Nutrition Myth Busting: Do Diets Actually Work?
Understand the truth behind dieting and take the first step to food freedom
Have you ever compared your body size to others’? Been jealous of a friend or family member for fitting into jeans that are several sizes smaller than yours? Felt lesser-than and ‘unhealthy’ because you don’t look the same as those you see on TV, in magazines and on social media? Me too. And we would be hard-pressed to find someone who said they couldn’t relate.
Why is it that from a young age, we are all made well aware of the societal ideal of “thin is good, fat is bad”, “thin is healthy, fat is unhealthy”? Because of Diet Culture. The pervasive set of beliefs which place more value on thinness and appearance above overall health and well-being. You hear about it and see it everywhere you turn- social media, TV, movies, magazines, family, friends..even healthcare providers. Talk of making our bodies smaller and hating ourselves for how we look and for what we eat is normalized and accepted. It’s not uncommon for clients to reach out to us after multiple failed diet attempts, feeling guilt and shame for not being able to “stick with it” or lose much weight. Most of these clients also report regaining the weight they lost on the diet, which adds more frustration and shame.
If you’re curious to learn more about dieting, and if diets actually work, this post is for you.
Let’s Look at Some Dieting Stats:
- 1 in 4 children had engaged in some type of dieting by age 7
- 80% of 10 year old American girls had been on a diet
- More than half of girls and approximately one-third of boys aged 6-8 indicated their ideal bodies to be thinner than their current bodies
- 1.3 million Adolescent teens had anorexia
As of 2018 the Canadian Pediatric Society noted on its website that:
- About 1 in every 2 teenage girls and 1 in every 4 teenage boys had tried dieting to change the shape of their bodies.
- More than 1 in 3 girls who were at a healthy weight were still trying to diet.
Needless to say, the desire to manipulate and shrink our bodies often continues well into adulthood and beyond. It is not uncommon to meet clients who have been on diet after diet since a young age, all in the name of achieving the thin ideal. But at what cost?
Potential Harms of Dieting Explained
A 2018 study looked into the weight-centered health paradigm; or, putting body weight at the center of thinking and talking about health and noted many concerns, including:
- Psychological harm – body dissatisfaction, distraction from other life goals, body distrust, depression.
- Behavioural harm – delayed health care, disordered eating, disordered exercising.
- Physical harm – diminished quality of health care, decreased nutrient absorption, decreased satiety, destabilized body weight, increased disease factors, even death.
- Social harms – dehumanization and discrimination, stigma, prejudice, oppression.
Even with all these risks being known, policy makers and healthcare providers continue to push and “prescribe” weight loss even though one of the strongest predictors of weight gain is engaging in weight loss dieting. In fact, we are as sure of this happening as we are that smoking causes cancer.
We truly cannot assess one’s overall “health” simply by their body size. Not only is a there a growing body of evidence which demonstrates that you can have a Body Mass Index (BMI) above the so-called “obese” categorization and be metabolically healthy, but there are many variables to factor in when considering a person’s overall health.
Factors Beyond Weight That Can Contribute to Overall Health and Wellness:
- Early childhood development
- Sleep quality
- Stress management
- Food insecurity
- Access to affordable health services of decent quality
Numerous studies suggest that Social Determinants of Health account for between 30-55% of health outcomes. For more information, please visit https://www.who.int/health-topics/social-determinants-of-health#tab=tab_1
In addition, individuals who were exposed to adverse childhood experiences, such as violence, abuse and mental health issues are at an increased risk of health problems across the lifespan. For more information and stats, visit: https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aces/index.html
So If Dieting is Risky, What Do I Do Now?
Living life against the grain of diet culture is no easy feat. Working with a registered dietitian who practices from an intuitive eating framework would be a great first step to help you on this journey. This method of eating and self-care is a daily practice that involves getting curious about and challenging negative food and body self-talk, letting go of food rules, reducing shame, guilt and stress around eating and food, and slowly building up body respect and compassion. It’s about giving yourself unconditional permission to eat what sounds good to you, and gently nourishing your body with elements that support your vitality.
Following this framework has been associated with reduced disordered eating behaviours, and improved body image, emotional wellbeing, and metabolic markers.
But My Doctor is Telling Me To Lose Weight!
Until our culture gets to a place where healthcare providers and public health policy members recognize the harms of prescribing weight loss, we have to take measures into our own hands to support our wellness goals. Below are some ideas for when you face weight related situations:
- Decline a weigh-in: You have every right to decline, and if they require your weight for medication dosing or other medical reasons then they can keep it noted in the chart.
- Ask for the research: Let your doctor know that you are informed about the research regarding the harms of dieting and very low success rates for the majority of the population. Ask your doctor for the research that it supports their recommendation.
- Compare: Challenge the doctor by asking if someone in a smaller body came to them with this health issue, would they suggest weight loss to them as well? What would the recommendation be if you were in a smaller body?
- Inform: Tell your doctor that making you feel guilty for living in the body you have isn’t helpful for your mental and physical well-being and to consider doing no harm and provide you with evidence-based, non-weight-related care.
If you’re someone who has tried multiple diets, it may be overwhelming and even a little scary to consider the idea of not following one. You may also be unclear as to what you even “should eat” now, which is very normal. If you are tired of being at war with your body, I invite you to show yourself compassion and take the first step to food freedom and improving your body image.
References used in this article
- O’Hara L, Taylor J. What’s Wrong With the ‘War on Obesity?’ A Narrative Review of the Weight-Centered Health Paradigm and Development of the 3C Framework to Build Critical Competency for a Paradigm Shift. SAGE Open. April 2018. doi:10.1177/2158244018772888
- National Health and Medical Research Council (2013) Clinical practice guidelines for the management of overweight and obesity in adults, adolescents and children in Australia, Melbourne, 2013 p161
- “Advocating for yourself at the doctor’s office by saying “No””. By Dana Magee RD, LD, CLT
- “What to say at the doctor’s office” DancesWithFat.org
- “Resources for healthcare providers” LindoBacon.com
Interested in seeing a difference? Craving confidence? Let us help you love the body you live in.
If you are looking for food freedom, a caring supportive co-pilot, and creating sustainable habits that fit into everyday life, we can help.
Don’t forget to check your health insurance! Many insurance plans cover Dietitian services.
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Christine Devaney Towsley B.A.Sc., RD
Registered Dietitian & Online Nutritionist
Specialty: weight concerns, intuitive eating, heart
health, family nutrition, IBS (irritable bowel disease)
A nurturer at heart, Christine will always greet you with a smile and
attentive ear. Kind hearted, empathetic and sensitive to others,
Christine takes the time to connect, build trust and truly understand
each client and tailors her sessions to each person's specific needs.