Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Diet

  Feb 19, 2018  |  #Intuitive Eating

How was your weekend? I hope it was good. I wasn’t ready for this weekend to end. It was a good one, and a productive one at that! We did our birthing class, did more work on the nursery, went to a local alumni event, and got maternity photos done! I think I still need a few days to recover.

Today’s post is one I’ve had idea saved in my drafts for a long time. I don’t know why I haven’t published it. Yet, this whole recent Weight Watchers debacle recently gave me the final push of inspiration to finish it and and press post.

Wake Up Weight Watchers, non diet, intuitive eating

Wake Up Weight Watchers

Have you heard that Weight Watchers will be offering teens (ages 13-17) free memberships starting this summer? It’s been big news in the nutrition world, so I wanted to share some of my thoughts on it.

While this may sound very noble of them, if you dig deeper, it’s actually very problematic. Firstly, clearly Weight Watchers is a business, and they know that starting children young will equate to more paying customers for them down the road. Secondly, and more importantly, subjecting kids to dieting at such a young age is setting them up for a possible future of weight cycling, body discontentment and shame, and eating disorders.

I know Weight Watchers brands themselves as not a diet, but they are. You count points (rather than calories). If you go over your points, you are subject to feeling guilty and shamed. If you go under your points, you may be tempted to eat more to “reach your points,” despite feeling hungry or not. Regardless, living your life by points is not teaching you to eat by hunger and fullness, nor is it teaching you how to form a trusting, intuitive relationship with food. Or, how to enjoy food outside of rigidity. These are some of the many problems I have.

Weight Watchers wants life members, because they know you’ll go through cycles of yo-yo’ing or weight cycling, which is very harmful for health. Weight loss doesn’t make someone healthier. It doesn’t necessarily correlate with chronic disease. In fact, an intense focus on weight can be more problematic.

It also hits home because I see many of these teenagers as part of my job. Some of who may feel they should be put on a diet and subject to these dietary restrictions. This post goes out to them.

How This Affects Teens

I see many teen athletes, and to think about them being put on a diet is astounding. The teen years are a time for growth and puberty, and many kids put on normal weight as part of the process. They are still figuring out their bodies and growing into them. Girls often start gaining weight and going through puberty earlier, which may seem like a cause for concern, but it’s not. Teens are going to be hungrier and gain weight. Manipulating this stage could have devastating consequences for the future.

Having teens engage in diet behaviors would only put more emphasis on weight and physical appearance. It could ruin any sense of intuitive eating they have currently, and teach them not to trust their instincts or hunger/fullness. Consequences could affect performance, self esteem and disordered eating behaviors. Even for the adolescents who aren’t athletes, they still have to grow and hit puberty too. And this is telling them it’s not normal or it’s “bad” to gain weight during this time.

Believe me, there are plenty of other healthy behaviors I can convey to teens through sessions than how to restrict their food. We can talk about how macronutrients fuel our bodies, how to eat for performance, how to eat for recovery, how to understand hunger and fullness, what cravings mean, how to know what a balanced meal looks like, how to grocery shop and put together an easy, healthy meal, what foods have fiber/nutrients in them, etc. None of these things directly revolves around weight.

Why Dieting is Harmful

And this extends beyond just teens. I have a little girl coming into this world in just a few short weeks. And the last thing I want to think about is her growing up in a world that tells her she’s not good enough. That her body shape or size is wrong, and that she should feel bad about it. That she has to count every morsel of food that goes into her mouth. Just no.

Why Dieting is Harmful

So, then why is dieting so bad anyway? Heck, its what we’ve been told to do for as long as we can remember, right? The news is always cuing in on the hottest diets. Celebrities are touting them like there’s no tomorrow. Doctor Oz will fill you in on the latest “fad” thing (funny thing is…he’s a doctor, not an educated dietitian). At the click of a mouse, you can order a complete juicing detox or buy a non-personalized diet meal plan that a million other people have bought in hopes of losing weight…only to find that it doesn’t work.

Here’s some of many reasons why dieting is harmful.

Why Dieting is Harmful

Dieting goes against our internal cues

Well, the act of dieting itself, goes against our internal cues. It relies on following external cues and standards – eating a certain amount of calories, or grams of fat/carbohydrate, or avoiding certain foods. Dieting is actually the biggest predictor of eating disorders – I know that’s not what you would think, right? Dieting is supposed to “work.” But, study after study shows that it doesn’t. In fact, nearly 2/3 of people regain the weight they’ve lost (and more) after the conclusion of a diet, and 95% of diets fail. By fail, I mean dieters are unable to keep the weight off long term. Why? They’re not learning the lifestyle behaviors, or learning to follow their internal cues.

Dieting is restricting nutrients

Whatever way you look at it, you’re taking something out. Low carb? You’re missing out on fiber, B-Vitamins, potassium, magnesium and other micronutrients. Low fat? You may have trouble absorbing Vitamins A, D, E and K. Paleo/Whole 30/No dairy? You’ll have a harder time meeting your calcium, Vitamin D needs. Keeping calories under 1,200? You certainly won’t be able to get all the necessary nutrients in that amount of food.

Wake Up Weight Watchers

Dieting is Futile

Not only does dieting set unrealistic expectations for the finish line, it also causes harm to the individual, distorts body image and self esteem, and is a major contributor to eating disorders. Furthermore, nearly 95% of diets fail. Would you engage in anything else that has that high of a failure rate? Note: By fail, I mean are not able to keep the weight off long term. In fact, most people (nearly two thirds) gain more back. There’s a reason why it’s so hard to get back to a certain weight you still dream of – it may be working against your body’s set weight.

And, more seriously considering, there’s the risk of developing a disordered relationship with food. Of viewing certain foods as bad, and others as good. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Life is Not Meant to Be Lived by Numbers

When you’re dieting, you often have to be aware of every morsel of food that goes into your mouth. I’m not saying awareness is not important – I encourage all of my clients to be aware of food choices. But, scrutinizing every single ingredient, or every number of every calorie that goes into your mouth is exhausting. And what about the thought of enjoying a meal out for a birthday, or with family, or for a celebration? It’s nearly impossible. You can’t chill out when you’re on a diet – you are constantly on high alert.

Dieting is Stressful to the body

Speaking of being on high alert, dieting (and restriction) increases our stress hormone, cortisol. When cortisol is high, we’re not doing our body any favors – digestion, sleep, and everything else is thrown off. Increased cortisol can actually lead to weight gain, among other things.

Know what else dieting causes? Intense fixations on food. Feeling out of control around said food. Binging on said food.

Dieting also causes our bodies to slow down our metabolisms, meaning we burn less calories. Isn’t that the opposite of what we’re trying to do on a diet? Well, pat on the back for our bodies because they are actually saving us. We can’t continue burning through the same amount of energy when there is less coming in. Our bodies are really smart and will do the best they can to compensate.

Why Dieting is Harmful

Instead of Dieting…

Seeing as how this post is getting extremely long, I’ll cut it off here. But there’s a lot more we could discuss on the topic if you guys are interested.

In conclusion, my whole philosophy on food is that it should be enjoyable – not stressful, not restrictive, and definitely not governed by external cues. I wholeheartedly believe in intuitive eating, and having our internal cues guide us. Dieting takes those cues away from us. It destroys them, lessens them and teaches us not to listen to them.

Wake Up Weight Watchers

So, if you start seeing the #WakeUpWeightWatchers on social media, this is what we’re referring to. We want families to be supporting their children, not calling them out. There are other (more helpful) ways to help teens.

If you yourself are struggling, I encourage you to see someone and get help. You don’t need a diet – you may need behavior changes, and education and support. But, not a diet.

28 responses to “Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Diet

  1. I heard about Weight Watchers and think that is horrible! When I was in high school my eight fluctuated (and so did a ton of people I knew) solely because you’re still growing, puberty may not have fully taken place, and most high school students are active in some way so they are exercising at sports and what not.

    You mentioned how if you don’t eat dairy then you have trouble meeting calcium and Vitamin D needs. I’m curious your thoughts on the new “trend” of being a vegan, gluten free, dairy free, etc. as a registered dietitian. Obviously some people have to be GF or DF due to Celiac or being lactose intolerant but in terms of people who just chose to do that.

    1. It can really lead to scary results, I hope they realize that! I urge my clients to stay away from restrictive eating habits, unless medically necessary. With trying to figure out digestive issues, I always recommend people to read “The Gluten Lie” by Alan Levinovitz – he talks about all the myths surrounding gluten (with research) and how much our thoughts can play into it.

  2. Oh my goodness yes. People need to learn how to EAT not diet. Yes, that means balance and learning when your body is hungry and full, what foods make you feel good and which ones don’t. I know how bad diet culture is already for teens (recently finished up that stage, whew) but somehow it’s only seeming to get worse.

    And I wish more people realized that weight gain and fluctuation during puberty is NORMAL. I remember gaining a bunch of weight and being “chubby,” and then growing a few inches and being “skinny” and then gaining as I developed more of a woman’s body rather than a little girl’s. I wish I had realized that this was so beyond normal instead of spending so much time worrying. Sometimes a changing body is an amazing beautiful thing!

    1. It’s totally normal. Love your point about changing bodies being beautiful – I wish society could recognize and empower that!

  3. Weight Watchers has oddly never been on my radar, but I definitely felt pressure as a teen athlete to be skinnier. Because skinnier people are better athletes right? No.
    I think the conversation about weight should change. Instead of dieting, talk about it. Maybe people should be bigger? Maybe that’s ok. Fat isn’t a bad word. It just is.

    1. There’s a big illusion that skinny = healthy or a better athlete. We know that is not the case. There are some great health at every size advocates out there, hopefully our voices will be heard!

  4. I heard about that weight watchers thing and it made me very uncomfortable. I feel like it invites so much discomfort and self crisitism during a time in life that is already so difficult. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I think dieting also covers up functional and hormonal imbalances which may have contributed to the weight gain in the first place. I don’t know, weight watchers try to teach good “skills” by offering produce as “free or zero points” but they miss the mark somewhere because I’ve never met anyone that it actually worked for. I’ve seen people it worked for a while but eventually, they can’t deal with the restrictions.

    1. I think it’s a slippery slope when they use points for food because it is ultimately showing that foods are good vs bad. I would also agree about covering up functional and hormonal imbalances, 100%!

  6. I appreciate the thought that went into this post. I hadn’t heard of the #wakeupweightwatchers movement but from a Health Psychology and eating disorder perspective I completely agree with your thoughts. It’s such a shame that more young people (most likely girls) are only going to be more at risk for disordered eating behaviors and all the psychological and psychological risks that go along with that.

    1. It is really sad to think about the societal pressure that more teens and girls will be exposed to. By the time I see them, they’ve already tried xyz diets and bought in to the belief that they aren’t good enough the way they are. I love helping to reframe that and help them, but it’s a shame people have to experience that in the first place, plus all the psychological risks that you mentioned.

  7. I couldn’t be more proud of you, inspired, and motivated by this post Sarah. It needs to be shared and read by all.

    I’m sure the world/weight watchers is going to have a trillion reasons to argue why this new “program” is needed….. to alleviate the “obesity” epidemic, especially in American youth. And because there is some fact behind that statistic, it is going to be hard for us to fight against. But everything you are saying here is so guttural and true. I have flashbacks to all the hidden messages I received in high school and growing up in my pubescent years that lead me to believe any sort of weight gain or “pudge” was a negative thing. I wasn’t taught that health is intuitive eating and giving our body nutrients. And so now if this is going to be added to all of that which already exists for children everywhere… I’m just so sad and scared. They are going to grow up seeing food as numbers (or, sorry weight watchers…”points”) and like you said, never learn to trust their body or know what it means to listen to hunger and fullness. Ughhhhh 🙁

    1. They will fight back and they have a lot of supporters in their camp, too. I’m sorry you had to deal with demons like that in High School, Cora, through hidden messages and all. I’m just so glad that people can learn and change, and come to find intuitive eating, or a non diet message.

  8. Thank you for writing this. I felt the same way when I heard about the new Weight Watchers campaign. The sad thing is, before I learned about intuitive eating and read books by Ellyn Satter, I may have considered that this was a good idea! So scary. This is going to be a tough battle because a lot of people are going to see this as beneficial, when really its just going to continue our unhealthy obsession with diet culture and disordered eating. Hopefully as a community of informed dietitians we can really try and bring this down.

    1. We can’t blame people for wanting to lose weight, as that’s what much of the media tells us. But I think knowledge is power and information is key – we have so much research about this now that shows weight is not the end all, be all for health.

  9. I think the biggest problem is that dieting is always restrictive and only focuses on weight loss, not healthy nutrition. Nobody goes on a diet for life, but that is what is actually needed (a change in how you eat) to make it sustainable long term.

  10. This post makes my heart smile soo much because I LOVE that you are talking about this; I can definitely personally testify to it being sooo harmful to my hunger cues to be doing dieting/counting calories as a teenager. Having someone like you to educate on things that don’t directly revolve around weight is incredibly helpful, and I’m so thankful that you and many other non diet dietitians like Megan from Run Whole Nutrition and Robyn from the Real Life RD are talking about these things and encouraging intuitive living, not counting numbers.

  11. Hi, I’m a new reader… I’m also an anesthesiologist who sees children coming in regularly and obviously carefully read through their medical records. We have a terrible epidemic of obesity among the kids I’m seeing coming in for any variety of surgeries. They are developing hypertension, diabetes, sleep apnea, high cholesterol at incredibly young ages (even before puberty), that will go on to harm them in adulthood and shorten their lifespan. Several months ago, I had a 3 yr old girl who weighed 70 kg (about 150 lbs)… at age THREE.

    I think its reasonable for a teen with an actual obesity problem to attend weight watchers and try to lose some weight. Weight watchers actually does try to teach lifelong eating habits, not quicky diet tricks. I have no relation to weight watchers, so I’m not here to defend them (I personally like a lower carb eating strategy). No matter what diet plan is used, unfortunately a huge percentage of people will fall into a lose-gain cycle.

    I would doubt that adult leaders of a weight watchers group would accept young teen girls of normal weight who want to diet and encourage improper dieting behaviors.

    Extra weight IS in fact bad… not because of how it looks or because it means you are a bad person or “lazy” or a “glutton.” But because of the associated medical problems that come with it. We have become so worried about not promoting anorexia and making sure no ones feelings are hurt that we are afraid to point out a very real medical issue with lifelong consequences if its not fixed early.

    I also see patients coming in at age 40 or 50 or even 60 for gastric bypass surgeries. And by that time, there’s already years and years of damage of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, strain on joints, damage to the heart, damage to nerves and vision and kidneys from diabetes… I could go on. I feel its better to address it early.

    1. Hi Anne,
      Thank you for your comment. There is no research that shows that weight watchers helps people maintain the weight loss beyond a year or 2, so that is the real problem. It may promote weight loss short term, but the long standing fact is that it promotes weight cycling (ups and downs), which is more damaging in the long run to health and to self esteem. What I’m saying is that these kids would get much more benefit from seeing a dietitian, understanding high blood pressure and cholesterol, and behavior changes for addressing them. Weight watchers doesn’t focus on behavior changes, but more on counting points and calories.

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