Problems With The Dieting Mentality

Pretty much all of us have tried to lose weight. Maybe we are trying to lose just 10 lbs for a wedding or maybe we are trying to lose 100 lbs because our doctor is concerned about diabetes or high blood pressure. The media is saturated with ads to lose weight, while at the same time competing for air time with fast food and pizza commercials. To sum it up: it’s a battle, and sometimes we are winning and sometimes we are losing. But if there was a single diet out there that actually lead to weight loss and maintenance, all other diets would go away, wouldn’t they? If someone had figured out the magic bullet to make it easy, everyone would jump on board and abandon every other ship they’ve ever been on. So, why doesn’t that exist? We can put a man on the moon but overeating and obesity can’t be beat?

Looking At The Whole Picture:

Let’s look at the typical “dieting cycle,” and see if you can spot yourself in it. First, we recognize there’s a problem and we decide to lose weight. We blame ourselves for our lack of willpower and decide that eating carbs or fast food or chocolate is the culprit. So, we muster up the willpower and stop eating a certain food, or we restrict ourselves to a strict diet to fix this problem once and for all. Second, we can actually lose weight doing this so we think the diet is working, but as time goes on we can’t help thinking about those bad foods that we can’t have. We look at ourselves, say, “this diet is working or worked” and rationalize eating some of that delicious treat we haven’t stopped thinking about. Ever notice that the more you say you can’t have it, the more you want it? That’s called deprivation focus, and we get intense cravings of it, not just because it’s tasty, but because we are creating desire for it in our mind by dwelling on it. Third, we indulge because it’s just so delicious and we deserve it. This turns into over-indulgence, since we know what we’re doing is “bad” and we’re trying to get as much in before the inevitable guilt sets in. Fourth, the guilt, oh the guilt. We feel shame because the diet was sound, but we just couldn’t control ourselves, and we are to blame. What do we do about that? Well, desperate times call for desperate measures, so we decide that we have to restrict ourselves again and deprive us of that forbidden fruit (or chocolate). Indeed, we think that the problem is us, not the diet, so the solution is to diet again.

So Where Does That Leave Me?

Hey, the fourth stage of the cycle looks pretty much like the first stage, doesn’t it? Exactly, which is why dieting sets you up to fail. You don’t fail because of willpower, you can’t sustain the losses because of the dieting mentality. If we deprive ourselves we want it more, and then we can’t help but overindulge when we get it, because our bodies are designed to do this. Think about what life was like 10,000 years ago and evolution was happening right in front of your eyes. Those humans that we able to survive harsh winters without much food probably outlived humans who needed a constant source of food. Food was actually pretty scarce back then, so humans who evolved the ability to store food and eat when it was plentiful, had lots of babies who did the same thing. It helped us survive. Flash forward 10,000 years and food is plentiful, but our biology hasn’t changed, so it still wants to eat as much as it can, just in case, when it’s available. Turns out though, that when we are feeling deprived, we are triggering this overindulgence response. So, it’s not willpower, it’s actually evolution, and dieting triggers this response in us because we focus on deprivation.

Can I Ever Lose Weight?

So, what does that mean to us as we continue to struggle to lose weight? A shift from the dieting mentality to sustainability. A shift from black and white (all or none) thinking of deprivation and overindulgence to grey areas of imperfection, the 80/20 rule, and SMART goals. A shift from blaming our willpower to understanding the mechanisms of biology and society that we are facing. A shift from thinking that dieting is a “fix” to knowing that consistent self-monitoring and management is the key. If you’ve tried to lose weight and the results weren’t sustained, I would suggest that you try not to diet, and try shifting how you think and feel about weight and yourself, which is ultimately what causes the behaviour of overeating. Obesity and overeating is a symptom, and addressing the symptoms does not result in long-term change. We need to know what drives the behaviour. Otherwise, the behaviour will return as soon as you take your foot off the gas pedal of dieting. And always having your foot on the gas is exhausting. If you are struggling with weight, I would suggest considering a psychological approach. Even if you want some book recommendations or references to what I’ve said, we can help. You can do it, and keep doing it, but you’ll need to know how.


Jason Jones, B.Sc., MC, Registered Psychologist