Hitting Diet Bottom
“I just can’t go on another diet, you’re my last resort.” Sandra had been dieting all her life and knew she could no longer endure a single diet. She’d been on them all, Atkins, Dukan, The Zone, South Beach, grapefruit diet … diets too numerous to itemize. Sandra was a dieting pro. At first dieting was fun, even exhilarating. “I always thought, this diet would be different, this time.” And so the cycle would recharge with each new diet, each and every summer. But the weight lost would eventually rebound like an unwanted tax bill.
Sandra had hit diet bottom. By now, however, she was more obsessed about food and her body than ever. She felt silly. “I should have had this dealt with and controlled long ago.” What she didn’t realize was that it was the process of dieting that had done this to her. Dieting had made her more preoccupied with food. Dieting had made food the enemy. Dieting had made her feel guilty when she wasn’t eating diet-types of foods (even when she wasn’t officially dieting). Dieting had slowed her metabolism.
It took years for Sandra to truly know dieting doesn’t work (yes, she was familiar with the emerging concept that dieting doesn’t work, but she always thought she would be different). While most experts and consumers accept the premise that fad diets don’t work—it’s tough for a nation of people obsessed with their bodies to believe that even “sensible dieting” is futile. Sandra had been hooked into modern-age social mythology, the “big diet hope,” for most of her life since her first diet at the age of fourteen.
By the age of thirty, Sandra felt stuck—she still wanted to lose weight and was uncomfortable in her body. While Sandra couldn’t bear the thought of another diet, she didn’t realize that most of her food issues were actually caused by her dieting. Sandra was also frustrated and angry—“I know everything about diets.” Indeed, she could recite calories and fat grams like a walking nutritional database. That’s the big caveat—losing weight and keeping it off is not usually a knowledge issue. If all we needed to be normal weight was knowledge about food and nutrition, most Americans wouldn’t have weight problems. The information is readily available. (Pick up any women’s magazine, and you’ll find diets and food comparisons galore.)
Also, the harder you try to diet, the harder you fall (it really hurts not to succeed if you did everything right). The best description for this effect is given by John Foreyt, Ph.D., a noted expert in dieting psychology. He likened it to a Chinese finger puzzle (the hollow cylindrical straw puzzle, into which you insert an index finger on each end). The harder you try to get out, the more pressure you exert, the more difficult it is to get out of the puzzle. Instead you find yourself locked in tighter … trapped … frustrated.
SYMPTOMS OF DIET BACKLASH
Diet backlash is the cumulative side effect of dieting—it can be short term or chronic, depending how long a person has been dieting. It may be just one side effect or several.
By the time Sandra came to the office, she had the classic symptoms of diet backlash. Not only diet weary, she was eating less food, yet had trouble losing weight during her more recent diet attempts. Other symptoms included:
• The mere contemplation of going on a diet brings on urges and cravings for “sinful” foods and “fatty favorites,” such as ice cream, chocolate, cookies, and so forth.
• Upon ending a diet, going on a food binge and feeling guilty. One study indicated that post-dieting binges occur in 49 percent of all people who end a diet.
• Having little trust in self with food. Understandably, every diet has taught you not to trust your body or the food you put in it. Even though it is the process of dieting that fails you, the failure continues to undermine your relationship with food.
• Feeling that you don’t deserve to eat, because you’re overweight.
• Shortened dieting duration. The life span of a diet gets shorter and shorter. (Is it no wonder that Ultra Slim-Fast’s sales pitch is, “Give us a week … and we’ll…”
• The Last Supper. Every diet is preceded by consuming foods you presume you won’t eat again. Food consumption often goes up during this time. It may occur over one meal or over a couple of days. The Last Supper seems to be the final step before “dietary cleansing”—almost a farewell-to-food party. For one client, Marilyn, every meal felt as if it were her last. She would eat each meal until she was uncomfortably stuffed, as she was terrified she would never eat again. For good reason! She had been dieting since the sixth grade—over two-thirds of her life! She had attempted periods of fasting and a series of low calorie diets. As far as her body was concerned, a diet was only around the corner—so better eat while you can. Each meal for Marilyn was famine relief.
• Social withdrawal. Since it’s hard to stay on a diet and go to a party or out to dinner, it just becomes easier to turn down social invitations. At first, social food avoidance may seem like the wise thing to do for the good of the diet, but it escalates into a bigger problem. There’s often a fear of being able to stay in control. It’s not uncommon for this experience to be reinforced by “saving up the calories or fat grams for the party,” which usually means eating very little. But by the time the dieter arrives at the party, ravenous hunger dominates and eating feels very out of control.
• Sluggish metabolism. Each diet teaches the body to adapt better for the next self-imposed famine (another diet). Metabolism slows as the body efficiently utilizes each calorie, as if it’s the last. The more drastic the diet, the more it pushes the body into the calorie-pinching survival mode. Fueling metabolism is like stoking a fire. Remove the wood, and the fire diminishes. Similarly, to fuel metabolism, we must eat a sufficient amount of calories, or our bodies will compensate and slow down.
• Using caffeine to survive the day. Coffee and diet drinks are often abused as management tools to feel energetic, while being underfed.
• Eating disorders. Finally, for some, repeated dieting is often the stepping-stone to an eating disorder (ranging from anorexia nervosa or bulimia, to compulsive overeating).
Although Sandra felt she could never diet again, she still engaged in the Last Supper phenomenon. (We regularly encounter this when we see someone for the first time.) She literally ate higher quantities of food than usual, and ate plenty of her favorite foods (she thought she would never see these foods again). It’s as if she were getting ready for a long trip and was packing extra clothes. Just the thought of working on her food issues put her into the pre-diet mentality, a common occurrence.
While Sandra was just beginning to understand the futility of dieting, her desire to be thin had not changed—clearly a dilemma. She held on to the allure of the noble American dream.
THE DIETING PARADOX
In our society, the pursuit of thinness (whether for health or physique)—has become the battle cry of seemingly every American. Eating a single morsel of any high fat or non-nutritionally redeeming food is punishable by a life sentence of “guilt” by association. You may be paroled, however, for “good behavior.” Good behavior, in our society, means starting a new diet, or having good intentions to diet. And so begins the deprivation cycle of dieting—the battle of the bulge and the indulge. Rice cakes one week, Häagen-Dazs the next.
“I feel guilty just letting the grocery clerk see what I buy,” lamented another client, who happened to have her cart stocked with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pasta, and a small pint of real ice cream. It’s as if we live in a Food Police state run by the food mafia. And there always seems to be a dieting offer you can’t refuse. Exaggeration? No. There’s a good reason for this perception. A study published in 1993 in Eating Disorders—The Journal of Treatment and Prevention found that between 1973 and 1991, commercials for dieting aids (diet food, reducing aids, and diet program foods) increased nearly linearly.
The researchers also noted that there is a parallel trend in the occurrence of eating disorders. They speculate that the media pressure to diet (via commercials) is a major influence in the eating disorder trend.
The pressure to diet is fueled beyond television commercials. Magazine articles and movies contribute to the pressure to be slim. Even subtle cigarette billboards aim for the female Achilles’ heel—weight—with names such as Ultra Slim 100, Virginia Slims, and so on. A Kent cigarette, “Slim Lights,” especially characterizes this tug on women’s body issues. Their ad reads more like a commercial for a weight loss center than for a cigarette, by highlighting slender descriptions: “long,” “lean,” “light.” Of course the models in cigarette ads are especially slender. It is no surprise that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) attributed an increase in smoking by women to their desire to be thinner. Sadly, we have heard women contemplate in our offices that they too have considered taking up smoking again as a weight loss aid.
But weight loss is not just a women’s issue (although clearly there’s added pressure on women). The proliferation of light-beer commercials has planted the seed of body consciousness in men’s minds, as well—a lean belly is better than a beer belly. It’s no coincidence we’ve seen the launch of magazines aimed at men, such as Men’s Fitness and Men’s Health.
While the pursuit of leanness has crossed over the gender barrier, sadly, we have given birth to the first generation of weight watchers. A disturbing new dieting trend is affecting the health of U.S. children. Shocking studies have demonstrated that school-age children are obsessing about their weight—a reflection of a nation obsessed with diet and weight. Around the country, children as young as six years old are shedding pounds, afraid of being fat, and are increasingly being treated for eating disorders that threaten their health and growth. Societal pressure to be thin has backfired on children.
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Dieting not only does not work, it is at the root of many problems. While many may diet as an attempt to lose weight or for health reasons, the paradox is that it may cause more harm. Here’s what our nation has to show for dieting:
• Obesity is higher than ever in adults and children.
• Eating disorders are on the rise.
• Childhood obesity has doubled over the last decade.
• Even though there are more fat-free and diet foods than ever before, nearly two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese.
• Over twelve hundred tons of fat have been liposuctioned from 1982 to 1992. (A recent study showed that only one year after having a liposuction procedure the fat returned, but to a different part of the body.)
• Dieting increases your chance of gaining even more weight than you lost! (See “Dieting Increases Your Risk for Gaining More Weight!”.)
DIETING CAN’T FIGHT BIOLOGY
Dieting is a form of short-term starvation. Consequently, when you are given the first opportunity to really eat, eating is often experienced at such intensity that it feels uncontrollable, a desperate act. In the moment of biological hunger, all intentions to diet and the desire to be thin are fleeting and paradoxically irrelevant. In those moments, we become like the insatiable man-eating plant in the movie Little Shop of Horrors, demanding to eat—“Feed me, feed me.”
While intense eating may feel out of control, and unnatural, it is a normal response to starving and dieting. Yet so often, post-diet eating is viewed as having “no willpower,” or a character defect. But when you interpret post-diet eating as such, it slowly erodes trust in yourself with food, diet after diet. Every diet violation, every eating situation that feels out of control lays the foundation for the “diet mentality,” brick by brick and diet by diet. The seemingly brave solution—try harder next time—becomes as bewildering as the Chinese finger puzzle. You can’t fight biology. When the body is starving, it needs to be nourished.
Yet so often a dieter laments, “If only I had the willpower.” Clearly, this is not an issue of willpower. (Although glowing testimonials from weight loss clinics foster this misplaced blame on willpower.) When underfed, you will obsess about food—whether from a self-imposed diet or starvation.
Maybe you don’t diet but eat vigilantly in the name of health and fitness. This seems to be the politically correct term for “dieting” in the nineties. But for many, it’s the same food issue—with the same symptoms. Avoiding fat or carbohydrates, at all costs, and subsisting virtually on fat-free or carbohydrate-free foods is essentially dieting, and often results in being underfed. There are many forms of dieting and many types of dieters. We will explore your dieting personality and meet the Intuitive Eater in the next chapter.
DIETING INCREASES YOUR RISK FOR GAINING MORE WEIGHT!
If dieting programs had to stand up to the same scrutiny as medications, they would never be allowed for public consumption. Imagine, for example, taking an asthma medication, which improves your breathing for a few weeks, but in the long run, causes your lungs and breathing to worsen. Would you really embark on a diet (even a so-called “sensible diet”), if you knew that it could cause you to gain more weight?
Here are some sobering studies indicating that dieting promotes weight gain:
• A team of UCLA researchers reviewed thirty-one long-term studies on dieting and concluded that dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain—up to two-thirds of the people regained more weight than they lost (Mann, et al, 2007).
• Research on nearly seventeen thousand kids ages nine to fourteen years old concluded, “… in the long term, dieting to control weight is not only ineffective, it may actually promote weight gain” (Field et al. 2003).
• Teenage dieters had twice the risk of becoming overweight, compared to non-dieting teens, according to a five-year study (Neumark-Sztainer et al. 2006). Notably, at baseline, the dieters did not weigh more than their non-dieting peers. This is an important detail, because if the dieters weighed more it would be a confounding factor (which would implicate other factors, rather than dieting, such as genetics).
A novel study on over 2,000 sets of twins from Finland, aged 16 to 25 years old showed that dieting itself, independent of genetics, is significantly associated with accelerated weight gain and increased risk of becoming overweight (Pietilaineet et al. 2011). Dieting twins, who embarked on just one intentional weight loss episode, were nearly two to three times more likely to become overweight, compared to their non-dieting twin counterpart. Furthermore, the risk of becoming overweight increased in a dose-dependent manner, with each dieting episode.
Studies aside—what have your own dieting experiences shown you? Many of our patients and workshop participants say their first diet was easy—the pounds just melted off. But that first dieting experience is the seduction trap, which launches the futile pursuit of weight loss via dieting. We say futile—because our bodies are very smart and wired for survival.
Biologically, your body experiences the dieting process as a form of starvation. Your cells don’t know you are voluntarily restricting your food intake. Your body shifts into primal survival mode—metabolism slows down and food cravings escalate. And with each diet, the body learns and adapts, resulting in rebound weight gain. Consequently, many of our patients feel like they are a failure—but it is dieting that has failed them.
Copyright © 1995, 2003, 2012 by Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D., and Elyse Resch, M.S., R.D., F.A.D.A., C.E.D.R.D.