Why do we diet?

November 12, 2008

After coming across this post from Diet Blog, I started thinking about all of the studies and real-life experiences which show that diets* really just do not work in general.

I am puzzled. If diets don’t work, then why does everyone diet?

I was speaking to a woman not too long ago who mentioned that she was going on a diet in which all of your meals are delivered to you. She went on to talk about different diets that she’s gone on in the past, and was raving about a liquid meals diet that she had done years ago. She said that it was the best diet she had ever gone on.

But the question running through my head was, if that diet was so good, why are you dieting again?

People talk all the time about how they went on such-and-such a diet to lose x amount of weight, and it was fabulous and it worked great. Often these people say this at the same time as they’re saying how they are going back on that diet- or starting a new one- because they need to lose weight again.

I am sure I’m not the only one who finds this all to be very perplexing. The idea of dieting is to lose weight (I’d like to say it’s to become healthier, but we all know that 95% of these fad diets are about social pressure and appearance, not health), so the ideal diet would be one in which you lose the weight and keep it off and don’t have to worry about losing weight in the future.

Nearly everyone gains back what they lost on the diet, and very often they gain an extra couple pounds, too. Thus begins the cycle of yoyo dieting, which generally leads to unhealthy eating habits, poor body image, and one very messed up metabolism.

Diets seem to make people cranky. They deprive you of something you want. Yet so many people go on diets- more than 1 in 5 teen girls are on a diet at any given time– so there must be a reason for it, right? They’ve got to do something, don’t they?

Dieting intrigues me. When I was younger and I heard about diets, I thought they sounded like fun. You get to eat these special bars and certain kinds of foods in pretty packaging and you have to keep track of it all and follow a rulebook. I thought that all of those diet foods looked tasty! And maybe they are- I haven’t tried any so I don’t know. But I do think its a concern that as a young girl I was interested in them. Granted, the reasoning was simple curiosity and I was attracted to the packaging (and yes, I’m still attracted to packaging. There’s so many food products out there I’d love to try because they look cute and pretty, only the ingredients lists horrify me), but how many young people get caught up in a diet in this innocent way and then fall prey to the cycle of poor body image and unhealthy habits?

For myself, the only “fad diet” that I have “tried” was the Special K Challenge, back when I was initially trying to lose some weight and become healthier with the iVillage Healthy Living Program. At that point, I was obsessed with Special K anyways, and when I found out that they were doing a 2-week challenge which incorporated eating a couple bowls of cereal plus a couple cereal bars each day to lose x amount of pounds within the time period, I realized that my diet basically consisted of Special K, fruits and veggies, and whatever was being made for dinner that night already. So I was basically following their program without even intending on it. That ended pretty quick when I learned what it really means for a food to be nutritious.

The way I see it, we diet because it’s expected of us to do so. The media is constantly telling us that we are not “good enough” (or substitute “good” for thin, beautiful, starving/emaciated enough- you get the idea), and we believe it. Furthermore, I think that dieting is a way that we can exercise our willpower and be proud of our ability to control. Anyone else recognize this as an eating disorder pattern? Because I know that when I’ve slid towards disordered eating in the past it’s been all about control.

I won’t go so far as to suggest that dieting is the socially acceptable version of an eating disorder (after all, eating disorders are almost becoming a fashion– a sick and twisted fashion, but an almost socially acceptable fashion nonetheless). But I will suggest that dieting could potentially lead to an eating disorder, and dieting is likely not going to be any good to your health. And if it’s appearance you’re concerned about, it’s likely not going to be any good for that, either. You are what you eat! Eat real, natural, whole foods, and it will reflect in the state of your physical and mental health. Exercise regularly and you will see results. Besides, do you really want to be emptying your pockets with buying diet books and special diet foods in the time of an economic crisis?

I understand that people who have serious health problems need to go on special diets. But it’s the fad diets I have a problem with, and it’s regular people going on diets because they are pressured into it that I’m concerned about.

Have you ever gone on a diet (any kind)? Do you currently diet? What diets have you tried and what have the results been? Why did you make the choice to go on a diet? I’d love to hear all about your experiences and thoughts on the subject!

*Please note that when I use the word “diet”, I am referring to fad diets that can be dangerous and detrimental to our health.


  1. Hmmm… I’m on what I call a diet at the moment. All that means to me is that I’m actively restricting calories and increasing exercise to a level where I will lose weight.

    To me, dieting represents having “a project”. It’s something rule-based for me to succeed at. I am right in the middle of a healthy BMI range at the moment, so although weight loss is an incentive it’s purely for aesthetic reasons and nothing to do with my health. And you’re quite right about the control – I’m going through a very tumultuous time and I the dieting relieves it.

    I think a lot of people diet for the same reasons as me, but they might not realise it, or admit it.

    It IS really scary. I have no doubt that my furious application to my “project” is what lead me to anorexia in the first place.

    I wish I knew what we could do to help and make sure others don’t fall into the same traps I did (and arguably still do)

    TA x

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more on this. I get so sad when I hear people say they’re going on a diet or hear them talk about the diet they are on. Diets don’t work long term. They are a short term fix to lose weight. In order to lose weight and KEEP IT OFF you have to make a lifestyle change – you can’t live on a diet forever. Ever since I lost weight, my family and friends call me up asking me my opinion of this diet or this pill and my answer is always the same – it’s crap. A diet or a diet pill won’t do anything that healthy eating and exercise won’t do for you. I really wish people could understand that!!

    Now I’m not saying I’ve never dieted, I’ve tried plenty of diets and pills, but I never had long term results. Once I realized I couldn’t diet forever and I needed to change some habits, I lost weight and I’ve kept it off and I don’t feel deprived one bit. Now anytime I talk about my diet, I mean my eating habits, the foods I eat – not actually being ON a diet.. I will never be ON a diet ever again.

  3. you’re spot on – people diet because they are told that’s what they should be doing, and it seems like a quicker,e asier fix than actually changing one’s entire lifestyle. which can be daunting, don’t get me wrong. But there is a TON of money to be made by companies selling diet products, which is why we see ads EVERYWHERE. You ask, “If diets don’t work, then why does everyone diet?” Think of how many other things people do over and over, even tho they don’t work. Drugs. Ex-boyfriends. Gambling. Things that distract or bring comfort, even tho ultimately, they just mask the problem.
    OK, I’m done spouting off.

  4. I don’t think enough people think past what happens when the diet is over. They are lost with what to eat because the focus was only on losing, not maintaining. They didn’t learn to eat correctly. That is what I am trying to do now. Learning how to eat right so I don’t end back with the weight I lost. I did try the Scarsdale Diet once. Not practical at all. Lost some weight but put it back.

  5. i think people diet because they dont trust themselves to eat healthfully. They know that all they need to do is cut out the crap, eat lots of fruits veggies and lean protein, but they feel they need strict parameters because they dont want to have to think. people have something against thinking, so if someone lays out exactly what they need to do- it should work.

    I hate the word diet. your diet is what you eat. you dont go ON a diet, you just have a diet, and that diet is either healthy or its not.

    Kelly Turner

  6. I think people don’t know where to begin with eating healthy and exercising, so they crave the structure and quick results of a diet. It’s much easier to follow a predetermined set of rules than it is to go through the work of figuring out your body’s individual equilibrium.

    I may be in the minority here, but I think that there are a number of popular diets that can be perfectly healthy tools for weight loss. I personally have had great success with South Beach and I know a number of people who have had great results with Weight Watchers. The key is that the people who are successful with popular diets use them as a framework or starting point to learn how to adopt a healthy lifestyle. In the end, they learn to eat whole foods, eat moderately, and move more. If you aren’t doing those things, weight probably won’t stay off for long.

  7. That Diet Blog post really got me thinking, too… I’ve dieted many times and currently I’m back on Weight Watchers (again). As to the whys of the behavior . . . well, last week I was writing in my blog about Stockholm Syndrome and I really do think that might have something to do with it. Even when the plan doesn’t work, you come to identify with it over time.

    Honestly, I don’t have tons of faith in me being able to make a lifestyle change on my own, most of the time. I have enough weight to lose where the excess lbs affect my physical well-being. It’s like, “I can’t f*** around with this intuitive eating crap, I have to do something! GAH!!!!” Although my nickname is the Turtle, I feel like I still need to lose a substantial chunk of change and not have it take 5 years. 2, maybe. But not 5 ;).

  8. TA- It can become very much blown out of proportion, can’t it? And it comes to represent so much so we feel as though if we succeed at that, we are really succeeding at much more than just that. And that’s maybe a dangerous perspective to have.

    Chandra- my thoughts are the same as yours! There’s a big difference between having a certain diet and being ON a diet.

    Leslie- this is a good point. When the same things are right there in front of us, then we WILL do them over and over again even if they didn’t work. We need to try to understand what it is that’s making us go back and that way we can figure out the best way to act in the future.

    Dadivastreet- that’s what happens when we only focus on the short term! Long term thinking is definitely the way to go. It’s so good to learn how to eat right.

    Kelly- love your thoughts on the word. And we need to learn how to trust ourselves to make the right decision- and think for ourselves without letting other people steer us in a specific direction. Easier said than done, though!

    Blueberryhil- thanks for your input about the other side of dieting! Interesting notes about using them to learn how to adopt a healthy lifestyle. But I wonder how many people do use diets in this potentially positive way?

  9. It’s about time someone wrote this. People do not want to hear that the best way to lose weight and keep it off is to make a lifestyle change that they’ll have to keep with forever. They want a quick fix. My nutrition professor said she’s lost many clients because she is honest up front and doesn’t promise a 10 pound weight loss in the first week. She tells them that the best way is slow and steady… but Americans don’t usually want to hear that. It seems like everything we do in this country has to be big and grandiose, including our “diet” attempts. Sigh. It is so depressing when I hear people at work talk about their diets and how they can’t wait to eat “normally” again. When people say “oh you’re so skinny just eat the piece of cake” I politely decline… because the reason I stay thin is that I DON’T eat the cake. No one naturally has an incredibly high metabolism that will let them eat anything they want, but I think people want to believe that and not take responsibility for their actions.

    Great post. Sorry if I was rambly! I just really agree with you.

  10. Great post!
    I used to follow that diet mentality, thinking that a diet will just make you lose weight. And in reality, I didn’t. Not getting enough calories didn’t make me lose any weight whatsoever. Instead, I gained a slow metabolism and some extra pounds.

    Now, I am trying to learn what it means to eat real food. And like you said, “You are what you eat”. And sometimes, it can be hard to choose the best food choices, but when you lose that frame of mind that you are on a diet, and that some foods are not to be eaten, you lose yourself. You lose what it means to enjoy eating, and enjoying life. So, here is to good eatings (even if they are not necessarily all the best choices, if you incorporate real food at least 90% of the time, I think you’ll feel better regardless)

  11. Statistics can be interesting. For example, if only 5% of people on a diet are successful in a year, over time, that would add up to lots of successes! It’s the recidivist rate that’s a problem, I think. The same successes, later failing. I’ll let you in on a secret. Most people would rather fail, and then not be bothered with dieting.

    I went on a diet, years ago when I was told by my karate instructor that I was fat.(I think you read about it on my site). I just ate less, and better lol. Good thing I didn’t know so much then 🙂

  12. Great question! I think, honestly, that people can get addicted to dieting. They love the cycle of work and reward and even better if it is a crash diet because then the rewards are bigger and almost instantaneous! But after that initial rush it gets old and hard to stick to. I also think dadivastreet was on the right track – it’s serious short-term thinking.

  13. I’ve never been on a fad diet, but when I lost all the weight I had put on it was only through healthy eating and exercise.

    I tend to hear all sorts of conflicting ideas about what foods are good and bad and get caught up in it.

    My mum went on the UK weight watchers diet, she didn’t have any will power to stop snacking though and eventually just gave up. Shes now worse than ever but wont listen to anyone, I stay away from people who don’t want to be helped because they can’t get over their own bullshit.

  14. Oooh – I get kinda fired up by this topic! Probably because everywhere I go, it seems like another person is talking about “going on a diet.”

    I am 100% with Kelly….my high school Health teacher pounded it into us that “diets” were something we all HAD – not something we choose to go on. Either we choose to have a healthy diet, or an unhealthy diet.

    And like my mom always says, if it sounds too good to be true…it probably is!

  15. i totally think that it’s the control thing as some other people mentioned… thats what it was for me – i love being in control and it was definitely something to focus on while i did it!

  16. “I won’t go so far as to suggest that dieting is the socially acceptable version of an eating disorder (after all, eating disorders are almost becoming a fashion- a sick and twisted fashion, but an almost socially acceptable fashion nonetheless).”

    Really? I might. I mean at least for some people who “diet” in a way that is extreme calorie restriction. The game of see how little I can eat is dangerous.

    Great post. I love your blog. 😀

  17. Diets are marketed to satisfy that instant gratification need that our culture has become addicted to. People want a quick fix. The thing though is that it took time and unhealthy habits to get you where you are today, so it will take time and changing of those habits to create a healthier lifestyle. That involves work, and unfortunately the “work” angle is not a popular marketing angle, sadly.

  18. Liz- thanks for commenting and for making that association with identifying with something… we all like to feel that sense of belonging and identifying with something and many of those dieting communities do offer that.

    Magpie- we like rambly around here! I encourage it so ramble away:) And I agree with your thoughts; people think that I am super lucky because I can “eat whatever I want”- but they don’t realize how much WORK I put in to be able to enjoy treats!

    Sharon- I’ll toast to that:)

    Dr. J- the recidivism is definitely the crucial aspect. And I do remember that post- am glad you didn’t succumb to the fad diets!

    Charlotte- addiction is a huge part of it. Losing weight can be addictive too- I’ve had to remind myself a few times that I’m focusing on maintaining, not losing, because I get too caught up with the concept.

    Jack- the conflicting information is such a problem. I think it’s important to step back from everything we hear and try to look at it objectively and come to our own conclusions about what the best choice is.

    Holly- your teacher and mum are very wise! (and it is SUCH a firing-up topic, isn’t it?:)).

    Loveofoats- me too. Big control issues.

    Hangrypants- thanks! And it’s a very dangerous game… people have such a naturally competitive streak, I think, and the desire to succeed in those kinds of challenges.

    Stephanie- it sure isn’t. But I think that the long term gratification is so much more REAL than the instant gratification-on-a-silver-platter kind.

  19. I think diets, as ridiculous as they are, offer people that false hope that this one is going to be the perfect diet that will change everything. It’s a fresh start and we all love a fresh start, even though it never lasts long.

    I am currently not following any specific diet, just trying to exercise more and eat less sugar/starchy foods. However, I will sadly admit that I did do the cabbage soup diet in high school to lose lots of weight right before prom. Things seem more logical at that age.

  20. Great post! I tried a few “diets” over the years, but they didn’t work. It was only after I gave it up in favor of eating healthy foods within a specific calorie range that I was able to successfully lose weight. The only reason I counted calories (and still do, to a lesser extent) was to teach myself what constituted normal servings and healthier options. Obviously, I had not a clue before. 🙂

  21. really well written and thought out post (here’s where I decide NOT TO RAMBLE TOO LONG in the comments and hijack)

    suffice it to say it took me 35 years (ok 25?) to get that a diet for me is REALLY AND TRULY just how I eat.

    my diet? intuitive.

  22. I’m going to echo MizFit – for me it’s about eating what feels right. And knowing what’s good and what’s bad (armed with a bit of nutritional knowledge) – I base what I eat on that knowledge, and then what just feels ok. 80% of the time I eat healthy, 20% there is some junk that gets mixed in.

    The traditional diets – too restrictive to stay on long-term…

    My diet then…”eat right”.

  23. I’m currently on a backlash from a “good” period of dieting, which in my world means counting calories and exercising daily at the gym. All this is good stuff, but because I’m still focussing on appearance once I see the pounds coming off, I let it slide, or get obsessed and swing to the ED side of things. Currently my mind’s fighting over the in between ground, though coupled with the purse incident, the sliding side’s winning, only I feel bad about it! Crazy I know.

    I’ve tried fad diets in the past including Special K and the Atkins. Actually the Atkins did work, but I felt dreadful throughout the entire time. And most of the weight came back on.

    I guess the difficulty is changing your mindset from thinking of dieting as related to appearance and healthy living. That’s the issue for me, and probably the key for not sending me spirally down the ED/control path.

    CP x

  24. I think that people want a quick fix: something that will make them lose weight NOW, but once they lose x pounds, they want to go back to the eating habits they had before, and they find their lost pounds.

    I try not to diet, as I feel too much pressure to never ever break the rules of it.

  25. Crystal- sounds like you’ve got the right idea now! And fresh starts are very inspiring… I guess that with diets if we know that they’re going to fail then we’ll be getting LOTS of fresh starts and that’s enticing?

    Cammy- I know exactly what you mean about figuring out the sizes- I used to track my calories too and I still technically do keep track in my head. Old habits die hard- I can guess the caloric content fairly accurately for just about any food. It’s kind of sad.

    MizFit- following intuition is such a good way to do it! Listening to our bodies does wonders.

    Lance- 80-20 (or 90-10) seems to work so well. Too much restriction would make the sanest person go crazy!

    CP- I think you’re right about that being the issue. It can be REALLY tough to find that middle ground… but I think its great that you’re aware when you’re sliding because then you are more able to pull yourself back up and away from things like ED. I know that awareness has definitely helped me!

    Tricia- yep. Pressure is VERY powerful. We need lifestyle changes.

  26. I hate the word diet. I am on a nutritional plan that supports my health goals. We need to turn this idea of diet around to become an overall healthful lifestyle.

    If we live a healthy lifestyle then maintaining a healthful weight almost becomes a non-issue.

    I use to carry with my self-instruction cards that I would read over and repeat everyday. One of them stated, “I eat foods consistent with a nutritious and healthful diet”

    After repeating this self instruction over and over, you begin to internalize it.

  27. Your posts are so great.

    I think people diet for a quick fix mostly… others feel the need to get wrapped up in something with lots of rules for it to work. We see something shiny with a promise and believe that THAT is what will solve all our worries.

    This is something I’ve been learning lately. We don’t need any “diets”- clean eating, portion control and exercise really are best. Amazing that it’s so simple, right?!

  28. Great post!

    This might sound a little harsh, but I think people diet (fad diets) because they are unhappy. Seriously when you really get to the core of it, people do not like the way they look, feel whatever and think that “if they lose just 10 lbs” they’ll be happy. The only problem is, you can’t lose weight if you don’t get yourself in a good frame of mind.

    Losing weight should be done in order to make you healthier, have more energy, etc. Yeah, you might look better at 150lbs than at 200 lbs, but you need to first love yourself and decide to lose weight for yourself and nobody else. Not because society makes you feel fat, you think it will help you have more friend, or anything like that. The way to do it to? Change your life! People are so afraid to permanantly eat healthy because they think that means no cake ever that they succumb to quick fixes. If people just realized that you need to eat healthy so that you can have treats in moderation they will be so much happier.

    Plus (talking from experience here) you never really enjoy that second piece of cake – you’re not savoring, you’re just shoveling stuff into your mouth. Eat some carrots, spinach and fruit and then have some chocolate as a sweet treat here and there… not as the main course!

  29. Tim- I like the idea of your cards! And the maintenance SHOULD be a non-issue if we’re living healthy… I think a big part of that is psychological to get over the anxieties that we might not be able to maintain.

    Ashley- it is! No more quick fixes!

    Catherine- happiness is definitely a big part of the issue. Somehow happiness is associated with being thinner… it’s bad.

  30. i completely agree with this post. you are so right about it all.

  31. The way I see it, we diet because it’s expected of us to do so. The media is constantly telling us that we are not “good enough” (or substitute “good” for thin, beautiful, starving/emaciated enough- you get the idea), and we believe it. Furthermore, I think that dieting is a way that we can exercise our willpower and be proud of our ability to control. Anyone else recognize this as an eating disorder pattern? Because I know that when I’ve slid towards disordered eating in the past it’s been all about control.

    *** I love this.

    We need to stop fighting nature. We need to eat when we’re hungry. Stop when we are full. We need to embrace our bodies the way they are. Stop dieting start living.

  32. The stat about 1 in 5 teenage girls dieting is pretty scary. I wonder how many of them are following a program and how many are just eliminating bad food choices? Hopefully, some of those 20 percent are just making smart choices and calling it a diet.

    What I don’t like about “diets” is that there’s success and failure. I’m much happier just doing my best each day, whatever challenges may come along.

  33. Seeleelive- Yes! You just know there’s something wrong when we’re fighting with nature.

    Sara- thanks for commenting! I really hope that the stat is a confusion between our typical understanding of a “diet” and simply eating healthier. Your thoughts on success/failure are interesting- I think you’re really right about that.

  34. Yes, what everybody said! I’ve been on a lot of diets, some really stupid ones. Trying to starve, which the mom still thinks is a great idea. I’ve yoyod all over the place, lost enough to be normal, gained it back, losing it again.

    I think it’s a combination of wanting instant results, and black/white thinking. I’m sure that I got some emotional charge out of starving/bingeing, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I no longer allow it. I guess I’m mostly on the 90/10 thing, where for the most part I eat healthy, whole foods, but sometimes I want a burger, or ice cream, so I have it. Weight loss is slower than it would be otherwise, but it happens, and only goes downward, not back up. However, I don’t feel like I’m denying myself anything, and can continue this lifestyle indefinitely. Though, maybe I do exercise too much, I’m always kinda tired. I’ll have to experiment with that

    I find it hard to read blogs that talk about good/bad foods, restricting, white-knuckling, etc. I’m glad I found yours, maybe I’ll find a few more.

  35. Lajuliebean- thanks for commenting! I’m all about the 90/10 thing. How much do you exercise and what kind of exercise do you do? Hope you continue reading:)

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