If you’re having trouble sticking to a weight-loss resolution, you aren’t alone.
But you don’t have to feel defeated or worry you aren’t properly prioritizing your health during a pandemic. In fact, if we truly want to support our well-being, science tells us we should avoid dieting like, well, the plague.
Decades of research reveal that diets just don’t work. They are more likely to lead to weight gain and can do harm along the way. Yet every year millions of people feel compelled to embark on a regimen doomed to fail them.
Rather than seeing the inherent problem in the diets themselves, individuals often feel guilty and vow to try harder next time. It takes a lot of savvy and strength to resist blaming ourselves and jumping back on the diet bandwagon.
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The comforts many have relied on – baking sourdough bread, finding the best work-from-home sweatpants, binge-watching Netflix – were briefly celebrated before becoming demonized as contributors to the so-called “quarantine 15.” Fat-phobic memes and food-shaming jokes have made us more vulnerable to the claim that we must atone for our supposed sins of gluttony and sloth – when, in fact, we have been engaging in morally neutral survival behaviors.
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The most famous diet company in the world, Weight Watchers, is now “WW: Wellness that Works.”We may feel powerless in the face of manipulative marketing, but science can strengthen our resolve. It’s a lot easier to let go of dieting when we understand diets’ fundamental flaws and potential health risks.
When people give up on a January diet – or regain weight at any time of year – we tend to blame it on lack of effort, self-discipline or willpower. But it’s biology, not our level of commitment, that resists caloric restriction and weight loss.
Built-in mechanisms protecting humans from starvation don’t know the difference between a famine and a fad diet. Sensing a threat to safety, our bodies skillfully combat efforts at weight loss. Both psychological and physiological mechanisms lead us to crave the very foods we’ve deemed off-limits; the “forbidden fruit” tastes sweetest.
And we have little control over complex systems, including our metabolism and hormones, that can play a role in our size.
Our bodies often prepare for future deprivation by adding more weight than we lost – seen in the majority of people who intentionally lose weight for a period of time.
What’s the harm in at least trying to lose weight one more time? For most people, diets take a toll on physical and emotional well-being.
Although some experience an almost euphoric feeling at the start of a diet, this “honeymoon” phase wears off quickly.
Even without the added challenge of stressful world events, staying on a diet is really hard. Sticking to a restrictive plan might seem admirable, but what looks like dedication also can be the beginning of an eating disorder. Even those who never go on to suffer a disorder may develop disordered eating, an unhealthy relationship with food.
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The behaviors most diets require – tracking meals, counting calories/points/macros – can lead to elevated cortisol levels, a marker of biological stress. Caloric restriction by itself is a stressor. Being “hangry” on a regular basis just isn’t good for us.