After seeing this impactful TikTok about not dieting anymore from internal medicine doctor, Chisom Ikeji, MD, we were so on board. She told POPSUGAR that disordered eating is much more common than we recognize. "Many people have an unhealthy relationship with food, diet frequently, feel preoccupied by food thoughts, have guilt associated with eating, and compensate by restricting or overexercising, which impacts mental and physical well-being," she explained. Keep reading to learn why diets don't work, and how they can actually be harmful to our physical and mental health.
Why Don't Diets Work?
When Dr. Ikeji says "diets," she is referring to restricting calorie intake, eliminating or restricting specific food groups, or limiting food consistencies (like solid food) in efforts to lose weight. She's not referring to dietary restraints based on medical reasons.
She explained that when you go on a restrictive diet, you are going to lose weight. We've all had that experience with that "one diet that worked that one time," Dr. Ikeji said, but she told POPSUGAR that 99 percent of the time you end up regaining the weight plus more because the diet isn't sustainable, and you return to your regular eating habits. Many times, the over-restriction leads to binge eating or other disordered eating habits — it can also lead to eating disorders. Then because you regain the weight on a restrictive diet, you'll go on another diet, and the yo-yo dieting cycle continues.
In addition, because you lost weight on the restrictive diet, you'll tend to associate the foods you ate on that diet as "good foods," and ones that aren't within the constraints of the diet as "bad foods." This can lead to unrealistic and untrue ideas or rules around food, Dr. Ikeji said, such as "carbohydrates make you fat," or "eating past 7 p.m. causes weight gain," or "gluten is unhealthy," which perpetuates a diet culture mindset. Constantly feeling bad about your food choices, feeling like a failure when you don't lose weight, and missing out on the things in life that make you happy because of restrictive dieting, can have negative effects on your state of mind. Dr. Ikeji said the best thing you can do for your body to lose weight, is to stop dieting! If you don't stop now, she said "you'll be chasing that diet into your eighties, and feeling guilty over a piece of cake, forever. That's no way to live life."
What Is Set Point and How Does Dieting Affect It?
The reason why your weight fluctuates a lot on a diet is because when you're in that cycle of perpetually losing and gaining weight, it prevents your body from being able to settle on its set point weight. "Weight set point theory is the idea that the body naturally controls your weight by regulatory feedback controls," explained Dr. Ikeji. The set point weight is actually a range that can vary from person to person, and with age. The body will adjust energy expenditure and food consumption to maintain the set point weight. This happens when we gain weight and lose weight, she explained. This means you can eat as much as you want for weeks, and at some point your weight gain (or weight loss) will slow down and plateau.
Studies show that after periods of starvation, people tend to regain much more fat mass than before the starvation period, which is related to a loss of appetite control. It takes many months or years for your body to regulate and to return to your pre-starvation (pre-diet) weight. But when you keep dieting, this cycle repeats and your weight will continue to increase.
What Is the Safest, Most Effective, and Sustainable Way to Lose Weight?
"Start by making small changes every day instead of making a drastic change that isn't going to be sustainable," suggested Dr. Ikeji. Reduce restaurant or takeout food intake, and cook the majority of your meals at home so you're aware of what is going into your food. Meals should consist mainly of whole foods, which are minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, fruits, fish, eggs, poultry, nuts, and legumes, prepared in a healthy way. You don't need to stop eating rice, white potatoes, and bread! Everything in moderation.
Getting active is important, too. Due to the impact physical activity has on mood, self-esteem, and longevity rather how it relates to weight loss, said Dr. Ikeji. But finding an activity you enjoy doing, even if it's only for 15 minutes, will have a huge impact on your life. It could be as simple as walking.
"I also encourage people to be realistic about their weight-loss goals," said Dr. Ikeji. We are not all meant to look the same. Our society values thinness and looking fit, but many of the people we idolize for having "ideal bodies" either had a surgical procedure, are consistently under-eating, or, to a lesser extent, are maintaining their natural body weight.
If you are engaging in unhealthy eating or exercise habits in the pursuit of weight loss, or you have developed food obsession or poor body image, Dr. Ikeji said it needs to be taken seriously. "Anyone feeling this way should seek help from a physician, registered dietitian, and psychologist."
If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has resources available including a 24/7 helpline at (800) 931-2237.