Ditch Dieting: Eat “Normally” by Committing to Never Diet Again

by | Apr 7, 2024

Being unhappy with your body and making a pledge to shrink it is perhaps one of the most universal types of discontent among women, among all of us really. The cycle of going on one diet after the next, feeling worse after each one, and begrudgingly doing it all over again, is what we-in-the-field call “chronic dieting”. You go into each new diet sure this will be magic key, the diet to end all diets, the one that helps you keep it off.  But alas, it is not. You feel miles away from free and totally unable to ditch dieting even though you want to.

In this comprehensive guide to swapping dieting for intuitive eating, I’ll set you up for success.

Diets Are Not “Cool” Anymore

It is 2024. Things are changing. We are wising up to the fact that diets don’t work (and are boring) and that weight loss advice is often.. um… shall we say…. ‘Incomplete’.

Women and femmes are realizing their bodies are NOT THE PROBLEM. We want more than depriving ourselves of our desires and obsessing about our “imperfections”. We understand our mothers were doing their best, but that they handed this down to us. We believe that we can be healthy even if we are not “thin”. 

I wish I could say this was the case with everyone. But it certainly is not. 

There are some fundamental problems with the way we view body weight and health. The fact that weight loss fails almost every time is still not something the mainstream dialogue will wise up to. I’ll be explaining why diets don’t work and why knowing that isn’t enough to ditch dieting for good, even if you want to. I’ll then then give you actionable steps to take on your food freedom journey and explain how to move toward intuitive eating.

What Is Chronic Dieting?

Cool or not, right now, about 50% (could be as high as 75%) of women in America are on a diet. Forty five million Americans try and lose weight each year. Dieting and disordered eating are common among trans and non-binary folks too, and increasingly among men. 

It could be that you try all the new diets: keto, paleo, the latest cleanses, 75 hard, or maybe it’s nothing “official”, just a calorie number you stay under, or a list of ingredients you avoid like the plague. 

Most people who go on one diet will go on several, maybe a couple a year, maybe one every few years, sometimes for decades. Between diets, you’re either indulging constantly or living in fear of food – it’s food prison whatever way you slice it. 

This can be really miserable. 

Diets are incredibly tempting because weight loss and controlling our bodies is sold to us as a solution to all our problems. All our problems will vanish if we just x,y.z. 

Here are some common questions about the complexity of wanting to quit dieting.

Can I ditch dieting and still lose weight?

Once you stop yo-yo dieting and weight cycling, your metabolism will regulate and your weight will stabilize. Some people will lose weight when they stop dieting, some will gain weight, and some will stay the same.

What happens when you stop dieting?

At first, it can feel a little scary to let go of food rules, but if you follow these steps, you’re cravings will calm down and you’ll learn to trust your body.

Why is it so hard to lose weight?

1. Restrictive dieting leads to preoccupation with food, and often binge eating. 
2. Calorie restriction slows metabolic rate, predisposing you to weight regain or overshoot.

What’s the before and after of intuitive eating?

There is so much you can gain from ditching dieting. A before and after of intuitive eating includes moving from self-blame to self-compassion, chaotic eating to calm eating, and fear and distrust to control and calm.

The Science of Why Dieting Hurts Your Metabolism

Yo-yo dieting, or weight cycling, messes with your body. Weight cycling changes body composition toward less muscle and more fat, increases cardiovascular disease risk, blood pressure fluctuations, and blood sugar swings. In fact, many speculate that weight cycling can account for most (if not all) of the negative health consequences we see from “obesity”.

I’m not saying that there is no link between body size and health – to be clear. And research isn’t 100% clear on why weight cycling is so bad for us. Science is constantly evolving.

Unfortunately, the younger someone starts dieting, the more likely they are to spend more of their life doing it and gain weight over time. Girls who start dieting by age 11 are more likely to gain weight in adolescence than kids who don’t diet. Especially those who’s parents encouraged them to diet

This isn’t just bad for your body, it’s also hell for your mental and emotional health. All of these problems are compounded if you’re in larger body –  weight stigma and discrimination lead to anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression. Plus lost job opportunities and lawsuits. Yep, it’s legal to fire someone for being fat. 

And regardless of your body size, weight cycling continues to put the emphasis on your weight as the goal, rather than on overall well-being, health behaviors like healthy eating and exercise, getting enough sleep and managing stress. So yeah, focusing on weight is pretty bad for you.

The Weight Always Comes Back

You may have heard the statistic by this point (nearly all anti-diet, HAES dietitians quote it) that weight loss attempts fail for 95% of the population. Well, this is true. Most people who restrict their eating to lose weight will eventually gain the weight back. 

This isn’t news. There was actually a book published in 1983 called “Dieting Makes You Fat”.  The reality that weight loss efforts are unsuccessful and unsustainable has been confirmed in countless studies over the past 70 years. They typically have the exact opposite of their intended effect – weight gain

It’s so hard to lose weight for a couple reasons. 

1. Restrictive dieting leads to preoccupation with food, and often binge eating. 

After a period of restrictive dieting, you will likely think about food all the time. You’ll overly consider what you should eat, tit-for-tat-ing your food to make sure that you’re doing it right, that you’re not messing up. Calorie restriction increases the reward value of food and increases your desire to eat foods high in energy and fat.

And then when you do mess up, you’ll berate yourself for it. All this self-blame can lead to even more eating – screw it, I already messed up. I’ll start again tomorrow. 

If you’re binge eating on a regular basis, it’s likely you’ll gain weight. But recovering from this is totally possible. It can feel counter-intuitive sometimes, but you have to stop restricting if you want to stop binge eating.

2. Calorie restriction slows metabolic rate, predisposing you to weight regain or overshoot.

In addition to diets simply not working, they actually cause harm. Each time you restrict your food intake, your body goes into starvation mode. It preserves energy and slows the rate that you burn calories.

Why You’re “Addicted” To Dieting

Once you’ve identified that diets aren’t working for you anymore and you’d like to break from them, you still have to do the hard work of finding another path. These are some reasons why you may feel stuck.

The thin ideal & consumer culture

The thin ideal is heavily promoted by all types of media and a multi-billion dollar diet industry. Television, social media, movies, children’s books, ads targeted to your insecurities all play into the idea that you can fix your body if you just had the right product or tried hard enough.

You could spend your whole life training to achieve the unachievable. 

Accepting that something is out of reach and impossible can come with some relief. Maybe you realize you’ll probably never buy a villa in France, or will have to accept your partners snoring. Great, now you can go get to work on what you CAN achieve.  

Life dissatisfaction

If you’re feeling unhappy: a breakup, a hard day at work, worried about your health, or just generally depressed and anxious, the decision to start a new diet is very appealing. Imagine how much better things will be on the other side. You feel empowered. 

Plus, dieting is a socially acceptable, and even rewarded behavior. Everyone knows that losing weight is one of the highest achievements one could make. Sigh. The general cultural belief in the medical system that losing weight is going to improve your health. 

The underlying belief about why weight loss will give them – love, belonging, achievement, perfection, the absence of loneliness or bad body image days – feels impossible to let go of. 

You forget the second half of the diet

Forgetting the second half of each diet is not looking at the whole picture. You’re forgetting about what has happened each time you’ve come off a diet in the past: weight gain (likely gaining more back than you’ve lost), disappointment, failure.  You’ve put SO MUCH EFFORT, money, time, and tears into trying to lose weight for decades. How could you possibly give that up now? 

Again, I get it. It’s a tough pill to swallow. But as I hope you’re seeing, it might be the healthiest choice you ever make. 

The patriarchy

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the pressure for women to stay thin is due in large part to the expectation that we’ll be more pleasing to men. The experience of being larger as a woman is invalidating, full of self-blame.

In previous decades, as women broke patriarchal norms to stay inside the house and “housewife”, they moved into the spheres traditionally occupied by only men. Thinness was seen as a symbol of a women breaking these norms. Dieting and buying beauty products were proof a woman was “making it”. Restraining your desires by disciplining your body is still seen as womanly. 

Although it’s fantastic that the women’s right movements have come so far, there is work to do. The notion that women are a burden, need to apologize constantly, should not be openly claiming their desires and should be making others comfortable at their expense, is still very much alive. 

Racism & Anti-Fat Bias

Another deep underlying reason that we are all so obsessed with “eating clean” and staying thin lies is the demonization of some types of bodies. Fat bodies, black and brown bodies, trans bodies, disabled bodies – so many bodies are marginalized in our society. 

There is a low hum belief that these bodies got that way due to poor choices and poor character. Our culture confuses privilege for morality and equates thinness with health, virtue, and restraint. Denying ourselves our desires. 

“The Obesity Epidemic” is a Worldview

Even though the media and our fatphobic culture really don’t want to believe it, it has been proven time and time again that folks in the “overweight” category actually live longer than those in the “normal” weight category. Losing weight might actually worsen your health. Hear me out.

A giant study in 2015 of 278,000 people found that the probability of “obese” people attaining “normal” body weight is very low – 2-5%. The overwhelming majority, 95-98%, of people gain back their lost weight after a diet within 5 years. 

But people who have built their careers on “fighting obesity” have a lot to lose if the whole world just accepts their body weight and goes on about life. And so the pushback against these findings is very loud. 

One researcher, Katherine Flegel, a senior scientist at the Center For Disease Control (CDC), found, quite clearly, that some extra pounds are clearly correlated with longer lifespan, not early death as we’ve been told. Many academics and colleagues were furious with this study and worked like hell to discredit it. 

Our institutions and our $80 billion diet industry is based on the premise that everyone would be healthier, happier, and better off if they lost a few pounds. 

“This is the scientific foundation that weight loss empires have been built”,

Emma Court, journalist at Bloomberg News, in an interview and analysis of Flegel’s findings. 

So, it’s understandable that it’s hard as hell to give up the pursuit of weight loss and accept that you may never get into that body that our culture wants you to be in. But you want to live a full life; a healthy life, a life without any more diets. So – onward. 

How To Ditch Dieting For Good and Transition To Intuitive Eating

Understanding and accepting that you need to ditch dieting is 70% of the work, hence why I’ve focused so much on that in this article. Once you’re there you can move onto implementing the following steps. 

Learn and relearn why diets don’t work and why you’re better off ditching them

Read and reread this article 10 times. Also read this about why you can’t stop obsessing about food and about why HAES is a healthy framework. 

Explore your deeper reasons for staying on diets for so long

There are likely some underlying thoughts and feelings about why it’s so important that you lose weight or don’t gain a single pound.

In my Intuitive Eating mini course, day 1 is devoted to diving deep into the reasons that you want to lose weight to begin with. Some questions I suggest you explore (and that are in the course intuitive eating workbook) are:

  • Do you attach the way your body looks to success and achievement? 
  • Are you terrified of judgment from others so are trying to avoid that at all costs? (news flash, that will never happen)
  • Does obsessing about your weight keep you distracted from a trauma history or from a deeply troubled inner world? 
  • Are you being stubborn because you have spent thousands of dollars and countless hours on this never-ending project? 

Sending love. 

enough food is not the same as too much

Chances are good that dieting has disconnected you from your hunger and fullness cues. The first step of an intuitive eating journey is nourishing yourself enough. As we talked about above, starvation mode is a highly anxious state that will keep you seeking more food, and feeling terrified to actually ditch the diets.

Figure out what enough food feels like to you. Stop ignoring your hunger. If your hunger cues feel absent or scary, start here. Practice listening acutely to hunger for a couple weeks so you can get your hunger cues back. 

You want to eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and at least one snack (maybe more) every day so your body can calm down and trust that you’ll be giving it enough food. 

Let go of rules and practice habituation

Once you’re eating enough on a daily basis and listening to hunger, you can start exploring your fear foods. The key to habituating yourself to your fear foods is doing it slowly and mindfully.

To Do: Make a list of foods you either restrict or forbid. Explore your feelings about them. 

You want to create neutrality around food and stop labeling food as “good” and “bad”. All foods are morally equivalent. There may be a different time, day, and place for a bowl of yogurt and blueberries vs a burger and fries, but that doesn’t make either of them better or worse – just different. 

Learn what foods satisfy you

If you’ve been dieting for 20, 30, even 50 years (yes, you too grandma!) you can ditch dieting! As you prioritize satisfaction with eating and enjoyment with meals and snacks, the easier it will be to stop when you’re full. You’ll gain trust that you don’t need another diet. 

To Do: Mindful Eating

Write down a list of 10 foods that you really love and that you’re going to try and enjoy in the next 2 weeks. Try and eat these foods when you really want them, and pay attention to the experience. 

Do not pick a salad if what you desire is a sandwich. Do not get a burger and fries if your body is telling you it wants vegetables. Do not get a cookie if you want a bowl of soup, and do not get a bowl of soup if you want a cookie. You get the point. 

If you don’t love it, don’t eat it. And if you love it, enjoy it. 

This is certainly a very privileged standpoint but it can be a helpful place to start. 

Practice loving on the parts of you that don’t have to do with weight loss 

It may sound trite, but you are so much more than your body. I know this article is long, but I am not adding any fluff. This step is really essential. 

To Do: Spend time doing things that interest you, but have nothing to do with changing your body.

Sign up for a painting class, hang out with friends, see movies and concerts, do things you love. Better yet, go swimming, lay in the grass, dance. You can deepen the connection and trust that you are building by engaging in pleasurable, body-centered movement that is not about shrinking yourself.

Respect your body and your health

This simply means making some choices that your body is asking you for without blaming it for being wrong, too sick, too big, too anything.

To Do: Treat your body with respect, like you would a good friend.

Take it to the park, on a walk, feed it at regular intervals and enough. 

If you need to go to the doctor, do that. Try and find an inclusive doctor or HAES-aligned practitioner if you feel worried that the doctor will give you unhelpful diet advice. Learn to advocate for yourself at the doctors office.

Gentle nutrition

Nutrition information can be helpful for you if it’s not making you crazy. This is an important part of any intuitive eating and food freedom journey. Ditching dieting isn’t about abandoning nutrition information all together. It’s about tuning out the TMBI (too much bad information) that you get from social media, google, and frankly, some doctors. 

To Do: Recognize there is a lot of bad nutrition fear mongering out there and you need some simple strategies that work for you.

By exploring intuitive eating carefully with the support of a dietitian, you can learn what nutrition guidelines are best for you and what you need support with. For example, it is not helpful to have in your brain that the only fruit worth eating is berries. Bananas, melon, apples, and pears are all great sources of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. And yes, they are a little higher in carbohydrates. 

But guess what? Carbohydrates are actually super important for your body, your brain, and your reproductive system. 

In my intuitive eating coaching and support group, The Love Food Again Program, I teach you the basics about nutrition. You’ll learn to make informed choices without the overwhelm and indecision you may be used to. 

Dieting and struggling with your weight and health can be so frustrating that you give up entirely. And I get it. You’ve been trying so hard. But I promise, there is a way of looking at good nutrition and radical self-care that will not wear you out, leave you dissappoitmented or feeling like a failure. Join us and let me guide the way

About Emily

Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in Intuitive Eating, eating disorders, body image, women’s reproductive health, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps people find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified Intuitive Eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her practice, values, and experience here.

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Hey there, I´m Emily

A non-diet and weight-inclusive dietitian, intuitive eating coach, and body image healer. Here on the blog, I focuses on exploring intuitive eating, gentle nutrition, the complex arena of body image and feminism, anti-oppression, and all the ways these things intersect. I want us all to be free to own our appetites, and our desires, and eat really, really well. 

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