Diets don't work - now what? Here's some food for thought
Following on from my introduction to Intuitive Eating post, I wanted to delve a bit deeper into why diets don't work. Not sure about this one? Read on.
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Why Diets Don’t Work

Diet Culture anti-diet dietitian

Why Diets Don’t Work

Following on from my introduction to Intuitive Eating post, I wanted to delve a bit deeper into why exactly diets don’t work.

Let’s start at the beginning, what exactly do I mean when I say diet?

Diet: any method of restricting food intake (kcals, carbs, fat - any of it) and physical activity with the express aim of promoting weight loss. Yes that includes diets that are now selling themselves as 'lifestyles'.


So yeah, those – they don’t work for most people.

A bit of a headspinner? Or maybe not – maybe you’ve tried every diet out there only to move on to the next one when the weight comes back on. Or maybe you keep going back to the same one every time because it works for you for a bit.

Diets – with the express aim of weight loss do not work in the long term. Most people regain the weight within 2-5 years. That’s Grade A evidence; the highest you can get.

I just want to say that it’s not your fault – it’s really not. Diets are the only product in the world that have such a ridiculously high failure rate (85%+ in the long term) that people still keep buying. They’re cleverly designed so that we blame ourselves, and not the diet when we fail.

Diet companies know that we’re getting a bit uncomfortable with this and so they’re now re-branding as ‘lifestyles’. Look, if their diets and ‘lifestyles’ worked then they would have a shitty business model – the diets fail, we go back to them. Kerching.

Diets have just a ~10% success rate, so that's a ~90% failure rate. No other field of medicine has such a high failure rate bar oncology; where last-ditch efforts to preserve life are acceptable.

Adapted from Fiona Willer – Health, Not Diets

So, why don’t they work?

What happens when you go on a diet?

Weight loss is primarily promoted by decreased kilocalorie consumption – be that from reducing carbs and increasing fat, reducing fat and increasing carbohydrates, fruit and veg swaps …whatever. You’ll be cutting kcals.

When you cut kcals a number of things happen:

  • hormones that regulate your appetite fight to make you eat more; ghrelin increases – making you hungrier, leptin production decreases – this is the one that suppresses your appetite and regulates your metabolism.
  • as such your metabolism slows down (as your body tries to hold on to what it’s got)
  • you become preoccupied, even obsessed with food
  • you can become socially isolated; refusing meals out or parties because you’ll feel out of control around all of the food and drink on offer


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These physiological changes have been shown to continue even after people stopped dieting and began eating a regular diet, their bodies still wanted to replace the weight lost.

Think about it, when you experience rapid weight loss in a typical situation you’re a) pretty ill or b) unable to access food. Both of which your body reacts to quick-sharpish in order to maintain homeostasis (your body’s status quo). In the history of mankind it’s never been a good thing to be deprived of food and so our bodies have developed some pretty nifty methods of making sure we’re okay. 

It’s also so easy to slip into the binge-restrict cycle, restricting ‘forbidden’ foods that you don’t feel in control around. Then you can feel deprived – leading to a binge *fuck it, I’ll eat the whole pack and start again tomorrow* and then feeling a bit ashamed and out of control around those foods again …rinse and repeat.  Sound familiar? You’re not alone.

So, the diets do work for a short period of time; we lose the weight, fight to keep it off and then it creeps back on. It’s called weight-cycling and it its not very good for us.

Should I just give up then? 

The evidence shows us that weight itself is not an indicator of health; what you weigh does not represent how healthy you are.

That’s not to say just throw the towel in and sack off your health. Small, simple, sustainable health behaviour changes which are tailored to you will have positive effects. These could be things like finding ways to eat fruit and veg that you like, finding activities that you enjoy doing, getting more sleep – whatever works for you.

This isn’t about needlessly demonizing food groups or making sure you ‘burn-off’ that lunch, it’s about paying attention to your physical and mental wellbeing and learning to feel okay around food.

Ditching diet culture and learning to eat intuitively is not a quick fix, if it was there would be no other diet books out there. It takes time and commitment and it’s an ongoing journey – but totally worth it.


Why do we diet so much? 

Only last century in the UK, bigger bodies were all the rage – it meant that you were able to access food freely, winning! Then, our working lives and food environments changed – and so did our body shapes. Diet pills, tape worms (!!) and quick-fixes became all the rage.  

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We always want what we haven’t got and diet culture cashes in on this big time. It was hard then to obtain that body shape, then it became hard to attain the crazy-thin corseted waists, then flappers. THEN it became hard to attain the waif-like Kate Moss look.

Now? Well, now strong and ‘healthy’ is the new skinny. I won’t lie, I was easily taken in by this one, my natural body shape means it’s easier for me to bulk up, I was overjoyed at the time.

It’s all bullshit though, it’ll be different again in another 5 years. Have a think about how it makes you feel too; drinking green smoothies, squatting and eating bloody ‘proats’ is no indicator of your worth as a person. It means absolutely nothing.  

Maintaining that insta-body shape for anyone though, takes a lot of work and sacrifice as well. Which Insta-stars aren’t afraid to show you – think 6am gym shots, missing out on xmas drinks shots to snap some squat shots, you get the picture. Do you think they’ll be glad to have missed those nights out when they’re 90-odd – glad they just couldn’t miss that one workout?

Long story short: diet culture will always have us chasing our tails trying to look like the next (not so big) thing. It’s pants.  


How do you let go of it – it’s bloody everywhere?!

For all of the reasons listed above, ditching diet culture is first on the list of the principles of Intuitive Eating.

Top tips to start off with:

Bin off your health and fitness mags

Stop following social media etc who make you feel bad about how you look or what you eat

Try these top tips for what to say when people are talking about their diets:

Try following people who specifically DON’T make you feel bad about how you look or what you’re eating

Step off the scales – your weight is not an indicator of your health.

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Long story short

There’s no need to go into a diet looking at how much weight you’ll lose – try to focus on feeling good in your body, looking after yourself with gentle nutrition and movement and enjoying foods that you like.

There’s no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods – nothing needs to be unecessarily excluded from a diet in order for it to work for you (except maybe arsenic or something, that shit’s not great).

Overall, there’s no one right way for everyone to eat – only you will know what’s right for you. If you want to try that diet, I’m not here to tell you what to do. I just wanted to share the evidence against dieting purely for weight loss. This includes all of the current evidence for high fat / low carb, low fat / high carb – whatever. There is still that 10% for whom it may work and they can stick at it without any undesirable consequences. But even that 10% are likely to have to restrict their diet for the rest of their lives.

Like the idea of this Intuitive Eating stuff but not sure where to start? I’d recommend getting your hands on a copy of the Intuitive Eating book by Tribole and Resch (affiliate link)  

Next week I’ll be looking at some more of the principles of Intuitive Eating – honouring your hunger and making peace with food. Subscribe to the blog to find out more. 

Get in touch

Want to feel more in control around food? to know a bit more about Intuitive Eating and how it can work for you? I’m opening up more clinic appointments for 2018. Book in a free 20 minute mini-consultation here.

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