If you’re new around here, this is your crash course on the types of diets that this dietitian (Hi, I’m Lexy) recommends. And it amounts to exactly none of them. Diets suck. Can’t give it to you any straighter than that. Not only do diets suck, but wellness fads (aka diets) masquerading as non-diet approaches to weight loss also suck and make me even more angry than straight up diet messages do. In this post I’m going to cover some of my least favorite diets, tell you about why they’re harmful, and then provide you with some encouragement and tips on embracing Intuitive Eating Principle #1: Ditch the Diet Mentality.
Why am I so passionate about this? Because although not every diet ends in an eating disorder, the hard truth is that eating disorders almost always start out as diets.
CONTENT WARNING: mentions of disordered eating behaviors. Proceed with caution.
Let’s kick it off with a real sneaky witch:
Have you noticed that diet companies have caught on to the fact that people are rebelling against diets? They have gotten creative with their marketing and now call themselves non-diet or say they are a “wellness” approach. Here’s a list of questions to check if a new program you’re hearing about is actually a diet in disguise:
- Does it give you a list of what you can/can’t eat? If yes, it’s a diet.
- Does it use a stoplight to classify how “good” or “bad” foods are for you? If yes, it’s a diet.
- Does it require you to use an app to know how to eat? If yes, it’s a diet.
- Does it offer to help you manage your weight? If yes, it’s a diet.
Food should fit into your lifestyle in a way that supports your preferences, lifestyle, culture and circumstances. Rules around food, whatever those rules may be, prevent that from happening. Yes, even a program that helps you set lifestyle goals and make sustainable healthy changes in your habits (that all sounds great, right?) is STILL HARMFUL if it emphasizes your weight or promises you the opportunity to “manage” your weight. (Looking at you, Noom.)
Next up to tackle:
Let’s start with some facts. Your body naturally fasts overnight while you sleep. That’s literally where the word breakfast comes from: breaking the fast. You do not need self-imposed starvation time during the day to support your health. Here are six cons of intermittent fasting:
- HANGER. It’s simply illogical to imagine that being hungry for a significant amount of your awake time during a day, week, month and year could lead to a richer, happier, higher quality life. It’s hard to be your best self when your body is raging at you that it needs nourishment.
- Risk for binge eating increases. There’s a thing called the restriction-binge cycle. Restricting makes you feel out of control around food, makes your cravings go wild, and often leads to eating a large amount of food (that might even make you feel ill.) Then you mentally shame yourself for that eating experience and you force yourself into a period of restriction again. However since restriction isn’t sustainable… the cycle starts over again. Fasting for chunks of your day could likely lead to out-of-control eating experiences that both make you feel physically and mentally uncomfortable and out of sync with your body.
- Obsession about food. Have you ever seen the reality TV show Survivor? One central aspect of the show is that they eat super limited portions of basic food like rice and beans and they are always hungry. And you know what they are almost always talking about? Food. How hungry they are, what food they miss the most from home, what’s the first thing they’re going to eat after the show is over, etc. This is such a perfect example of obsessive thoughts about food. When your body is nourished normally and you’re not restricting yourself, your brain naturally shifts to thinking about other things. More important things. World-changing things. Imagine if the inventors of some of our most important technologies throughout the ages were so hungry so much of the time that they literally couldn’t stop thinking about food for long enough to use their brain for their creative, ingenuitive work. I’d prefer to live in a world where obsessive food thoughts don’t overtake the important brain space that we all need to show up and give the world our best.
- Digestion issues. When you consume a large amount of food at one time, it takes your body more energy and time to digest it. It’s harder on your body than when you give it consistent, reliable, regular sources of nourishment all throughout the day. Breaking down, digesting and absorbing nutrients from such a large amount of food all at once can lead to constipation, diarrhea, bloating and indigestion.
- Risk of nutrient deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances, menstrual, fertility and reproductive issues in women. When the body doesn’t get enough energy it shuts down some non-essential functions, like reproduction. If you’ve ever experienced unexplained long term loss of your period, it’s possible it was due to hypothalamic amenorrhea, which can be caused by stress, under-eating or over-exercising. If this is something you’re currently experiencing, I highly recommend speaking to your OBGYN or midwife, soon. You may think: “Hey, no big deal. It’s nice not to deal with blood every month.” But it’s actually quite dangerous for your body. The extreme low levels of estrogen cause serious problems for your bone health and should be addressed as soon as possible.
- Lastly, restricted diet = restricted life. If you’re having to say “no” to brunches, parties, gatherings and other invitations because it’s not during your eating window of the day, you’re missing out. What I want for all of you more than anything else is a full and free life, and many of the diets out there, including intermittent fasting, are going to cause you to miss out on the fullness and freedom of life available to you.
Next, we have the diet I personally hate the most.
Listen to this dietitian when I tell you: carbs are your body and brain’s preferred source of energy. When you don’t get enough of them, your body starts breaking down its own mass to use for energy. Yes it will use some fat tissue but it will also break down your muscle. It is starving, it will not discriminate.
Did you know the ketogenic diet was originally studied and developed to use in reducing epliectic seizures in children? This is how impactful it is on the brain. And this is why it was designed to be used in a clinical setting, with physician and dietitian oversight, as an intervention for a serious and life-threatening diagnosed condition.
Additional issues with keto:
- Some super nutrient-dense foods are avoided, like sweet potatoes, whole grains, fruits and veggies. Someone remind me again how avoiding nutrients is good for you…?
- It wreaks so much havoc on your body that you will likely develop what is commonly called “keto flu”: fatigue, dizzy, lightheadedness, poor sleep, constipation, etc., all because your body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs. You might also get “keto brain” because your brain is suffering by not having access to its usual and needed source of energy… you guessed it… carbohydrates.
- Your breath changes odors- another sign that something abnormal and unhealthy is happening in your body. (The biological explanation of this is that it happens due to the breakdown of acetoacetic acid).
- It’s freakin’ expensive. Carbs are usually one of the most inexpensive parts of your meal- rice, potatoes, pasta, bread, grains, etc. Cutting out the energy source of carbs is going to seriously jack up your grocery bill.
To sum it up for you, the extreme restriction of the keto diet simply isn’t good for your mental or social health. It’s setting you up for a lifetime of disordered relationship with food and is probably causing you to miss out on some special and irreplaceable life experiences. Not to mention, it will probably be exhausting for you to prepare all your meals with such specific requirements and restrictions.
And you know what one of the saddest parts is? Our culture is so weight-loss obsessed, that even after reading all these warnings and negative outcomes, one might still be tempted to try it. And you know what? I don’t blame that person. Not one single bit. I feel a sh*t ton of compassion, and I feel a sh*t ton of anger at the culture and the billion dollar industry that has brought us to the point of being willing to engage in a program of such extreme restriction with so many clear physical, mental and social harms simply for the hope of shrinking a body.
I couldn’t talk about diets sucking without also talking about…
My lovely friends, allow me to let you in on a little secret. Your liver naturally detoxes your body for free, without restriction and without any help from a supplement or program or cleanse. I will be totally transparent and honest with you that I used to recommend detoxes to clients, friends, family, and I myself completed multiple detoxes. It created serious disordered eating in myself, and I will forever be making amends for any harm it caused in my family, friends, and clients. I was wrong.
If you could have a conversation with your liver before starting a “detox” it might go something like this:
You: “Hey liver, do you think I should do a deto–”
Liver: “No. Hard pass.”
Most detoxes recommend multiple days of not eating and surviving on some form of (very low calorie) liquid shake, followed by a few days, weeks or up to a few months worth of cutting out a BUNCH of foods. They usually have you eat at certain times, and follow very strict amounts and types of food.
One of the surest ways to feel out of control around food and think about it a TON… do a detox. For a reminder about the restriction-binge cycle and obsessive food thoughts, see above comments on the cons of intermittent fasting. I am really sad about the fact that I used to do detoxes myself and suggest them to clients, friends and families. But now that I know better, I do better (anyone recognize that from a certain 12 step program??) And here’s what I want to tell you about detoxes:
- To reiterate, yes, your liver naturally detoxes your body for you. There are certain nutrients that help promote optimal liver function, which you are welcome to include as a part of your varied and wholly inclusive eating pattern. These include things like dark leafy greens, salmon, nuts, eggs,beets and apples. To help your liver, ADD some of these foods, don’t take any (or ALL!) foods away.
- Your body is wired for survival. When you take away nourishment (aka food) by drinking mainly liquids or a meal-replacement shake, you’ll not only be thinking about food a LOT, but you’ll also be communicating to your body that you’re in survival/starvation mode. This is not the optimal mode for the body to be in and will prevent you from functioning normally and healthily. The body is biologically wired to keep you alive, so it’s going to do everything in its power to get you to eat.
- When your detox/cleanse finally ends, it’s likely you’ll have an out-of-control eating experience. This is not because you lack will power or determination, it’s because your body is- once again- just trying to keep you alive by getting you all the nourishment and calories you missed out on while you were “detoxing.”
Friends, save your money. You don’t need to spend a dime. Your body is already equipped with the most effective detox tool it could ever need. If entering the New Year has put you in the mood for some sort of restart or reboot, check out my post on Social Media Detox for Better Body Image and a Healthier Happier Life where I discuss a possible social media detox as the only detox you need this year.
So, where do all these individual diet ideas come from? Where are there a hundred different diets all promising to be “the one?” Let’s pull back the curtain on the diet industry and examine their true intentions based on what they’ve put out over the decades.
Diet Industry’s Intentions
To me, the diet industry’s contradictions and changing recommendations are such clear evidence that they know there’s not one perfect way to eat, so they just have to keep making sh*t up so you keep spending your money on new ideas and possibilities. Their goal is for you to be confused and unsure of yourself, because that drives you to look externally for instructions, rules and eating plans (which coincidentally is what they sell!) Their goal can’t be for you to succeed long term, because then who is spending money in a year from now on the hot new thing?
Something else contradictory happening in the current wellness culture (aka diets in disguise) is that programs are often preaching messages of body acceptance and body love while simultaneously promising to help you “manage your weight.” “Weight management” suggests that there is something wrong with your current weight, that there’s something wrong with gaining weight, and therefore that there’s something wrong with people in larger bodies. This is fat shaming and this is not equal respect and care for all bodies. People cannot be expected to hear both “Manage your weight!” and “Love yourself wholeheartedly! Your body is good!” from the same source and know what to do with that. These two messages cannot coexist. People are confused, and rightfully so.
The worst part of the diet industry breeding fear, insecurity and confusion around food is that it can take YEARS to undo. Once you finally decide you’re done with diets and you want to make peace with food, it won’t happen overnight. Those messages they’ve been bombarding you with for years and years have deep roots and tight grasps. In all likelihood it will take a lot of hard work (and probably a lot of time) to return to a place of neutrality and complete freedom around food.
Now that we’ve thoroughly discussed the harm of diets, I don’t want to leave you empty-handed. Let’s end with some action steps you can take in your Intuitive Eating journey, actions towards peace with food, your body and your health.
Principle 1 of Intuitive Eating (IE)- Reject the Diet Mentality
This is principle number ONE because it is the foundation upon which the rest of the work will be done. If you allow any hope to linger that there might still be one perfect diet out there waiting to be discovered, you will never be fully able to embrace food freedom and live diet-free.
One good place to start with this principle is with reflection. Look back on your lifetime of trying out diets- have they worked for you long term? Were they sustainable? How did you feel- physically, mentally, emotionally, socially- during those time periods? What have all those diets cost you, both financially and in the life experiences that you perhaps missed out on? If you don’t officially diet anymore, do you still have any lingering guilt, shame or negative thoughts about eating certain foods? These types of thoughts rumbling around in your head can actually lead to some of the same outcomes as physical restriction does. Wrestling with the answers to some of these questions can help you assess where you’re at in your relationship with diets and where to focus your internal work moving forward.
In their book Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch encourage you to start with acknowledging the damage that dieting causes. One of the best places to do this is through your own reflection using some of the above questions. Honestly I wish I could just link to their entire chapter on Principle #1 because everything they say there is so important and relevant to this conversation.
Another valuable piece of encouragement they give is to forget about failure. When people go on diets, they usually label it (at least in the short term) as a “success” or “failure.” All those failures start to cause people to think they are the failure (when really, diets have always been the failing piece of this relationship). Thankfully, once you give up dieting and switch to an intuitive eating approach, you are no longer on a pass/fail course. IE is a constant learning process where you are becoming more in-tune with your body and better able to nourish it without obsessing over food, without feeling any guilt or shame and without worrying about what will happen in your body. Every experience you have helps you get to know yourself better and moves you farther down the stepping stones towards food freedom and being able to make food decisions without so much as a second thought.
A concrete step you can take to reject dieting is to get rid of any diet tools. Your scale, your food scale, your colored portion-restricting containers, your diet books, your apps, your cheat sheets, your points labels, etc. All of it must go. Remove those temptations and be one step closer to a diet-free mentality and life.
Bottom line is this:
Diets should all come with a warning label.
“Warning: Engaging in this diet may cause long term side effects including but not limited to obsessive food thoughts, confusion and overwhelm with feeding yourself, and an inability to trust yourself with food while convincing you that you’re to blame for all of it.”
Diets don’t bring you to a normal, natural, neutral relationship with food or with your body. Diets should just bow out and give up (especially seeing as research does not support their efficacy) but that would cost a lot of people a lot of money (like, 70 billion dollars worth of money) so let’s not hold our breath. If you’re over diets or if you’re frustrated because diets have not worked for you, there’s n o t h i n g wrong with you. Most of us have been there, and we’re calling to you lovingly from the other side. We have food freedom (and cookies!)
If you’re ready to break up with dieting forever and move forward with a health approach that is NOT a diet in disguise and is completely weight-neutral, I would love to chat with you about working together.