The Dangers of Dieting

Smoothie diet

Diet culture wreaks havoc all year long, compromising our joy, peace of mind, health, and trust in our bodies. And now, as in years past, it has hit its peak season. Dieting’s unfounded claims and empty promises show up with renewed energy after the holidays, as if right on schedule every year.

With the ring of the new year comes diet talk suggesting that we should “get back on track” after holiday eating or “jumpstart” the year with weight loss resolutions. Cleanses and detoxes and fasts galore, the clamor implies that we must change our bodies with the turn of the calendar. It sets an expectation that controlling our bodies will lead to happier, healthier lives via “new year, new me” goals.

But weight-loss dieting is a misguided approach to happiness and health. Not only is it ineffective for most people, but it can actually cause harm to our bodies.

The Problem With Diets

The most common critique of weight-loss diets is that they don’t work—and they don’t. That is, dieting is an ineffective means of losing weight for the overwhelming majority of people. Some people may experience temporary weight loss, but study after study shows that these results do not last. On the contrary, about 95% of dieters regain lost weight within five years (Grodstein et al., 1996). What’s more, many of these dieters ultimately gain back more weight than they initially lost.

The lack of sustainable weight loss is not the fault of the dieters. It is not because dieters lack willpower or self-control; in fact, research shows that even dieters who maintain their diet and exercise programs do not experience long-term weight loss. The reason? Our bodies are designed to fight against it. Survival-based biological responses protect us from the perceived threat of starvation.

But dieting impacts more than our weight, and our conversations about it should include more than claims about its effectiveness or lack thereof. Here are some (but not all) physical consequences of dieting beyond weight change. Note that these complications overlap and interact.

Physical Consequences of Dieting

  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Vitamins and minerals play a range of essential roles in the body, and deficits can impair immune function, bone growth and density, skin and vision health, and more.
  • Chronic fatigue. Without adequate food as fuel, we can experience fatigue that affects both our physical and mental functioning. We may feel exhausted or lethargic and have difficulty concentrating.
  • Altered mood. Neurotransmitters that regulate our mood fluctuate when we’re hungry or our blood sugar is low, contributing to irritability and mood swings.
  • Gastrointestinal issues. Gastrointestinal side effects of dieting include bloating, indigestion, and irregular or inconsistent bowel movements.
  • Muscle loss. If the body is consistently not receiving adequate energy through food, it can start to break down muscles for energy.
  • Low body temperature. Metabolic and hormonal changes related to dieting can influence our body temperature, resulting in feeling colder than usual.

Dieting and Eating Disorders

A diet is not an eating disorder, but a diet can foster an unhealthy relationship with food that could lead to an eating disorder in those susceptible. Dieting, in fact, is one of the greatest risk factors for developing an eating disorder. One study of teenage girls shows that those who moderately restricted their intake were 5 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who did not diet, and those who severely restricted were 18 times more likely (Golden et al., 2016).

Though most people who diet will not develop a clinical eating disorder, dieting poses significant risks to our physical and mental wellbeing. A meal plan that meets your body’s nutritional and satisfaction needs can help to re-establish trust in our bodies and maintain your overall health.

If you are concerned about your, a loved one’s, or a patient’s dieting, reach out to The Emily Program for a professional assessment. Get started online or by calling 1-888-364-5977. 

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