering – what is WRONG with me that I just can’t do this?
The reality is: diets don’t work. You’ve probably been told you haven’t found the right diet. You haven’t worked hard enough. Haven’t wanted it bad enough. And because ALL the fault is on you, you’ve tied that goal to your self worth. It defines you. But should it? We are SO much more than our diet, what we eat, and our weight.
The Dangers of Diet Culture on Nutrition Choices
We all have experienced the pressure to be slim and fit. Western society has categorized women who are slim as attractive, intelligent, successful, financially independent, and having better self-control. Pick up any health and fitness magazine and you will find articles suggesting ways to achieve this desired thinness in order to become “more attractive”. In fact, dieting to improve appearance has been a consistent message in magazines for decades. To make matters worse, magazines are filled with airbrushed women (and men) that have digitally edited facial features and unrealistically enhanced bodies. No wonder we often go to great lengths to achieve such distorted standards. Magazines play with our minds, igniting our inner desire to become Barbie and Ken. Restricting calories, skipping meals, and replacing meals with supplements, pills, and potions, are just a few common dieting methods – all of which usually fail – which brings us right back to square one – looking for the next quick fix.1
How do you recognize a diet?
- It tells you to ignore your hunger and natural physiological signals. I’ll ask you once, would you ignore your urge to pee? Or breathe? Then why is it ok to ignore our hunger?!
- The diet labels foods as ‘good and bad’, off limits, etc. They tend to place restrictions on foods that are entirely made up, created from cherry-picking research, or manipulating science
- The diet makes lofty promises – lose 10 lbs in 10 days!
- It cuts out entire food groups
- It villainizes food – making you fearful of a particular food or food group
- It creates guilt and shame around your success, willpower, self-worth, and food choices
- It’s YOUR fault if you fail – the blame always comes back to you – if I could have just (blank) then you would have achieved (insert unrealistic ideal here)
What actually happens to our bodies when we diet, and why shouldn’t we?
There are three main macronutrients that provide energy for our bodies. They are fat, protein and carbohydrates. Most fad diets out there focus on modulating either fat, protein, or carbohydrate intake.
When we think about dieting, the thing I see people most often cut back on is carbohydrates (carbs). We try to cut out all the donuts, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy foods on our menu. But did you know that carbs are one of the most important fuels for our body? If we don’t have enough carbs, our bodies will burn our muscles before burning the fat that we want to lose – no matter how much the diet industry tells you otherwise. Research has found that even though caloric restriction results in fat loss, inevitable loss of muscles will reduce our body’s strength and aerobic capacity of our cardiovascular system2. This explains why dieting makes people feel not so great, and often lacking energy (hint – there ain’t no ‘toxins’ leaving your body…) – and eventually, slows our metabolism.
When we are low on carbs, our bodies go into ketosis. You may have heard of this trend popping up in the media lately, with the keto diet – however, past trends include Atkins, zero carb, even some extreme versions of paleo are low carb enough to send you into ketosis.
This happens when the body doesn’t have enough glucose as fuel, so it turns fat stores into ketones for energy instead. One of the more popular diets that takes advantage of ketosis is the Atkins diet, which emphasizes low-carb, adequate protein and high-fat intake8. At this point you may be thinking, “Sweet, isn’t burning fat the fastest way to lose weight and fulfil the diet culture dream that if you’re skinny, you’ll have it all?”. – Well, maybe, at first (can you sense my sarcasm yet?). But let’s not forget about the long term.
Besides muscle loss and ketosis, calorie restriction can also slow down the body’s metabolism. Studies show that when humans are deprived of food, there will be adaptive reduction on our basal metabolic rate (BMR), and depletion of our fat stores would reduce thermogenesis4. When we don’t eat enough, our body burns less energy. When we spend less energy, our fat cells shrink and release hormones to help us conserve more energy5. Ketogenic diets also lower metabolism by suppressing our appetite for food8, all these studies show that our body will go into energy-saving mode, just like our laptop computers, so we are able to survive longer without food. When our metabolism is reduced, our bodies try to maintain the same weight in the pursuit of self-preservation. Starving = death – or so our bodies interpret it as such.
Another thing I notice in my clients is food fixation due to this starvation and depravation. Because of our constant bombardment to food advertising and our food environment, I end up seeing clients obsess over food. Fixate on food. We all know that if someone tells us we can’t have something, that’s all we end up thinking about. Am I right?
While you try to cut back on those foods you’ve labelled as ‘bad’ (often energy dense foods) – your body says ‘hey – I’m not getting enough energy over here’ and will seek out energy dense forms of nutrition.
It also leads to this weird dichotomy where you put unhealthy foods on a pedestal – thinking about them non-stop, and feeling a loss of control when you have them, only to be followed by guilt and shame about doing the one thing you weren’t supposed to. At the same time, those ‘diet foods’ tend to create a feeling of resentment. You HAVE to eat them, and start to look at them like a punishment.
So many clients come to me with an absolute HATE on for salad, because they associate it with dieting. Imagine if you only ever ate salad because you actually wanted to, and it had NO ties to dieting, calories, or weight loss at all? Would you enjoy that salad for its freshness, flavour, because it reminded you of your grandma’s garden, or spring time, or whatever else? And imagine if you got to eat, taste, and enjoy your favourite treat food – truly taste, experience, and get pleasure out of it – without the guilt and shame? It’s dieting that causes this dysfunctional relationship with food. It’s rules, guilt, and this insane burden of diet culture that leads us to behave around food like raving lunatics.
What if we got back to basics, fuelled our bodies in a positive way, and listened to our own internal cues, our inner knowing, to guide our nutrition choices?
HINT: This is what we do at Ignite. Not everyone is ready for it, but for those of you who are, consider nutrition counselling for your food relationship with us so we can help you get there. Because DIETING SUCKS.
Effect of Dieting on Happiness
People who are dissatisfied with their own body weight, shape and size are more likely to go on a diet. One study on 522 college students found that students who are worried about their weight also scored higher in dissatisfaction in life6. Another study found that a woman’s perceived body image is positively correlated with her self-esteem in terms of sexual attractiveness, weight concern, and physical condition7. How screwed up are we, that our bodies actually dictate our self-worth? There’s something WRONG here. Our bodies are amazing, and are worthy of our love & acceptance for what they are and where they’re at RIGHT NOW.
Research has found that women’s eating behaviours are affected by the feminine stereotype expected by societal norms. Our society is still very patriarchal. From the time women are born, they are expected to be small, eat like a bird, and not take up much space in the world. One study demonstrated that the position in which a person eats impacts the amount they eat. Women who are weight-concerned that eat in a small, constrictive posture – the posture expected of women – will eat less to meet the feminine stereotype. Once the bounds of society are removed, women will spread out into an expansive posture and eat more16
A friend who is in a 12-step program explained it this way:
“When I am eating in public, I don’t want to appear even worse to others since the size of my obesity already causes people to treat me as abnormal, so I will eat less; however, when I get home, I don’t have to worry about how my size affects others, and I can eat as much as I want even though it is detrimental to my health. Furthermore, because I didn’t eat too much in public, I will eat more when I don’t have to worry about my size.”
How we perceive our own body image is a key contributor to our happiness in life. Our body size and self-image can affect how we eat and the habits we build around food choices. Women (and men!) who are concerned with their weight are less satisfied with their life, form poor eating habits, and have reduced self-esteem and happiness. Why do we give weight that much control over our lives, our well-being? The way we approach health and wellness is entirely wrong. With diet culture putting so much focus on weight – we lose what we truly value about ourselves and our health, and end up worse off for it.
Diet Behavior Resulting in Eating Disorder
The pressure to conform to the “ideal” image of beauty can greatly impact our emotional and physical well-being. Over time, dissatisfaction with our bodies may manifest into a psychological illness known as an eating disorder12
One study found that women who practiced moderate to severe dieting were 5 to 18 times more likely to develop eating disorders respectively than those who do not diet. Hence, dieting is the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder9. Another study further found that dieting or unhealthful weight-controlling behaviours are associated with obesity and eating disorders 5 years later10. Adolescents who diet or have eating pattern disorders are likely to persist having such disorders into young adulthood and the rest of their lives11. Hence, controlling weight through healthful eating and physical activity rather than diet restriction reduces the risk of obesity and eating disorders9,10
If I can’t lose weight through dieting, what should I do?
Our body weight is regulated by a set-point, which acts like a thermostat. It helps us maintain the current weight from fluctuating for long periods of time. Therefore, our bodies basically go through a yo-yo mechanism, where reducing our energy intake can only bring about short-term weight-loss results. In the long run, the feedback mechanism in our brains and hormones will help us restore the usual, safe body weight13. It’s not that weight loss can’t be something you’re considering on your health journey. We’re inundated by the message that thin=healthy – which is often not the case. Instead, we want to focus on HEALTH independent from weight. We should be focused on things that we can ADD to our lives. Ways we can be healthier, feel better, and improve our nutrition and fitness, in a positive way, independent of where our weight goes – though this can be a tough thing to ‘let go’ of due to all of our conditioning, the weight bias and the value our physical bodies hold in society.
At Ignite, we often focus on values – how you’re going to feel when you make nutrition and health changes, and then look at how we can achieve that. Nutrition is often less about what we eat, especially when it comes to a dysfunctional food relationship, and more about the why.
Balanced Diet and Exercise
When looking to make a nutrition change, I often find that an adequate amount of nutritious food to fuel your body is key. Without proper nutrition, our hunger signals, metabolism, and body won’t function properly. A super simple tip to get you started is to aim for 2 cups of vegetables at lunch and dinner. This doesn’t have to be perfect, and doesn’t have to be every day – but it focuses on adding things, rather than taking away, and helps to make sure that we get enough fibre and micronutrients (at my core, I’m a gut health RD, and so I’m a little focused on that too). By getting in adequate vegetables, I find it helps to create satisfaction and fullness, and reduces how quickly hunger hits after a meal.
This doesn’t mean you need to do this every day. Some days, you’re going to eat pizza for dinner, and some days, you might have tons of veg! It’s all about finding YOUR balance.
Don’t Skip Meals!
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day; it allows us to kick-start our metabolism after a long night without food. Research has shown that eating breakfast improves our overall appetite response to foods eaten later in the day and reduces the appetite-suppressing effect of physical activity15. In addition to a balanced diet, consuming breakfast is equally important to heighten our awareness of our bodies’ response to hunger.
Research has shown that watching TV during meals or snacks reduces our awareness of the amount of food we eat16. Therefore, mindful eating should be practiced. Mindful eating means that we pay attention to our body’s signal of hunger and fullness3. This means that we should be eating the moment we sense hunger, not when we are starving. When we eat, we should eat slowly and spend time to thoroughly chew our food. Giving your body enough time to sense fullness allows us to eat less food and digest better. So, the next time you eat, put away your smartphone or digital gadgets and focus on your plate – you will have better control over your appetite from overeating.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, society has dieting WRONG. We need to learn to make health changes for reasons that feel good for us, fix our dysfunctional relationship with food and body image, and fit within our lives. Weight is only a number – health is what truly matters.
Co-Authored by Amy Pun, Nutrition student from University of Alberta
- Guillen, E. O., & Barr, S. I. (1994). Nutrition, dieting, and fitness messages in a magazine for adolescent women, 1970–1990. Journal of Adolescent Health, 15(6), 464-472.
- Weiss, E. P., Racette, S. B., Villareal, D. T., Fontana, L., Steger-May, K., Schechtman, K. B., … & Washington University School of Medicine CALERIE Group. (2007). Lower extremity muscle size and strength and aerobic capacity decrease with caloric restriction but not with exercise-induced weight loss. Journal of Applied Physiology, 102(2), 634-640.
- Mathieu, J. (2009). What should you know about mindful and intuitive eating?. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(12), 1982.
- Dulloo, A. G., & Jacquet, J. (1998). Adaptive reduction in basal metabolic rate in response to food deprivation in humans: a role for feedback signals from fat stores. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 68(3), 599-606.
- Kiortsis, D. N., Durack, I., & Turpin, G. (1999). Effects of a low-calorie diet on resting metabolic rate and serum tri-iodothyronine levels in obese children. European journal of pediatrics, 158(6), 446-450.
- Zullig, K. J., Pun, S. M., & Huebner, E. S. (2007). Life satisfaction, dieting behavior, and weight perceptions among college students. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 2(1), 17-31.
- Stokes, R., & Frederick-Recascino, C. (2003). Women’s perceived body image: relations with personal happiness. Journal of Women & Aging, 15(1), 17-29.
- Astrup, A., Larsen, T. M., & Harper, A. (2004). Atkins and other low-carbohydrate diets: hoax or an effective tool for weight loss?. The Lancet, 364(9437), 897-899.
- Patton, G. C., Selzer, R., Coffey, C. C. J. B., Carlin, J. B., & Wolfe, R. (1999). Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years. Bmj, 318(7186), 765-768.
- Neumark-Sztainer, D., Wall, M., Guo, J., Story, M., Haines, J., & Eisenberg, M. (2006). Obesity, disordered eating, and eating disorders in a longitudinal study of adolescents: how do dieters fare 5 years later?. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 106(4), 559-568.
- Neumark-Sztainer, D., Wall, M., Larson, N. I., Eisenberg, M. E., & Loth, K. (2011). Dieting and disordered eating behaviors from adolescence to young adulthood: findings from a 10-year longitudinal study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(7), 1004-1011.
- Allen, J., Gervais, S. J., & Smith, J. L. (2013). Sit big to eat big: The interaction of body posture and body concern on restrained eating. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37(3), 325-336.
- Harris, R. B. (1990). Role of set-point theory in regulation of body weight. The FASEB Journal, 4(15), 3310-3318.
- Government of Canada (2016). Build a healthy meal: use the Eat Well Plate. Retrieved on June 28, 2017 from http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca/eating-nutrition/healthy-eating-saine-alimentation/tips-conseils/interactive-tools-outils-interactifs/eat-well-bien-manger-eng.php
- Gonzalez, J. T., Veasey, R. C., Rumbold, P. L., & Stevenson, E. J. (2013). Breakfast and exercise contingently affect postprandial metabolism and energy balance in physically active males. British Journal of Nutrition, 110(4), 721-732.
- Hu, F. B., Li, T. Y., Colditz, G. A., Willett, W. C., & Manson, J. E. (2003). Television watching and other sedentary behaviors in relation to risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes mellitus in women. Jama, 289(14), 1785-1791.
- Mazza, K.B. (2017). Sample of an Eat Well Plate Based on Information by the Government of Canada. Retrieved on June 29, 2017 from https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-OhBCPzc2FoM/WVW9CmEr__I/AAAAAAAAFOI/wwodcnYTCTE878GnGZnkdKzT_ETofbU0QCL0BGAYYCw/h768/2017-06-29.png