It’s Monday morning. You've downloaded a calorie-counting app, thrown all the carbs in the bin and stocked up on expensive shakes and supplements. This time, you think, I’ll make it work. I will lose weight!
By the time Tuesday evening rolls around, you are tired, low in energy, irritable and so hungry you could devour a large meat lovers pizza. In fact, you think, that’s exactly what I’ll do! Pizza ordered, you eat it all in one sitting and then the waves of guilt and shame set in. You are determined that tomorrow you will start your diet again and make it work.
Your days rolls into a cycle of determination to make the latest diet work, followed by days of guilt after you failed to follow the strict diet rules. Your weight bounces up and down.
Sound familiar? Diets that promise quick weight loss in exchange for cutting out food groups, following strict rules, fasting or swapping shakes for food are part of diet culture.
Diet culture is a focus on weight loss through strict dietary rules and restrictions. In diet culture, food is often viewed as "good" or "bad," and you are encouraged to monitor and control your food intake in order to achieve a certain body size or shape.
Diet culture usually ignores other markers of health, such as blood pressure, sleep quality or even mental health and purely focuses on the number on the scale.
Diet culture is pervasive in our society. Weight loss and dieting often appears on social media, in advertising and popular culture. Larger bodies are stigmatised and individuals are encouraged to lose weight to meet society’s standard of the ideal body, regardless of a person’s overall health or well-being.
With such a focus on the external outcomes of diet (that is, weight loss), diet culture tends to ignore the factors that have led to a person carrying more weight than they would like. Carrying extra weight can be caused by a number of factors, including medication, health issues and even unresolved trauma.
Our eating patterns are also largely influenced by our emotional state too. How many times have you craved a chocolate when you are stressed or a big bowl of pasta when you are sad and lonely?
Diets ignore these underlying factors that affect not only what we eat, but how and why we eat. Instead, they provide a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that ignores an individual’s personal circumstances.
The dark side of diet culture
Strict diets found within diet culture simply do not work for the vast majority of people. In fact, they can be downright dangerous.
1. Unsustainable. Many diets are highly restrictive and difficult to maintain over time. When people go on diets, they often feel deprived and hungry, which can lead to binge eating and ultimately cause them to regain any weight lost during the diet.
2. Unsociable. Trying to meet friends for dinner, or celebrate a birthday with some cake poses difficulty when on a diet and you are ‘not allowed’ to eat certain foods.This can lead to anxiety around social events where food is served, or even declining social events leading to social isolation.
3. Unhealthy. Some diets require the elimination of entire food groups, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies and other health problems. Additionally, many fad diets are based on unsubstantiated claims and lack scientific evidence to support their effectiveness.
4. Diets don't address the root causes of weight gain. As mentioned earlier, while diets may help people lose weight in the short term, they often fail to address the underlying issues that led to weight gain in the first place. Without addressing these issues, people are likely to regain any weight lost once they stop dieting.
5. Diets can change how we see food. Often certain foods are viewed as ‘good’ and other foods are labelled ‘bad’. But food is inherently neutral. By believing some foods are ‘bad’ for us, it can trigger negative emotions like shame and guilt if they are eaten. Over time, this can lead to a poor relationship with food and affect mental health. 6. Expensive. Some diets require the purchase of expensive meal replacement shakes, supplements, juices or even cookbooks. The cost is often far more expensive than regular food. 7. Associated with eating disorders. It has been shown that exposure to some diets can lead to disordered eating, or eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Eating disorders are severe and life threatening mental illnesses.
But what if you want to lose weight? What can you do instead?
Lasting weight loss and better health
The key to lasting weight loss and better health is to make changes not only with what you eat but in all areas of your life.
Our weight is affected by our age, sleep, stress levels, medications, health issues, emotional state and exercise as well as the food we eat.
Simply focusing on one piece of the puzzle (our food intake) doesn’t address all the factors that contribute to weight changes.
1. One thing at a time. Start by making small changes that you can embed into your life that feel realistic and achievable. Maybe you want to start with increasing you water intake. Just focus on this. Don’t worry about anything else for now. Buy yourself a big water bottle, set a reminder on your phone and start to build a habit around increasing your water intake. Once you notice that this new habit fits easily into your life add a new habit. The idea here is that we want small changes that feel quite easy and don’t require too much effort or energy to sustain.
2. Sleep. How many times have you reached for a caffeine-laded drink or something sugar to give you an energy hit after a bad night’s sleep? Hit the snooze button and make sure you get at least 7-9 hours of sleep every night. Poor sleep (that is, poor quality and quantity) is strongly associated with weight gain.
3. Focus on whole foods. Instead of eliminating entire food groups, focus on incorporating more whole foods into your diet. Whole foods are nutrient-dense and can help you feel full and satisfied, making it easier to maintain a healthy weight. Stock up on things like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.
4. Get support. Making lifestyle changes can be challenging, but having a support system can make all the difference. Whether it's a friend, family member, or a health coach, having someone to hold you accountable and provide support can help you stay on track.
5. Move your body. Regular exercise is essential for maintaining a healthy weight and overall wellness. Don’t force yourself to go to the gym if you hate the gym! Instead, find an activity that you enjoy, whether it's jogging, yoga or weightlifting.
6. Practice mindful eating. Mindful eating is a practice that involves paying attention to your body's hunger and fullness cues and being present during mealtime. By practicing mindful eating, you can improve your relationship with food and make healthier choices.
7. Seek professional help. If you're struggling to make lifestyle changes on your own, seeking professional help can be a game-changer. A registered dietitian or health coach can provide personalised guidance and support to help you achieve your health and wellness goals.
By incorporating these strategies into your lifestyle, you can make lasting changes that promote better health and sustainable weight loss. Remember, diets may promise quick results, but they often fail to produce lasting change. By taking a more holistic approach to health and wellness, you can achieve your goals and live a healthier, happier life.
Sanchia Parker is an Australian dietitian and nutritionist with more than 10 years of experience working with hundreds of clients with a range of health conditions. She is the Co-Founder of The Metabolic Method. The Metabolic Method was created by women, for women and has helped hundreds with their personal approach to boost metabolism, increase energy, and help with weight loss. Find out more: The Metabolic Method