To anybody who’s ever been on a diet and gained the weight back, I want you to pay close attention to what you’re about to read: Diets. Don’t. Work. And I don’t just mean the kind of bizarre crash diets that tell you to eat nothing but individually skinned grapes and peppercorns while rubbing yourself all over with palm leaves to stimulate fat loss. Those definitely don’t work, but all the others? The ones that are “scientifically proven,” “GUARANTEED TO HELP SHED POUNDS FAST,” endorsed by celebrities the world over, or masquerading as “a lifestyle”? They don’t work either.
It’s not that you won’t lose weight; you probably will. But it’ll come back like a boomerang every time. There are plenty of studies that diet companies use to prove that their plan will make you thin for life. The problem with those studies is that they usually only follow “successful” dieters for a year or two before shouting hallelujah and taking the results to the bank.
If they followed those dieters for five years, the numbers would tell a different story (which is probably why they don’t). Time and time again, the actual number of people who lose weight on a diet and keep it off for five years comes in at between 3% and 5%. Dieting might help you lose weight in the short term, but in the long term you’ll wind up right back where you were.
When Traci Mann, a UCLA professor and psychology researcher, decided to gather a team to review the scientific literature on dieting in 2007, the results were clear: “We found that the majority of people regained all the weight, plus more.” In fact, at least one-third to two-thirds of people regained more weight than they’d lost. After analyzing thirty-one long-term diet studies, Mann concluded that diets don’t work.
If someone had shown me those numbers back when I was still living in Dietland, I would have scoffed and said something about people having no willpower. After all, that’s what we’re taught: the diet doesn’t fail, we do. We believe that if we just try hard enough, we’ll be able to reach that goal weight, and if we don’t, we’re terrible people with zero determination and deserve to hate ourselves forever. In reality, the reasons why 95% of diets don’t work are far more complicated, and no amount of iron will is ever going to change them.
We are biologically programmed not to stick to diets. Way back when we were hunter-gatherers, food could get scarce at times. The only way to survive famines was to have plenty of juicy fat stores that the body could use for energy when it got desperate. Thanks to natural selection, we still have that same survival technique, meaning that when we experience starvation (and many diets prescribe exactly that), our bodies hold on to their fat stores extra tightly by slowing down our metabolisms.
Here’s a wild idea: what if actually, we’re all supposed to look different?
If you do manage to lose body fat, you’ll disturb the balance of hormones, produced by adipose cells, that regulate hunger and fullness signals in the brain. In other words, lose weight, and you’ll start feeling even hungrier than usual, your metabolism will slow, and your body will start fighting back against the diet. Why? Because your body already knows the weight it wants to be. Set-point theory suggests that all our bodies have a natural weight range. Usually, our weight can fluctuate by ten to twenty pounds on either side of our set points, but when we try to force our bodies beyond those limits, our bodies work against us. And every time we attempt to mess with our internal weight regulation system, our set point can change, getting incrementally higher with every failed diet.
Which means that most of us would be thinner than we are now if we’d never dieted in the first place, and yet the only way we believe that we’ll get thinner is by dieting. Catch-22, anyone? Maybe it’s time we started trusting that our bodies know best. As Linda Bacon writes in Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, “More than 50 years of research proves that your body tries to maintain your fat at the level at which you are designed to function best (not necessarily a size 4 or even 24, however).”
Our set points are all different, and yet here we are fighting to fit our bodies into one impossible mold. Here’s a wild idea: what if actually, we’re all supposed to look different? I know that goes against every message that the mainstream media tells us about beauty, health, and body size, but bear with me.
A little while ago the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) released a short video titled The Problem with Poodle Science. In it, adorable illustrations show how unjust it is to make one breed of dog (the poodle) the ideal image of health and beauty, and try to make all other breeds conform to an image that nature never intended for them to match. All dog breeds are supposed to come in different sizes and weights, but because the poodles are running things and refuse to recognize this, the mastiffs end up starving and convinced that it’s best for them. Now I’m not saying that dogs and humans are exactly the same (although that would be my ideal world), but why shouldn’t humans exist with as much deliberate diversity and difference in size as other species of animals do? And if that is the case, then of course no amount of dieting is going to change it.
Diet culture promises us that if we work hard enough, buy the right products, and spend enough time, we can whittle our bodies down to the ideal. We’ll have health and happiness, and our real lives will finally begin! When we believe that promise, what we’re left with is obsession, destroyed self-esteem, empty bank accounts, eating disorders, wasted years, and hunger. We give everything we have to a system that strips us bare and leaves us forever reaching for a mirage of beauty planted in our minds. They get away with our money and we get nothing; we don’t even get thinner. We’ve been tricked. And it would be laughable if it didn’t hurt so much.
The good news is that once you see through the lies, you can stop believing them. You have the power to break out of the diet cycle, to stop giving money to companies that profit from your self-hatred, to refuse to believe the manipulation any longer, and to take your happiness right now, instead of ten pounds from now. You can start living your diet-free life, and be rid of the guilt that you learned so long ago. It won’t be easy because the rest of the world hasn’t realized what utter bullshit diet culture really is yet. But it will be worth it.
Excerpted from Body Positive Power: Because Life Is Already Happening and You Don’t Need Flat Abs to Live It by Megan Jayne Crabbe. Copyright © 2018. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.