Why Diets Don’t Work

Piece of bread with peanut butterWhat happens if I tell you to stop thinking about pink elephants?

Let’s try it: Whatever you do, don’t think about pink elephants!

Well, did you think about at least one pink elephant?

This is one reason why diets don’t work. Dieting doesn’t keep you from not thinking about your favorite foods—you think about them more.

A diet tells us to eat this, don’t eat that, this is good for us, that is bad. Have you noticed that the “bad” food is usually always your favorite foods? Even if we love the “good” food, if we eat it long enough, love goes from like, to boredom, to “I never want to eat this again.”

When we diet, we stop listening to our bodies and we start listening to what others say we “should” or “shouldn’t” eat. We may become overwhelmed because there are so many others telling us what to eat (doctors, diet creators, mothers, fathers, friends, grandparents, siblings, nutritionists, magazines, TV, radio, the internet, personal trainers, even therapists). As children, we know exactly what our bodies want and need. We eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full. As we grow up, we begin to trust others more than ourselves and our body image can take a serious hit. We start to diet because we think that is how we become a good, successful, attractive person.

Entering the Binge Cycle

When we stop eating the food we love because the “diet” tells us to, we may lose some pounds and end the diet. Then what do we do? We eat our favorite food again. However, we will rarely eat just a little of it. Your body and mind think you’re starved of it, and now you can’t get enough of it. If we plan on going back on the diet, we know we won’t be able to eat it again, thus we binge on it in the moment. We all know this—the “my diet starts tomorrow” philosophy. This can certainly leave you feeling more out of control with food.

In addition, when we do “lose it” and start binging on the “bad” foods (even just thinking about the food can trigger this for some), we think we are bad, weak, or undisciplined for eating it. Of course, that bad feeling can frequently lead to more binging. And, there we are, right in the middle of the binge/purge cycle. Even if you don’t use vomiting to purge, you purge emotionally just by beating yourself up for eating. “Bad food” becomes “bad me.” Bad me leads to binging.

Finding Balance

Diets don’t work. In fact, diets can cause weight gain. Researchers are finally looking into the diet phenomenon and discovering this. I have recently noticed diet ads have started to include the disclaimer, “results not typical.” Studies show that people who diet gain more weight over time, potentially leading to more health problems as yo-yo weight gain and loss is hard on the body.

Lastly, not dieting is way more fun! Imagine eating what you want and having your favorite foods in the house for weeks, without fearing you will eat it all in one sitting! This balance is absolutely possible and a great way to live your life. This balance can be found through the help of a therapist who focuses on food and eating issues.

My journey toward balance can be seen in my relationship with peanut butter. I love peanut butter. As a kid, I used to eat it out of the jar, spoon in hand. Although I grew out of the spoon phase, I still love it with bread and honey, with chocolate, and in nearly any candy bar. What I never knew about peanut butter is that it made me sick. I was so out of touch with my body and its relationship to food that I never realized that the sick feeling in my stomach was the result of what I just ate. It took time of working on my food and body issues to make this connection, and even longer to realize that my tummy rejects peanut butter only when I have eaten more than my body can handle. Now, when I get that sick feeling, I just stop eating peanut butter for a while and then I can eat it again. Of course, I always have the choice to eat it, and sometimes I do choose to, even when I know I may not like how I feel later. However, I have a choice and the choice is mine.

© Copyright 2008 by Anne Cuthbert. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ronald

    Ronald

    January 6th, 2008 at 10:30 PM

    Diet plan definitely help in reducing over weight. If you eat too many “wrong” calories then you’ll get fat. This is why many obese people remain overweight.

  • Mary

    Mary

    January 7th, 2008 at 6:58 AM

    I totally agree with everything in this blog entry. But, my large and looming question is this: how do you get from the binge/purge cycle to being able to have your favorite food in the house for weeks without touching it? I have always been amazed by people who have that sort of will power.I’m one of the ones who eats it as soon as it crosses the threshold!

  • Niels

    Niels

    January 7th, 2008 at 7:00 AM

    I also wonder the same thing as well as something else: what about people who are severely overweight? Don’t they need to take some steps to get themselves healthy? What about people who are diagnosed with something like diabetes. They really have to watch what they eat-a sugar addict with diabetes can’t continue to eat sugar the way they have. Otherwise, they’ll end up in a diabetic coma. What is that sort of person to do?

  • Jessie

    Jessie

    January 7th, 2008 at 7:11 AM

    I enjoy watching Dr. Oz on Oprah. I thought he had a good suggestion. Rather than focusing on what food you are eating, try reading the ingredient label as a prescription. I thought that was an interesting concept. But, it may very well feed right into that diet mentality. Being overweight certainly is an odd phenomenon in the history of the world. In some times in history and in some cultures, it’s prized as being a sign of wealth. Unfortunately, we happen to live in a time and place where those who are overweight are ostracized and criticized.

  • Jason

    Jason

    January 7th, 2008 at 7:24 AM

    I think the best way to get from a diet mentality to a sane relationship with food is to rework your thinking and the way you respond to food. If you work on your thinking before making any sort of action plan, I think you stand a better chance of success. I do think that obese people need to lose weight-but only for health reasons. I think that all people are beautiful, no matter their shape or size. But, I also think that many people who are obese are very sad and use food to self-medicate. It’s such a complex issue with no easy answer. Our society has certainly made a mess of it all!

  • Candida

    Candida

    January 10th, 2008 at 4:39 PM

    Diets are only half of what weight looses need–they need exercise too! Additionally, if you don’t have muscle, you can’t burn fat! And when you diet, you don’t gain muscle.

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