If you're like a lot of Americans, chances are you've followed a restrictive diet in the name of weight loss at some point: no sweets, no food after 8:00, nothing processed, you know the drill. Of course, it's one thing to follow a particular diet because of an intolerance (like if you have celiac disease) or an ethical concern (vegetarian and vegan diets). But we're talking about the kind of restrictions people subject themselves to in the name of dropping pounds. The kind that take over your life and leave you feeling guilty every time you "mess up." Spoiler alert: These diets do not work.
"A diet denotes that you're on something you could go off," says Deanna Minich, Ph.D., nutritionist and author of Whole Detox: A 21-Day Personalized Program to Break Through Barriers in Every Area of Your Life. "And we don't want to set people up for failure."
Dieters typically shed 5 to 10 percent of their starting weight within the first six months, according to researchers at UCLA. But there's a catch: The same researchers found that at least one- to two-thirds of people on diets regain more weight than they lost within four or five years, and the true number may well be significantly higher.
Even anecdotally, we all know people who have tried diet after diet, with no long-term success. And there's a good chance you've done the same. Still, so many of us go back time and time again to diets that haven't worked—every time thinking maybe if I did this one thing differently or I know I can stick it out this time, often blaming ourselves.
Well, we're here to tell you it's not your fault. Diets indeed set you up for failure. Here's why.
1. Dieting triggers overeating.
Severely limiting certain foods simply heightens your awareness of them. Just think: If you know you shouldn't eat brownies, seeing one turns your sensors on. Science backs this up: People who ate dessert had better dieting success over eight months compared to those who deprived themselves, according to one Tel Aviv University study.
For the study, almost 200 clinically obese adults were randomly assigned to one of two diet groups. The first group ate low-carb, including a small 300-calorie breakfast. The second ate a 600-calorie breakfast that included a dessert item. People in both groups had lost an average of 33 pounds halfway through the study. But in the second half, the dessert group continued to lose weight, while the other regained an average of 22 pounds.
"Restricting food groups or demonizing things like sugar can lead to feelings of deprivation that often manifest as overeating or bingeing farther down the line," says Laura Thomas, Ph.D., a registered nutritionist based in London. "It's really self-defeating."
2. Hello, social withdrawal.
A list of food rules is severely limiting, which is especially tricky in social situations. When you're not able to go with the flow and make the best decisions you can in the moment, you may shut yourself out of situations that can make you uncomfortable, or at least you'll have less fun when you do join in.
"Anytime someone sets up black-and-white rules to their food and eating, it creates anxiety about how they're going to stay within these boundaries," says Carrie Gottlieb, Ph.D., a psychologist based in New York City. "You wonder 'how do I avoid that party or restaurant meal' in hopes that you won't need to eat certain things." This can tempt you to avoid social situations altogether and lead to anxiousness, which is a negative by-product of restrictive dieting. Yeah, not sustainable.
3. You could be cutting out things your body needs.
There are loads of nutrients that your body needs to function at 100 percent. Especially when exercising, for instance, research shows that your body's ability to refill muscle stores decreases by 50 percent if you wait to eat just two hours after your workout compared to eating right away. If you're on an elimination diet that encourages you to sacrifice good-for-you practices to "follow the rules," you need to take a step back and analyze exactly what you're doing, and why.
Plus, plenty of the common "off limits" foods are actually good for you in moderation: Milk is a nutritional powerhouse, carbs fuel your workouts, and your body needs fat. If you're really focused on cutting something specific out of your diet, it's important to know why, what the impact will be, and how you can get the nutrients in other ways. For example, if you're really into the idea of going gluten-free, ask yourself if you have an actual sensitivity or if you're only doing it because it's buzzy. Going gluten-free means you may miss out on essential nutrients like fiber, iron, and B vitamins. Consider carefully.
4. It triggers unnecessary guilt.
We all walk around these days with some sort of ambient guilt. Maybe it's because you forgot to call your mom last night, or you meant to do your partner a solid by grabbing toilet paper on your way home from work—and forgot. You've got enough pressure. The last thing you need is to deal with that when it comes to what you eat. (See: Please Stop Feeling Guilty About What You Eat)
By putting so much pressure on yourself, you counteract part of the reason you're eating well in the first place: to be healthier. Researchers from the University of Canterbury found that people who associate guilt with what they eat (in this scenario, chocolate cake) are less likely to maintain their weight over a year-and-a-half or have control over their eating. And scale aside, feelings of guilt and shame can, of course, take a toll on your mental health. Why beat yourself up over a brownie?
"Remind yourself that no food is inherently good or bad," says Gottlieb. "Focus on balanced eating and allow all foods in moderation for a healthier approach."