Statistically, you’ve tried a fad diet – or five. Your friends have, Beyoncé has, and 45 million other people in the US alone will diet this year. At the same time, you know that diets almost never work. Dieters gain weight back at depressingly-high rates and are at a higher risk for developing eating disorders. So, why do you keep coming back for more? Here’s a few reasons why it’s not your fault – and why you should consider breaking the cycle.
6 Reasons We Fall For Fad Diets
1 | We’re attracted to simple solutions.
Think about the number of things you do, see, say, think, feel, and learn each day. Got it? Now, add in all the decisions you make over the course of a day – from what you eat for breakfast to the show you zone out to in the evening. It’s a lot, right? Because we take in so much information every day, our brains have a few shortcuts to help simplify the process.
That’s good because it saves us time. You’re watching The Good Place by now, right? Chidi is basically your brain minus those mental shortcuts. He attempts to reason through each and every decision he’s forced to make each day. And surprise! – it doesn’t work. He is the picture of indecision and (comedic) dysfunction. So, our brains need to take shortcuts to make sure we can function on a basic level. But there are downsides, too.
Here are a few ways that cognitive shortcuts can go wrong:
- We seek out evidence that supports our current thoughts and beliefs – even when we’re objectively wrong
- We make snap judgments based on our past experiences
- No matter how rational we think we are, our decisions are strongly based on how a choice makes us feel
- Our choices are more automatic than we want to believe they are
Because our brains love shortcuts, we’re attracted to simplicity. We like “quick and easy.” We like things that seem to make sense right away. It’s not laziness – it’s efficiency.
So, when someone tells you that carbs are evil and the keto diet is the solution to all your problems, your brain eats it up, Okay, great, carbs = bad, easy enough! By the way, feel free to sub in gluten, fat, sugar, or any other vilified ingredient here – this problem isn’t unique to the keto craze.
2 | We believe that dieting is the answer to our unhappiness.
This one meets at the intersection of our simplicity-loving brains and societal conditioning. You already know that our brains are drawn to simple solutions. In terms of easy answers to complex problems, thinness = happiness is way up there.
But your brain didn’t invent that idea. When you were growing up, you likely watched the adults around you diet. I know I did. By age 10, I knew all about Atkins and jello fasts and South Beach through watching my parents try anything and everything to lose weight.
And by age 11, I was playing the diet game, too – at least until it turned into a full-blown eating disorder. I won’t dive into the role of the media here because (1) other people have made careers out of doing this and (2) I think other factors are more important than media influence.
The point is that we are conditioned from childhood to associate dieting, weight loss, and – the driving force behind it all – thinness with our happiness.
When you believe that weight loss is the secret to feeling whole, why wouldn’t you go along with whatever you think will get you there?
3 | We don’t always trust authority – and we don’t necessarily like their advice, either.
There are actual medical professionals whose job is to help you make the best dietary decisions for your body and lifestyle. But sometimes we don’t want to listen to them. It’s so easy to find a “nutrition coach” on Instagram with a bullshit online certificate who will tell you exactly what they did to lose 30 pounds in 3 weeks – and how you can do it, too.
It’s not as sexy to follow common-sense guidelines for taking care of your body. You know, the same stuff every doctor says: Eat more fruits and veggies, limit sugar and fried foods, stay active. Honestly? It sounds boring. And maybe it hasn’t worked yet for you, so you try something else.
We also like the mystical element of fad diets.
We love the idea that something ~magical~ happens when you throw ingredients in the blender to make a green smoothie, or when you mix cayenne pepper and lemon juice together. It’s a modern-day myth. In a culture bringing back witchcraft for white girls, mythos is in. Old school, bare bones nutritional advice? Not so much.
4 | Everyone else is doing it.
By sophomore year in college, I had been trying to recover from an eating disorder for a few years already. I wasn’t all the way there yet, but I technically ate enough every day and I never made myself throw up, so I felt like I was about as close to recovered as I would ever get.
Part of my recovery meant eating more than I really wanted to most of the time, including former fear foods like ice cream and pizza. I also stayed away from the gym most days to avoid the threat of falling back into compulsive overexercising. That year I shared a dorm with three ~cool~ girls who woke up at 5:45 every morning to work out and hated themselves when they drunk-ate pizza on Friday nights. They were emphatically not Mean Girls material – they genuinely had good intentions. But their influence pushed me back a few steps in my eating disorder recovery.
My “friends” would compliment my tiny meals on restrictive days, praise me for my new daily hour-long workouts, and go on “cleanses” and complicated crash diets – together.
This stuff is considered normal. Disordered eating is considered normal – at least until it goes too far. Because our friends and families and everyone else we know normalizes dieting as a lifestyle, we do, too. And sometimes we get trapped.
5 | We’re trapped in a cycle of disordered eating.
When it comes to dieting and disordered eating, there’s a physical trap and a psychological one.
The physical trap is relatively simple. Food restriction throws your body into starvation mode. Because your body isn’t getting enough energy (calories), it adapts by holding onto the few calories you are taking in and storing them as fat. So, you’re restricting your food intake but not losing weight.
If you’re someone who’s vulnerable to eating disorders, you can leverage that into full-blown anorexia by restricting your calories further and further to compensate until restriction is no longer a choice but a compulsion. 0 stars, do not recommend.
The psychological trap is not a lot of fun, either. We restrict, feel deprived, and – when we can’t hold out anymore – binge. After “cheating,” “blowing the diet,” or otherwise fucking up, we feel guilty. And then how do we react? Well, if you’re like most people who equate your diet with your self-worth, you probably use food to cope – either more of it or less of it. Either way, you’re stuck in the cycle. And this wasn’t what you were promised when they told you that losing weight would make you happy.
6 | We don’t know there’s an alternative – or we don’t think anything else will work.
We buy into diet culture over and over again because:
- Our brains like “quick and easy” solutions
- We think getting thinner will make us happy
- Fad diets are sexier than common-sense nutrition advice
- Everyone we know diets – it’s normal
- Even if we decide we want to break the cycle of disordered eating, we get stuck
But what else can we do? Seriously. We still value thinness. Society hasn’t changed. Wellness coaches and paleo bloggers and model-turned-nutritionists are everywhere, profiting off of the idea that diet is everything, clean eating is key, and you’re only a few pounds away from a better life.
So, what do we do if we start to feel like dieting and hating our bodies isn’t working anymore (if it ever did)? Maybe we can’t change everything or even make a difference outside of ourselves. But we can start doing better for ourselves. Maybe we can work on trusting our bodies, learning to listen to them and give them what they need. We can try to treat ourselves better and learn to believe that taking care of ourselves means more than hitting the gym 3-5 times a week – it’s mental, emotional, and – yes – physical, too.
I’m oversimplifying things here because it’s a big topic and I have a lot more to say that won’t fit here. But if you actually want to start feeling better and what you’re doing right now isn’t working, doesn’t it make sense to try something new?
So, What Can We Do About It?
As I work on adding tons of content to the blog for Blogtober (and beyond), I want to do a deep-dive into a few topics that matter a lot to me, like:
- Life after disordered eating
- How to start eating intuitively +
- The best people to follow for BS-free nutrition advice
This is a big, big topic and I want to do it justice. Breaking the cycle of disordered eating and (slowly) learning to trust my body has changed my life in the best way. And if you’re stuck in dieting hell, I want you have as many resources as possible to get unstuck.
If this sounds helpful to you, make sure you sign up for email updates to stay in the loop (+ also you’ll get a general get your life together kind of guide – because I’m a blogger in 2018 and freebies are what we do).