Diets Don’t Work

by Peggy Nast Hayes, LICSW, BCD

Don’t let the diet industry, which takes in over forty billion dollars a year, brainwash you like it does most Americans. DIETS DON’T WORK! Think of it this way… if diets worked, fifty million people in our country would not be obese and/or struggling with compulsive overeating problems, and the average woman, who is 5′ 4″ and weighs 140 pounds, would not be striving to attain the body of the average model, who is 5’11” and weighs 117 pounds. (If that “average model” appeared in a clinician’s office, she would be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and would likely be hospitalized!)

Contrary to what the diet industry would like you to believe, diets actually cause people to gain weight! This is how it happens:

  • Diets are predicated on negative feelings about yourself. We tend to go on diets when we don’t feel good about ourselves, hoping that losing weight will make us feel better. This strategy works only as long as we can stay on a diet, which, with its strict rules, no one can do for any length of time because dieting is based on deprivation.
  • It is that state of deprivation that causes our cravings and brings on the binge: we rebel against the strict rules that were imposed on us. Once we fall off the “diet wagon” and say to ourselves “I blew it again! I’m such a loser!,” we feel that we now have license to eat whatever we want… as if there was someone not allowing us to do that in the first place! Our bodies physiologically say, “I’d better stock up before she starves me again,” which empowers the binge to continue. Our bodies then tend to hold onto some extra weight to prepare for the next famine. This phenomenon is known as “yo-yo- dieting,” which describes how when we go on a diet, we lose weight and once we are no longer dieting, we gain back the same amount of weight and then some!
  • The binge causes us to feel totally out of control and to emotionally berate ourselves for being failures, losers, or whatever self-contemptuous things we say to ourselves. (Most of us say things to ourselves that we would never dare say to anyone else!) We feel even worse about ourselves than we did before. So what do we do? We go back on a diet in an attempt to feel better about ourselves… and so the cycle continues.

Diets have deluded us into believing that food is the problem, when in fact, it is the solution:  the best solution we have found, thus far, to manage our feelings. Using food to manage feelings, however, is about as effective as putting an ice cream cone on a skinned knee.

Diets erroneously teach us that we cannot trust our bodies to tell us when we are hungry and when we are full. The binge that follows the diet confirms to us that this is true. Because diets convince us of this, we never have the courage to give our bodies a chance to prove to us that we are not nearly as out of control as we think we are.

The diet industry wants us believe that there is a magic bullet to weight loss, that it is possible to “Eat all you want and still lose weight” or “Melt away fat while you sleep.” Given the age of scientific breakthroughs and medical miracles in which we live, we want to believe that an effortless weight-loss method exists. But it doesn’t.

Weight gain is not an issue of lack of self-discipline: if compulsive eaters and chronic dieters could “just eat less,” don’t you think they would? If that was the case, chronic dieting and obesity would not be the epidemic that they are in our culture today.

Weight loss is definitely an obtainable goal but not without significant effort. It requires lifestyle changes that can only be established over time, changes that are built on not only successes, but also on the failures that provide us with the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and inform us how we might do things differently the next time.

Mastering weight loss over time is like learning to play a musical instrument — it takes a lot of practice! Losing weight is even more challenging because it requires development of new coping skills to replace the function that eating has had in our lives, as well as changing many long-standing habits. It also demands that we develop a new mental paradigm of how we think and feel about ourselves.

There are ways to master this seemingly never-ending dilemma that may at first seem counter-intuitive  but are ultimately much more successful than trying to do the same thing over and over again proving once again, that we are total failures. People who struggle with compulsive eating and chronic dieting issues have been convinced that self-contempt will produce change when, in fact, it does the opposite. We can only change if we start from a place of self-acceptance and compassion.

Once you can do that, you will be able to do anything you want!

Peggy Nast Hayes, a long-time member of the service, died in 2015. She is much missed by her WTRS colleagues.

The above article expresses the opinions of the author and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Women’s Therapy Referral Service.