Why diets backfire

The biggest problem with diets is they focus on what and how much to eat without addressing why people eat in the first place.

by Michelle May, M.D. — 

We are bombarded with information about eating right and exercising, but millions still battle their weight. Diets often impose food rules that most people do not, cannot or should not follow for very long. Diet experts recommend counting calories, servings or points. Some diets require you to eat pre-packaged meals or eliminate entire food groups. Face it — if dieting were truly effective, the problem would have been solved with the first diet.

Your body has primitive, complex survival mechanisms that help keep you alive during limited periods of starvation. Now that food is abundant and readily available, most modern “famines” are the result of self-imposed diets. What appears to be a diet backfiring is really your body adapting to being under-fueled.

When you follow a restrictive diet, you will lose water and fat. Since muscle burns calories, some of your muscle mass may be sacrificed to lower your metabolism and “save you” from starvation. If you return to your previous eating habits when the diet is over, your body quickly replaces its fat stores, but not the muscle you lost. You will have a higher body fat percentage and a lower metabolic rate than you did before the diet.

But, it is not just your body that rebels when you diet. Your mind rebels, too.

When certain foods are forbidden, you feel deprived, leading to powerful cravings. Eventually, when you give in to the cravings for these bad foods, you feel guilty and out of control. You may give up the diet and binge on the foods you’ve been missing. Of course, most dieters blame themselves when the diet fails, but in reality, dieting itself is to blame.

The biggest problem with diets is they focus on what and how much to eat without addressing why people eat in the first place. Many people eat or overeat because of environmental triggers such as appealing food, automatic meal times, learned messages like “clean your plate,” or emotional triggers like stress, boredom, loneliness, sadness or anger.

Since these triggers do not vanish simply because we impose a strict set of rules, you may try to cope with them by eating the “allowed foods.” In other words, you never really give up emotional eating or learn other coping skills. The result is that when the diet is over, you go right back to eating the way you did before.

Do not diet. The real solution lies in learning to recognize and effectively cope with your eating triggers. Start by asking yourself, “Am I hungry?” whenever you have an urge to eat. By relearning to trust your innate ability to know when and how much to eat, you can begin to eat in a way that fuels your body, mind and spirit.


Michelle May, M.D., is a recovered yoyo dieter, award-winning speaker and author of Am I Hungry? What To Do When Diets Don’t Work. 480-704-7811. For 101 things to do besides eating, visit 

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 25, Number 2, April/May 2006.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Web Analytics