Why Does Your Diet Never Work?

In this article, a part of our “Healthy Appetite” series, collaborator and nutritionist Bernard Lavallée explains the trappings surrounding diet culture.

Like many others before, you’ve decided to lose weight. The new “it” diet seems to work for so many people! This year—unlike the previous ones—the pounds will just melt off. A little willpower and self-control, and everything should be fine, right?

Diet culture

Wanting to be thinner is normal in our society. According to ÉquiLibre, about 75 percent of women want to lose weight, regardless of their size. One of the reasons for this statistic is the ideals conveyed in the media: Slimness is associated with beauty, success and health. Conversely, fat people are victims of prejudice. They are perceived to be in poor health and lacking in willpower. They also face discrimination in all areas of their lives, including work and school.

In short, our society considers that being thin is good, whereas being fat is bad. This situation has created fertile ground for a billion-dollar industry that preys on insecurities related to body esteem in order to make profits.

Natural weight

It’s normal that people come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Everyone has a different natural weight. This is the weight where our body is most “comfortable,” that is, without really thinking about it or making any particular effort, it always ends up coming back to that weight.

Diet, regimen or lifestyle?

Over the years, the diet has metamorphosed, changing its name and shape. The terms “lifestyle” and “ways to eat” have replaced “diet” and “regimen.” Even though diets claim that they are about well-being, health or “taking care of oneself,” weight loss is often a hidden motivator. After all, if a healthy new “lifestyle” was about gaining weight, it would never become popular! According to the Quebec Public Health Association (ASPQ), less than half of people who try to lose weight will talk about it to those around them.

Ask yourself this: why do you want to try this way of eating? If there’s a weight loss goal, it’s a diet, regardless of how it’s being touted.

An industry based on failure

Whenever a new diet becomes popular, those who promote it swear that this time they have found the miracle recipe to lose weight and then maintain it. In fact, so far, we do not know of any effective long-term method of caloric restriction. According to the ASPQ, between 85 and 95 percent of dieters will regain lost weight within five years. You would never market a drug that only works between 5 and 15 percent of the time. However, the diet industry is taking advantage of this high failure rate. If everyone lost weight forever after a single diet, the weight loss trade would not have customers clinging to its promises all their lives—but that’s exactly what happens.

According to the Quebec Public Health Association, in Canada in 2014, the weight loss industry represented a market of more than $7.5 billion. 

Why do diets fail?

A diet always starts with a restriction. This can be counting calories, portions or points. You can also ban certain foods or limit the hours you have the right to eat. Some will simply say “be careful.” But the goal is always the same: eat less.

We are generally able to restrict ourselves for a period of time. But our bodies don’t like these imposed famines. We need thousands of calories every day to function properly, and it’s our body’s role to make sure we meet our needs. Thus, it triggers different mechanisms to encourage us to eat, such as increasing our hunger. It can also reduce our energy expenditure in order to maintain its reserves. As a result, we lose less and less weight, even if we eat less.

And that’s not counting the psychological factors. Food is much more than just calories. It also brings pleasure into our lives. We’re not made to deprive ourselves or feel negative emotions about what we eat. We know that forbidden foods become more and more tempting. Inevitably, we end up “cracking,” or “cheating,” in short, breaking the rules we imposed on ourselves. We start eating as we used to, and the weight goes up again. Often even more than before the diet. That’s because our body is doing its job!

But rather than pointing a finger at the diet, we blame ourselves, beat up on ourselves, think that we lack control and willpower, and feel guilty for not making it to the end result. And then we think we have to start it all over again. This cycle of restrictions and “failures” is well known to those who diet.

How do I turn my back on diets?

I’ll be honest with you, getting rid of the diet mentality is no small task, especially when we’ve been fighting our bodies all our lives. I cannot argue that a single article can resolve your relationship with food, but here are a few ideas for getting the process going.

1. The media affects our perception of weight. Follow people with diverse bodies on social media. You will see that you can be happy, no matter what the number is on the scale.
2. Your value as a human being is absolutely not determined by your weight.
3. You have the unconditional and constant right to eat the foods you love.
4. Weight is not a controlling factor, but a lifestyle factor. Eating a variety of foods until satiated, moving and getting enough sleep are habits that promote overall health, regardless of weight.

Doing this work alone can be difficult. For this reason, I advise you to consult health professionals, such as nutritionists and psychologists, who can help you regain a positive relationship with your body and finally say goodbye to diets, once and for all.

Bernard Lavallée

Our contributor Bernard Lavallée is a nutritionist and member of the Ordre professionnel des diététistes du Québec. He is the author of the books Sauver la planète une bouchée à la fois (Save the Planet One Bite at a Time) and N’avalez pas tout ce qu’on vous dit (Don’t Swallow Everything You’re Told), published by Éditions La Presse. He contributes to various media outlets and regularly feeds his blog. Bernard takes our readers through the latest scientific discoveries from the world of nutrition. Photo : Katya Konioukhova.