This time it’ll be different, I thought. This time, it’ll stick and I feel the way I’ve always wanted to feel.
It was 2014, I had just given birth to my first child, and I was psyching myself up to try the latest trendy diet. Desperate to feel some ownership over a body I didn’t know, like, or recognize, I had put my hopes in the Paleo diet which, at the time, was “the most Googled nutritional guideline” on the market. There was also evidence to suggest that the Paleo diet causes heart disease, can make you calcium deficient, and was one of the British Dietetic Association’s picks for worst fad diets… just a step above the “urine diet.”
But I didn’t care about any of that. I wanted my pre-pregnancy body “back.” I wanted to feel more like myself. I wanted to finally feel comfortable in my skin — and I was convinced I needed a diet to do it.
I probably don’t need to tell you how the rest of this story goes: I lost weight quickly, couldn’t maintain that weight loss, then ended up gaining more weight than what I initially shed. I felt defeated, exhausted — both mentally and physically — and most of all, I felt extremely unhealthy. The Paleo diet seemed to work for everyone, and appeared sound enough. I would eat as the cavemen and women did, consuming meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds and while avoiding processed foods. Unlike other, more blatantly unhealthy diets — be it fasting or cayenne cleanses — the appeal of a diet like Paleo was the way it harkened back to nature. This is just how we’re supposed to eat, was the prevailing thought process. This isn’t really a diet. It’s “normal.”
What I didn’t fully realize at the time — and what took therapy, multiple visits with a nutritionist, and some real come-to-jesus moments over my long history with disordered eating and unhealthy exercising — is that all diets are bad. Yes, every single one of them. And as our body-obsessed culture slowly but surely embraces a more body positive and fat-inclusive outlook, it’s important to remind ourselves of that.
It’s important that we know how to spot a diet when we see one, and that we remember how they are all bad, because diets will be hiding as non-diets all over the place. Companies, brands, influencers, and celebrities will shift their messaging — many already have — in order to sell diets not using the old language about “calories” and “weight loss”; they’ll sell the same concepts using language like “healthy” and “strong” and “clean”, and usually, these will be code for “skinny.” We’ll be told that these diets are about “health and wellness,” not self-hate and shrinking ourselves.
And it will be a lie. A diet rebranded is still a diet, and they are all still very bad.
A recent 2020 study published in BMJ found that diets, simply put, do not work. While they might initially result in weight loss and lower blood pressure, those results do not last longer than a year. And after a year, those who diet often gain more weight than the amount they lost while dieting. Dieting provides us nothing more than the illusion of, at best, a short-term fix to any longer-lasting health and wellness problem. And this often comes at the expense of our actual health.
Studies have shown that yo-yo dieting and drastic weight loss does damage to a person’s metabolism, has been linked to an increased risk of experiencing cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure, and can cause an increase in the amount of cortisol — the stress hormone — in the body. And a 2018 study published in the Lancet found that those who go on high-carb or low-carb diets have an increased morbidity and mortality rate than those who eat carbs in moderation. Dieting can literally kill you.
But it is the mental health ramifications of dieting that show just how dangerous this approach to a “healthy lifestyle” truly is. Studies have shown that dieting increases a person’s likelihood of developing a binge eating disorder, self-harming, forcing oneself to purge, and developing an alcohol dependency. A 2014 study of 1,979 participants found that dieting can cause depression, and diets that restrict calorie intake have been known to increase dieter’s anxiety.
Dieting isn’t just a contributing factor in the development of eating disorders, it is considered the most common disordered eating habit. And if left to permeate, it can and often does result in either anorexia and bulimia, both of which have one of the highest morbidity rates of any mental health disorder. In fact, without treatment, 20% of those with anorexia nervosa will die.
I have been in imperfect recovery from anorexia and bulimia for over 10 years. Pregnancy didn’t “cure me.” Giving birth and having a newborn to care for didn’t “cure me.” And neither did a fad diet promising a lifestyle change over weight loss. What made a diet more palatable to me, as someone with multiple eating disorders, is what makes the diets of today so dangerous: they appear healthy. They are marketed as acts of self-care. But they’re not.
The only way to truly live in a sustainably healthy way is to exercise, eat a wide variety of healthy foods, and to get sleep (something a starving body is not especially good at doing). There is no “quick fix.” No effortless way in which to feel more energized, more attuned to our bodies, and more in love with our physical selves. It takes intention and dedication, and in many instances (including my own) visits with a nutritionist and multiple cognitive therapy sessions. Because unlearning the notion that we must shrink ourselves as quickly as possible in order to feel worthy of our bodies takes work — a lot of work.
But that work is worth it, and it starts with acknowledging the fact that all diets are bullsh*t. They’re bad for us. No, that one isn’t different. They feed us unhealthy messages about food. They make it easy to hate ourselves and our bodies, and in a society that already does a bang-up job of convincing us the quickest way to worthiness is self-hate already.
So, after five years and the birth of my second child, I’ve stopped thinking that things will be different with [insert popular diet here]. Instead, I’m choosing to be different by avoiding dieting altogether. It’s not easy — we’re powerfully indoctrinated into both finding flaws with our bodies and looking for ways to control our eating as a means of “fixing” our bodies; you can’t just turn that thinking off — but it’s a practice that is more than worth it. And it’s not like it’s more work than adhering to any diet, but instead of endangering my health, it protects it.