If Diets Don’t Work, Then What?

Strong WomenOne of our favorite things about the blog is the way it has generated conversation and a sense of community.   We enjoy hearing from people, not least of which because we’ve had generous comments for the most part. Once in awhile, however, someone calls us on something. That’s okay too. Debate is good. We’re philosophers, and, as Sam said, that’s how we roll.

I was called out just last week when a regular commenter said that I spend a lot of time repeating that diets don’t work, but I don’t offer anything hopeful or helpful. Craig said, “if this blog is about getting fit and healthy, and not simply about “fat acceptance” – give us some clue as to how obese people can lose a lot of fat in a healthy way and keep it off for reasons pertaining to health, as opposed to just reminding us of the inevitability of us being fat and unhealthy forever!”

Granted he is right about one thing for sure: neither Sam nor I has given any advice for how to diet away fat and keep it off.  The stats for success using that approach are depressingly grim.  I say “depressingly” because I wish it were not so. But does this mean that I think there is no hopeful or helpful approach that might take the place of plans and programs aimed specifically at losing weight and keeping it off?  Not at all.

Sam has blogged quite a bit about the potential to be both fit and, by the standards of most charts, overweight. Both of us stress performance goals over weight loss goals.  And both of us would love to be leaner for various reasons having to do mostly with the strength that additional muscle mass would bring, thus enabling us to perform better at some of our chosen activities.

We have also talked about metabolic health. Amber at Go Kaleo! is a strong proponent of focusing on lifting heavy weights and eating in such a way as to stoke the fire that is our metabolism. That usually means eating substantially more than we thought we needed to eat and that most diet plans will tell us we need to eat for maintenance.

Though I have not yet read Amber’s new book, Taking up Space, I know that the information from her blog is first rate, and that the book compiles a lot of information from the blog, making it easy to find and use.  As Amber tells her own story, she was quite overweight by any standards and had a damaged metabolism. She says,

2008, after 35 years of the Standard American Diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and two pregnancies, I found myself obese, exhibiting a whole laundry list of Metabolic Disorder symptoms, and hurtling madly down a path toward chronic illness and an early, preventable death…After decades of diets, yo-yoing weight, and thousands of dollars spent on weight loss gimmicks, I decided to stop trying to lose weight and instead focus on nourishing my body with real, whole foods in adequate amounts, to achieve HEALTH, not weight loss. Instead of punishing myself for dietary indiscretions by spending hours running on the treadmill, interspersed with years of absolute inactivity, I started finding activities I enjoyed..

After doing her own extensive research she developed an approach that has certainly worked for her and enabled her to change her body composition dramatically while eating lots of good food, including carbohydrates. So that’s an approach that I would recommend.

I have also talked about Matt Stone’s Diet Recovery 2, another book in which metabolism and the damage that diets can do to it figure prominently.  Again, he recommends an approach that is 180 degrees from what we usually see recommended in the form of diet for weight loss.

My preferred approach and the one that I am practicing these days is Intuitive EatingIt is working for me. By “working,” I mean that I am not obsessed with food and weight. That’s a big change from my experience for the majority of my adult life. I do not weigh myself anymore, and the last time I did (for curiosity’s sake — a dangerous move that I will not engage in very often), I weighed the same as when I’d started intuitive eating. If I end up gaining, I will not let a weight gain deter me from continuing to develop an overall healthy relationship to food, weight, and activity.

I combine this way of eating with my favorite activities: yoga, swimming, running, and resistance training. I follow a schedule for training, though I am not rigid about it.  I would rather do less than I think I ought to do than aim so high that I start wanting to skip working out or feel as if working out is an obligation instead of an enjoyable part of my life.  I recommend that anyone who is just starting out or who is struggling to find a rhythm with it aim lower rather than higher.

Above all, Sam and I don’t budge on being anti-diet.  Why? Because they don’t work. I didn’t make that up and, as I said, I wish it weren’t true. I don’t keep saying this to discourage people, but rather to allow us to move on from a failed experiment.

We pretty consistently offer a different approach to those who are interested in improving their health (again, as Sam said yesterday, you don’t have to be interested in this). And we do offer some specific tools and information for embarking on that approach.

I have said before that it is not an easy thing to do. It’s very possible that those who follow Amber’s approach or Matt Stone’s approach or the intuitive eating approach or the focus on strength, not weight, will weigh more than the weight they have in mind as their ideal. But over time, the focus on that number will recede into the distance as a more energizing focus takes its place.

The “results” might not be as immediate or dramatic as what you will see on a restrictive diet. But they will be more sustainable.

When I was always dieting and gaining back weight, my dad — a family doctor — liked to say that the only thing necessary to lose weight and keep it off was to “change your eating habits.”  This truism used to annoy me, but the fact is, I never took it seriously.  I did have to change my eating habits.  The single most necessary change I had to make was to stop eating beyond my comfort level.  This requires a more mindful approach to food and to how I feel when I eat it. It’s every bit as difficult as dieting but the difference is that it produces sustainable changes.

There is nothing extreme about eating mindfully. And there is nothing extreme about the recommended approach to activity. In both cases, let’s make choices we enjoy.

I hope very much that the overall message of our blog is not one that inspires hopelessness, but rather one that encourages those who wish to enjoy a healthy approach to physical fitness to try doing things differently, and in more sustainable ways.  We would love to offer a “how-to” with 5 or 7 or 10 easy steps. But that’s not how we do things around here.

[thanks go to Craig for sparking the conversation that led me to write this post]

About Tracy I

Writer, feminist, vegan, triathlete, sailor, philosopher, sometimes knitter.

17 thoughts on “If Diets Don’t Work, Then What?

  1. Craig Burgess says:

    Thank you for this blog, Tracy. It was helpful. Sorry for expressing my exasperation the other day. I think I’ve been having problems recently attempting to understand my new exercise addiction and how to bring balance to my life without losing my new found health. I believe I’ll be giving Taking Up Space a read.

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    • Tracy I says:

      Thank you for sparking the conversation. In fact, I just added a thank you to you to the bottom of the post. I hope Taking Up Space gives you useful food for thought. I’m going to download it today myself and give it a read.

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  2. Marc says:

    Hi, just picked up this blog from Google alerts. Very interesting and it sits very well with my own journey in many ways. I am finding that by making small changes regularly and then letting them ‘bed in’ there is sustainable weight reduction (or at least there might be as I dumped the scales to take the focus off weight but my tailor tells me I have lost 3 inches off my waist line so I’m assuming I have lost a few stone:-)) This is a very different approach from my previous attempts to lose weight. I am using a program written by a life coach that was recommended to me at the end of last year and it is working well for me, so well in fact that I am finding this journey effortless and more important free of guilt. What struck me as so different and liberating was simply the removal of the fixation on the restrictive part of traditional dieting and the emphasis on being happy in my own skin. Restrictive diets don’t work, that I can absolutely agree with, and I have found several respectable peer reviewed studies which back up that assertion – and it is not just ‘fat acceptance’. To me it is not about being thin to make me happy, it is about being happy to make me thin. Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to share and good luck.

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  3. Caitlin says:

    My husband lost 60 pounds several years ago and he has kept it off. Now, it definitely might have been easier for him because he’s a man and he doesn’t have all the biological stuff going on that fights to retain fat, but he follows some principles that have worked really well for him. Those are:

    – He gets regular physical activity: running, swimming, biking. Twice a morning, he does a full-body routine of calisthenics and body weight exercises in the living room. When he started, though, it was just by taking the dog for a walk, then after a while he started using the elliptical at a local gym. Now he is a triathlete and a ten-time marathoner who is getting ready to do his first Ironman.

    – He gets plenty of sleep. When he is tired, he goes to bed. It sounds obvious but a lot of people don’t do that. I had to learn this from him because I was very inculcated in the idea that you have to stay up late on certain nights and all that.

    – He eats tons of fruit and vegetables. Like, a ton. Every day he packs his own lunch and takes it to work with him, and it usually contains a huge salad with protein and a big thing of chopped up fruit. When he snacks, it’s things like apples and peanut butter or yogurt.

    – He does not drink alcohol or eat fast food. Sometimes he has little binges when he is tired or sad, and he will eat donuts and fried chicken, but those are pretty few and far between.

    I think it also helps that he lost the weight slowly and by making long-term lifestyle changes that he has been able to maintain. He did not diet, in the sense that he did not do caloric restriction or restrict entire food groups. In fact, I changed my lifestyle quite a bit when I became involved with him and adopted a lot of his habits, and as a result my health has never been better. I’d recommend this way of living for anyone, not just people who are trying to lose weight, although it seems to work well for that too.

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    • Sam B says:

      I’d say it’s easiest for those with big lifestyle changes to make! I’d have to lose that many pounds much to get into the normal BMI range for my height–probably unattainable given how muscular I am–but I’m a very healthy eater. Vegetarian/vegan, no fast food, no alcohol, lots of fruit and vegetables and a ton of physical activity. I eat chocolate cake probably more often than is called for and I love oatmeal but…

      So adopting it as a weight loss plans assumes that the overweight person isn’t already there. It’s tough. With the precision nutrition program I’m working on mindful eating, eating to 80% full and no more, eating lots of fruit and vegetables, and making sure I get protein and healthy fats with each meal.

      But I don’t have big changes to make.

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      • Caitlin says:

        Yeah, my thinking is that if you make the big lifestyle changes, you’ll end up losing some weight but then you’ll settle in at a weight that your body wants to be at. What that weight is, I don’t know. I do think that having a “goal weight” isn’t a particularly great idea because that goal weight might be a lot lower than whatever the person’s body wants to be. Plus I think a lot of us have bodies that really want to weigh more than what we’ve been told is acceptable by various establishments, so it’s entirely reasonable that you can have a person who is active and eats well and everything and who is still considered overweight according to the BMI.

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  4. Craig Burgess says:

    I lost 60 pounds on Dr. Bernstein and then a further 10 or so pounds on my own after Dr. Bernstein. Except for gaining 10 pounds over 2 or 3 weeks while trying intutive eating (man, did I indulge! and my waist went up an inch!), which I’ve now lost again, I’ve maintained it now for only about 6 months. Along way to go! But I exercise 1 1/2 to 2 hours a day about 5, sometimes 6 days a week, and I eat very healthy (no junk food ever) and still take in only about 1800 calories a day – although that count keeps rising albeit slowly. I still haven’t regained all the strength I lost on Dr. Bernstein (and I still exercised 4 or 5 times a week while on it) but I’m getting there – big strength gains lately. I’m almost 6’2″ and weigh about 193 pounds now. It’s been hard but I had to lose the fat – so I really didn’t have a choice to go the slow, steady, healthy route. I think I recognize now though that this truly makes me somewhat of an exception, however, and that most people should go for the slow steady approach which statistically anyway, is more sustainable.

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    • Tracy I says:

      If you only did the indulgence part of Intuitive Eating you didn’t really got to the intuitive eating part. Trying it for 2-3 weeks and giving up on it because you ate beyond your comfort level isn’t going to give you a fair assessment of its potential. I get that the weight gain can lead to panic and going right back to the old way of doing things. It’s only for people who are done with that way and seeking a different approach. The weight would level off once a person settles into truly intuitive eating, not just indulging on all the “forbidden” foods they can. That’s great that you’ve sustained your weight for 6 months.

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  5. Craig Burgess says:

    I agree with everything you say, but the problem is that I can’t gain the fat back, for medical reasons. So again – I’m in the minority that just can’t give this method a fair shot, unfortunately.

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  6. Craig Burgess says:

    I should add that I was nowhere near what you call the “intuitive eating” place. I suspect that I would have gained back 30 or more pounds before I was even close to “intutiting” what to eat.

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    • Tracy I says:

      Yeah I know what you mean. I’ve bailed on it several times in the past for the same reason. I’ve come back to it now only after spending so many years defeated by the merry-go round of yo-yo dieting. I truly hope for you that your case is one of the exceptions. You certainly seem to have a high level of commitment to what you’re doing and it’s obviously working.

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  7. […] If Diets Don’t Work, Then What? Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty gives a pretty good answer. FF&(a)F is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs. […]

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  8. […] the same things many times on this blog, and am myself a strong proponent of intuitive eating as an alternative to dieting precisely because of the documented record of restrictive diets’ failure to produce long term […]

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  9. […] 5. If weight loss is the focus of this competition, you can be sure that diet is going to play at least as important a role as the workouts.  They’ll be recommending all sorts of restrictions.  Let’s call them “diets.”  And the jury’s back on that whole issue: diets don’t work. […]

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  10. […] and heard and even written quite a bit about dieting and why it doesn’t work. See here and here and here, for example. So I didn’t think there was a lot new for me to pick up, though of […]

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  11. […] They don’t even work.  We’ve talked about that tons, including here and here and here and […]

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  12. […] responded last summer with the post “If Diets Don’t Work, Then What?”   There I promoted the benefits, mostly in terms of mental health, of the intuitive eating […]

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