It’s that time of year again: Following the joy and celebration of elaborate feasts for the winter holidays is the guilt and shame associated with weight gain and perceived indulgence. As people sit down to write out their 2018 to-do lists, diet plans and fitness regimens will reign, while body acceptance is missing from the conversation entirely.
Unsurprisingly, most people will give up on their self-improvement plans by February, usually because they’re not sustainable. If you hate running, you’re not going to keep up with your “this is the year I’ll run a marathon” training schedule. And if your body feels restricted and deprived (no cake! all kale!), you’ll give into the cravings.
“Next year,” people will promise themselves, frustrated with their lack of willpower.
Riots Not Diets tattoo (Photo credit: tattoosnob/Instagram)
But what if your inability to stick to a diet has nothing to do with your level of self-control? What if advertising media has simply been selling you this idea since birth for capitalist gain? What if your perceived failure is exactly what keeps the diet and fitness industries alive?
Here’s the irrefutable truth: Diets don’t work—not in the long-term anyway. It’s unlikely that any pill, program, cleanse, or even lifestyle change based on intentional calorie restriction will grant us with what our genes did not. Dieting through energy restriction, which is what we’re practicing when we purposely consume fewer calories than are necessary for our bodies to function optimally, is something our bodies fight back against.
When up to 95 percent of people who lose weight through dieting gain it all back, we should question why we think our experience will be any different. And it’s high time that we acknowledge that—and adopt new #bodygoals that are focused on self-acceptance and nourishment, rather than aesthetic standards and deprivation.
Before we can do that, though, we need a deeper understanding of what—biologically and neurologically—makes dieting for weight loss a near-impossible feat. Here are five reasons.
1. Weight Loss Doesn’t Necessarily Support Health
Buckle up because what I’m about to tell you is a wild ride of myth busting: Fat doesn’t kill. It doesn’t even cause disease.
Empirical evidence shows that people categorized as “overweight” actually tend to live longer than those considered “normal.” And it’s the confounding factor of weight cycling (often caused by yo-yo dieting) that increases chronic inflammation—the real risk factor in diseases often blamed on fat, like diabetes and heart disease.
Fad Diets Don’t Work sign (Photo credit: The Big Yogi)
While eating nutritiously and moving joyfully absolutely has positive effects on our physical and mental wellbeing, weight loss in and of itself doesn’t improve health. “Engaging in health-supportive behaviors does positively impact our physical and mental well-being,” Dana Notte, a registered dietitian who’s the nutrition lead at Green Mountain at Fox Run, a healthy weight and wellbeing retreat center in Vermont, explained to Bitch. “Engaging in those behaviors may also lead to a change in weight. However, it’s not the weight loss itself that produces the positive outcomes—it’s the behavior change.”
For example, check out these liposuction studies: In them, the folks who lost weight through surgery didn’t see any change in the abnormalities associated with being fat. Your body, first and foremost, wants to be as healthy as it can. And if weight loss doesn’t support that—and, in fact, can be detrimental to that end—your body will fight you every step of the way.
2. You Have a Set Point Weight
Homeostasis—the idea that all living beings and ecosystems want to achieve constancy—is the first rule of biology: As such, natural processes are in place to regulate change and bring about balance. Thanks to a complex interplay of genes, environment, and behavior, we are all meant to live within a unique weight range. “Because our bodies know this, they work really hard to keep us within this range, resisting deviations,” Notte explained.
Think about your adult life: When you are eating intuitively, when you are living without thinking actively about food and exercise, what are the pant sizes that you fluctuate between? Maybe three sizes—the smaller for when you’re particularly busy or stressed, the larger for when you’re menstruating, and the middle size for most of the time? Set point. That range is your natural size. That’s your homeostasis.
Your body will regulate itself back to that every time because that’s what sustains your best health.
3. Your Body Thinks It’s Dying
Human beings are cool and all, but do you really think we’ve evolved enough for our physical systems to understand what a diet is? When you decide to restrict however many calories in order to feel more comfortable in a bikini, your body doesn’t register that. As your body’s receiving less fuel than it needs to survive, it registers famine.
stock photo of food being measured on a scale (Photo credit: Getty Images)
I’m not a fan of evolutionary psychology (it’s been used in hella oppressive ways for centuries), but that whole “will to survive” idea? 100 percent legit. Your body, your utmost physical being, doesn’t want to die. It wants to keep you alive at all costs. And if it thinks that you’re unable to obtain food regularly, your instinct is going to kick in to help you find, consume, and hold onto calories.
Slowing down your metabolism is one way to achieve this. For one thing, your body doesn’t have the energy to spend on processing food when it’s calorie deficient. It also wants to store as much fat as it can to help you through difficult days.
“That’s part of the set point system,” Marsha Hudnall, a registered dietitian nutritionist, president of the Center for Mindful Eating, and previous board member of the Binge Eating Disorder Association, explained to Bitch. “Hormones kick into action that drive us to eat, to help us maintain enough body mass to survive. It becomes about getting enough calories.”
4. Restriction Makes Food More Enticing
Have you ever sat down in front of a deep dish, extra-cheese pizza, swearing up and down that you’ll only have one slice, only to notice 10 minutes later that half of the pizza is gone, and you don’t even remember eating it? That’s a binge, and it’s predicated by restriction. The likelihood that you’ll eat more than you necessarily would in one sitting after having restricted is high.
When your body thinks it’s dying, it’s going to do all it can to make you focus—obsessively, even—on food so that it can get the energy it needs. “Because our bodies are incredibly efficient machines, these mechanisms not only encourage us to seek food, but to seek out the foods that are going to be the most effective at meeting our fuel needs most efficiently—high-carb, high-fat, high-calorie foods,” Notte said. “This drive has very little to do with willpower, and everything to do with your body trying to protect you.”
a pathway for mindful eating (Photo credit: Summer Tomato)
To entice you, your body alters your hunger and satiety cues. The hormones responsible for making you feel full, like leptin, drop. And the hormones responsible for making you feel hungry, like ghrelin, spike. When you’re on a diet, this is why you feel like you’re being bombarded suddenly by food advertisements. Your brain is drawn to them because it’s trying to give you a hint.
5. You Need Your Nutrients
I’m skeptical of any diet that suggests cutting out a food group for optimal health—and I say that as a vegetarian. The idea that bread is evil or sugar is toxic is bullshit, and I will forever side-eye Dr. Atkins for pushing people to stop eating, of all things, fruit. We all have unique bodies with unique nutritional needs, and we also may need to be careful about which foods we eat (um, I’m lactose intolerant). But those decisions should come from a place of knowing and respecting yourself—not because someone with a book deal told you to. When we don’t allow ourselves to eat certain foods, we remove more than calories from our diets—we remove the nutrients that those foods gave to us. And operating from this space of malnourishment is never going to be a healthy choice.
You don’t crave certain foods because you’re addicted to them. This comparison—for example, relating sugar and cocaine—is specious at best. “It’s the dose that makes the poison,” Hudnall explained. Any food consumed in abundance can be dangerous to your body. But you crave certain foods because they’re something that your body needs. And refusing your body necessary nutrients can’t last.
We have this idea in our society–in this diet culture–that you’re unable to stick to a diet because you have no self-control. But in the famous words of Maury Povich, “The lie detector determined that was a lie.” You can’t stick to a diet because your body wasn’t made to do it. You can’t sustain significant weight loss because it doesn’t support your wellbeing.
So for 2018, can we try a different approach to relating to food and our bodies? Here are 50 ideas I wrote for Everyday Feminism to get you started.