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The Psychological Impacts of Dieting

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As dietitians, we get questions about “the best diets” – A LOT. Here’s the truth – the best diet is one you can see yourself doing long term. A diet that doesn’t make you want to pull your hair out or secretly stuff your face in the middle of the night.

Is dieting a good idea?

In fact, let’s ditch the word diet. That word comes with all kinds of assumptions and negative energy. As you can tell from the title of this post – DIETS DON’T WORK. In fact, diets can actually harm our health more than they help it. In my last post, I talked about how diets can negatively affect our physical health including blood pressure, metabolism and more. Today I want to go even further and discuss how diets can also impact our psychological health.

Psychological Effects of Dieting

Aside from physical impacts, weight cycling (weight loss followed by weight regain) also takes a HUGE mental toll. Admittedly, there isn’t enough research in this area of weight loss studies. As they tend to focus on the more measurable biomarkers instead of how we think and feel about food. However, in our own practice here at Ignite Nutrition, we regularly see negative psychological impacts of yo-yo dieting and striving for weight loss at all costs.

Disordered Eating Patterns

With such extreme pressure from society to look a certain way, we see that people will often do anything to “control” their appearance. By following diet rules, we become accustomed to eating according to external factors rather than listening to our own intuition, hunger, and satisfaction.

When external food rules dictate what, when, and how much we are “allowed” to eat, it is very easy to develop disordered eating patterns. Most often, people go through periods of restriction, followed by periods of binging. Some professionals even refer to this as the ‘dieting pendulum’. With constant swings from extreme control and restriction to complete frustration and chaos.

In some cases, the desire for control over food and appearance can even develop into more serious eating disorders. Such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia.

Two side-profile heads facing each other superimposed by different foods. The head on the left is superimposed by green foods like broccoli lettuce and apple. The head on the right is superimposed by orange coloured foods including burger, french fries, and pizza.

Food Guilt

Food is NOT morally good or bad, but diet culture trains us to think in these terms. We are taught to believe that eating carbs, sugar, baked goods (and more) is undesirable and ‘wrong’. And that we should feel ashamed of ourselves for doing so.

Last time I checked, nobody ever got arrested for eating a bowl of pasta. The point I’m trying to make is that nobody eats perfectly all of the time. The absurd belief that we can be “perfect eaters” is not only incorrect, but it sets us up for failure. Because if that is our gold standard, everything we do that isn’t perfect becomes a guilt trap.

Let’s cut ourselves some slack and meet in the middle. Sure, different foods fuel our bodies differently. We can’t live a healthy and balanced life on just one type of food alone. Whether that food is cookies or carrots. But, at the end of the day, ALL food is fuel. Regardless of calories, points, or macros, and fits not just to fuel us, but for joy and pleasure as well.

Poor Self-Worth and Self Esteem

Lastly, we see that people often tie their self-worth to the food they put in their bodies. An example of shame-spiral around food we commonly see is: “I’m a bad person for eating a donut. There’s something wrong with me and I have no self-control! I’m going to get fat. Which means I don’t deserve, and I’ll be alone forever!” Talk about a spiral of shame! See how this can become a problem?

Self-worth is meant to be a reflection of who you are AS A PERSON. Food choices are so insignificant compared to the big stuff that charges our self-worth. Do you help others? Are you compassionate? Are you a hard worker? Those are the hard-hitting questions that should be asked when determining your own self-worth.

What is self-esteem?

As for self-esteem, that’s a complex topic. Self-esteem is how good we feel about ourselves; how liked and accepted we feel. In truth, diet culture doesn’t accept larger bodies as much as smaller bodies. This is called weight stigma and is a SERIOUS social justice issue in our society. All bodies are good bodies. And all bodies should be treated equally is our motto. Though we know our society is anything but just.

There is potential that some people may not accept the body you live in. But YOU are the one who has to live in it, not them. As a person in a thin body – I understand that I don’t know what it’s like to live in a fat body and the judgement that can come along with it. But – I am here to be an ally in fighting weight stigma with you. At Ignite, we like to say, “we can’t change the situation we are given, but we CAN change how we react and adapt to those experiences.” While society is heavily entrenched in stigmatizing bodies, we know there is a ton of great work being done to fight this social justice issue.

Is being thin healthier?

In conclusion, we assume that if we are thin, we will be healthier. But the truth is, we are healthier when we have positive health behaviours. Regardless of thinness or fatness. And the data (and our experience) is clear that weight loss has negative psychological consequences. Whereas a weight neutral approach appears to have better psychological outcomes.

If we focus on changing nutrition and health behaviours – like eating more vegetables, eating regular meals, and practicing mindfulness – we can STILL impact health in a positive way. Regardless of weight. If you’re looking for a weight neutral approach that focuses on body respect, intuitive eating, gentle nutrition, and takes a holistic approach to wellness, our dietitians are here to help.

Two side-profile heads facing each other superimposed by different foods. The head on the left is superimposed by green foods like broccoli lettuce and apple. The head on the right is superimposed by orange coloured foods including burger, french fries, and pizza.

Categorized: Food Relationship

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