I spend most of my working hours writing about why various diets don’t work. I like doing it. And, I think it’s helpful for people to see what’s actually behind the curtain of these things that claim to be so life-changing and unequivocally *good.* But after a while, it’s hard not to feel like I’m writing the same story over and over. It’s like an anti-diet mad lib. Various diets and food rules get swapped in and out, but the framework is always the same. (Ironically, diets themselves do exactly the same thing.)
This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter, where I answer reader questions about intuitive eating, Health at Every Size, and how to live your anti-diet values.
I’d sum that framework like this: Intentionally trying to change your hard-wired behaviors around food is certain to backfire. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to eliminate a food group, avoid eating outside a certain time window, or limit yourself to a predetermined amount of each macronutrient every day. The effort is going to fail. And, you’ll likely end up feeling even more out-of-control around the food group. Even more consumed with thoughts of food during the times you “can’t” eat. Even hungrier for sweet, sweet, carbs when your macro tracking app says that actually, what you need is a big bowl of fat and protein. Your body knows what it needs, and trying to convince it otherwise is bad news.
Systematically debunking diets can be satisfying, yes. After so much practice (and education!), I’m good at it. (And, of course, diets don’t work, so there’s plenty of evidence to back up my point of view.) But there’s a huge piece of the puzzle that I don’t think I talk about enough: For many people, it’s not really about whether or not the diet works.
It’s about believing that unsolvable problems can be solved.
It’s hard to be honest with yourself about the ineffectiveness of every diet you’ve tried. Most of them probably delivered on their promises of weight loss or wellness for at least a little while .It’s so tempting to hang onto those short-lived “successes” as proof that the diet, or another diet, could work, if only you could figure out how to milk their benefits long term. Only, of course, you can’t. Your hard-wiring kicks in, it overcompensates for whatever change you’re forcing, and you end up feeling worse than when you started. It’s not willpower, it’s physiology. And it’ll happen on the next diet, and the next one.
Still, it can be tough to give up the quest for the perfect diet, the last one you’ll ever have to try.
Why? Because diets promise to solve all sorts of impossible problems. Specifically, they offer themselves up as a “solution” to your dissatisfaction with your body, your wrinkling skin, your lack of confidence, your mid-afternoon fatigue, or your genetic predisposition to certain illnesses. It’s possible to soundly debunk all of these claims. Weight loss doesn’t solve body image problems. Wrinkling skin is an unavoidable part of a long life. Mid-afternoon fatigue is natural. It’s impossible to shrink your risk of an illness to zero.
But the unspoken promise of any diet is that it can solve a much less tangible, less debunk-able, problem. It’s the vague sense of malaise we all feel, sometimes or often, that we assume we can overcome by ridding ourselves of body dissatisfaction, wrinkling skin, lack of confidence, fatigue, and the fear of what may happen to our health in the future.
That’s really why we come back to diets time and time again. Even when we realize they don’t solve our tangible problems, we’re hoping they might solve our more existential ones. Diets say “If you can do this well enough, then you’ll be happy and OK.” But nobody ever does them well enough or for long enough. This promise of happiness and OK-ness never comes true. But coming to terms with the fact that it’s a faulty promise is deeply unsettling. In many ways, it’s easier to keep driving ourselves crazy with diet after diet. At least this way, we can hold onto the belief that someday, all of our problems might get washed away.
Accepting that diets don’t work means accepting things as they are.
Am I freaking you out? I’m sorry. All of this can start to feel very intense and overwhelming if you think about it for long enough. I’ll bring it back to the bright side. Accepting that some problems are just part of life is challenging, but incredibly worthwhile. Diets are appealing because they offer us a sense of control over things that make us unhappy or uncomfortable.
But in reality, many of those things just can’t be controlled. Your body will change over time whether you like it or not; you’re never going to be one-hundred percent satisfied with it, one-hundred percent of the time. You’ll feel tired, weak, and overwhelmed sometimes. You’ll get sick. Learning to endure these things, instead of avoiding them, will make it so much easier to embrace all of the good stuff that happens in between.
You’re subscribed to an anti-diet newsletter; at least on some level, you understand already that diets don’t work. You might wonder why I keep saying this. Why not instead of use this space to rail against elimination diets and “hormone experts” instead? It’s because I don’t think you can really embrace these ideas without coming to terms with all of this other stuff first. You can read takedown after takedown of various eating plans or supplements. You can nod along with the evidence that proves diets don’t do what they claim to. But until you understand that the appeal of these things goes beyond evidence, and that their promises are inherently impossible, you’ll keep searching for The One That Actually Works.
The diet that’ll solve all your problems? The one that’s different from the others? It doesn’t exist. Next week, we’ll get back to talking about how and why to do things differently.