How to Stop Dieting and Keep Your Sanity

You’ve tried diet after diet. You’re confused on what and how to eat. You’re sick of feeling like a failure. 

But guess what! You didn’t fail. You are not a failure.

The diets have failed you. It’s time for you to stop dieting.

These low-carb,  low fat, ketogenic, no-sugar, detox, calorie-counting, point tracking, and intensive fasting diets don’t work. The diets only seem to work. Until they don’t anymore.

It’s time to stop dieting. Here’s why: 

  1. Low-carb diets don’t provide you with enough fuel: Your body needs carbohydrates as a source of fuel and energy. Not having sufficient carbs means you won’t have enough energy to meet your exercise and movement needs.
  2. Our bodies need fat. Fats found in nuts, avocados, fish, certain oils such as coconut, and seeds are considered healthy for our bodies. Additionally, low-fat diets may cause mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Vitamin deficiencies can occur. 
  3. A Ketogenic diet is similar to a low-carb diet with the addition of high fats and adequate protein. Our bodies were meant to absorb nutrients from appropriate carbs, fats and proteins. 
  4. No-sugar diets may lead to obsessing about the very food you enjoy, causing you to eventually overeat because of restriction and deprivation.
  5. Detox diets are unnecessary. A healthy body already does a good job of flushing out any toxins through our liver, kidneys and colon. Detox diets are generally low in protein and may suggest a poor relationship to healthy nutrition. 
  6. Calorie counting and/or point tracking can negatively change our relationship with food. Viewing food as only numbers may limit our ability to be present with and enjoy our meals.
  7. Intensive fasting diets may lead to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which could cause a desire to turn to more highly palatable, sugary, salty and fatty foods. Overeating is often a side effect of fasting. 

The Reality of Diets

Let’s first address a reality. The restrictive and depriving diet plans out there are not charities. They aren’t in it to volunteer their time, energy and money to help those in need. The marketing ploys are attractive, but do they have your best interest in mind? Absolutely not. 

If they did, then they would probably encourage most people to prioritize mental health, sleep and fitness versus weight loss and body changes. If they did have your best interest in mind, then they would probably include numerous disclaimers on their products, books, ads, plans and more.

If they really cared, then there would be a lot of emphasis on the mind-body connection. Not the body-scale-food connection.  

To this point, according to Mind Over Food from the Institute for the Quality Eating:

One of the most fundamental building blocks of nutritional metabolism is neither vitamin, mineral, nor molecule. It’s our relationship with food. It’s the sum total of our innermost thoughts and feelings about what we eat. This relationship with food is as deep and revealing as any we might ever have. In other words, what you think and feel about a food can be as important a determinant of its nutritional value and its effect on body weight as the actual nutrients themselves.

What Makes a Diet

So, what makes a diet really a diet? Think deprivation, food restriction, removal of food groups, irrational food rules, good versus bad thinking, and more. A diet may focus more on weight, body shape and body size versus health and true well-being.

Exercise may or may not be encouraged, but if it is, then it most likely emphasizes fitness plans that focus on weight regulation versus feeling better and improving your mental health. 

A study performed by Dr. Ancel Keys during World War II tested 36 consenting men who agreed to enter a deprivation diet that included reducing their caloric intake for an entire year.

The experiment had them prepare for three months, “semi-starve” themselves for six months, and then began to re-introduce more food back into their diet for the final three months. 

The purpose of the study was to see how people would respond under these conditions, as well as to learn how to safely re-feed starving populations in times of war and famine. The men had their caloric intake cut in half from roughly 3200 calories per day before the study to half of that, 1600 calories per day, during the semi-starvation period.

The effects? The men described extremely adverse side effects such as lethargy, anxiety, irritability, anger, dizziness, hair loss, ringing in the ears, a lack of concentration and an inability to focus.

They reported becoming obsessed with food and began to create rituals around mealtimes that coincided with irrational food groups such as adding water to their food just to make it last longer. 

With that being said, diets can be detrimental to your health. You can spot diets by keeping a close eye on promises they make, such as:

  • Lose 10 pounds in 30 days
  • Fix your sugar addiction now
  • Cleanse your body in just three days
  • Get your dream body today.

All are red flags. Run away and never look back! But it’s not that easy, is it? 

How to Ditch Diet Culture

Instead, we suggest the following considerations as you try to move forward from dieting and diet culture:

Step One: Take a Diet Inventory

Going back in time sometimes isn’t easy. It can bring up tough times and memories that you don’t want to recall; however, it can provide valuable insight.

First, think about the first diet you ever tried. Did you impose it upon yourself or did someone else impose it upon you? What was the reason? Was it your idea or was “someone else” worried about your weight and decided you needed to go on a diet?

Unfortunately, many diets start around puberty. It is not uncommon for young women to begin restricting and pursuing weight loss as young as 10 to 12 years of age. The sad part is that dieting, weight fluctuations and negative perception towards food can begin at such a young age that it sparks years of persistent noise and repercussions. 

Second, if the dieting was self-imposed then ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why have you been dieting for this long? 
  • Is there something deeper going on? 
  • Have you avoided addressing the history of trauma? 
  • Do you struggle with self-compassion? 
  • Have you ever been content with you body? 
  • Do you even remember a time in which you loved or accepted your body?
  • Has dieting been a way to control what feels to be out of control in your life? 

If you know there is something deeper to address, a licensed therapist may be your next step. Seeking help and support is OK and encouraged. It is never too late to get the guidance you truly need. 

Step Two: Practice Regular Eating Patterns

Skipping meals, intermittent fasting and going too long without eating never ends well. Implementing irrational food rules only leads to food fixation and obsession, and pursuing significant weight loss can result in weight gain and symptoms of Binge-Eating Disorder.

Following a diet pressured by a well-intentioned peer or family member can cause more harm than good. In addition, when we are all over the place with different diets we probably aren’t really listening to what our body is trying to say. Hunger, fullness and satiety cues are tough to discern. It is time to stop with the extremes.

So what to do? 

Now is the perfect time to start eating breakfast, lunch and dinner on a consistent basis. Aim to have these main meals within one- to two-hour timeframes. Skipping meals should become a non-negotiable as it typically leads to overeating later on in the night or once the weekend hits.

When having your main meals, make sure you are eating enough as well as having balance. This means honoring all food groups and including a variety of protein, carbohydrate, fat, fiber and water at each meal.

The foods that provide these nutrients encompass a wide range. Avoid getting caught up in the “good and bad” and have something from each group to ensure overall satiety and nutrition. 

An example day could look like the following: 

  • The first meal of the day could be between 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. and could consist of scrambled eggs, avocado toast and mixed berries. 
  • Lunch could happen between 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. and could be a hearty bowl of turkey bean chili and a side spinach salad. 
  • A mid-afternoon snack of an apple and peanut butter could hold one over until dinner between 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. 
  • Dinner may be something like pan-seared salmon with a side of roasted sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts. 
  • If an after-dinner treat is desired, then perhaps a couple pieces of chocolate come into the mix. 

This structure would be encouraged for weeks, months or years until one feels like their body’s cues start becoming more apparent and a more intuitive eating approach can be a reality. 

Step Three: Remove Unsupportive Resources

How often do you pick up a magazine that isn’t helpful to your body image? Do you follow social media accounts that push dieting and extremes? Are there certain platforms or environments that are extremely triggering for you? Are you ready to create a safer environment for yourself? We hope so. 

Take at least 10 to 15 minutes today and unfollow certain Facebook, Instagram or Twitter accounts. Check your email inbox and mark certain accounts as scam so you no longer see certain things come through.

Take five minutes to review what diet or fast-fix books you have around and donate or recycle them. Recycle any magazines you have that aren’t helpful for your mindset.

Stop listening to podcasts that only promote diets or weight loss promises. Instead, aim to follow people or accounts that are encouraging and supportive. Look for accounts that have non-diet approach as well as a health at every size philosophy.

Check out our podcast, Inspired Intentions, for weekly tips on reframing your mindset.

You can’t forget about the scale, that “tool” that may or may not make your day. Is that scale truly necessary to have in your home? A scale doesn’t address how you feel. A scale doesn’t applaud you for the progress you’ve made when it comes to mental health and other aspects of physical health such as heart rate and blood pressure.

No one is here to judge you whether or not you keep a scale around, but stop letting those numbers define your identity and self-worth and instead allow a variety of healthy attributes guide the way you feel about your body.

Step Four: Practice Body Respect

Instead of talking to yourself and your body from a negative space, find the self-compassion to speak to yourself in a language that is more loving and caring. Instead of negative, it could also start by being more neutral with yourself.

Some tangible things include going on a morning walk, booking a massage, enjoying a cup of tea for 20 minutes, cooking a nice dinner, meeting a friend for a long overdue gathering, honoring a daily lunch break and more. 

Body respect is not starving yourself, beating yourself up in the gym, squeezing the fat on your body while talking negatively about it, avoiding the mirror because you don’t want to see yourself, and more.

It may take time to move from body negativity to body positivity, but respecting your body can be a starting point. If you need a great resource, check out Body Respect by Dr. Lindo Bacon and Lucy Aphramor. 

Ending the diet cycle for some could take months or even years. Be patient with yourself and recognize it probably won’t happen overnight. Continue to surround yourself with encouragement and continue to gain more awareness of your mindset and behaviors.

— By Lindsay Ford, Registered Dietitian, and Shannon Worley, MSW, LCSW