The Mighty Logo

The Hidden (Emotional) Harm of Dieting

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

We know that the vast majority of people who attempt weight loss have the same experience, they lose weight short term, then gain it all back within a few years, with many gaining back more than they lost. Those who try again are nearly certain to repeat this experience. When people do this repeatedly it is referred to as “weight cycling” (or colloquially as yo-yo dieting).

We know that weight cycling is linked to negative health outcomes. As Bacon and Aphramor point out:

Attempts to lose weight typically result in weight cycling, and such attempts are more common among ob*se individuals [62]. Weight cycling results in increased inflammation, which in turn is known to increase risk for many ob*sity-associated diseases [63]. Other potential mechanisms by which weight cycling contributes to morbidity include hypertension, insulin resistance and dyslipidemia [64]. Research also indicates that weight fluctuation is associated with poorer cardiovascular outcomes and increased mortality risk [6468]. Weight cycling can account for all of the excess mortality associated with ob*sity in both the Framingham Heart Study [69] and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) [70]. It may be, therefore, that the association between weight and health risk can be better attributed to weight cycling than adiposity itself [63].

For some, of course, dieting moves from disordered eating into an eating disorder and can become life-threatening But it’s not just health impacts, weight cycling can also take a serious emotional toll and we tend to talk much less about that.

The diet industry is horrible at creating long-term weight loss. What they are good at is taking credit for the first part of the biological response to dieting (the short-term weight loss) and blaming people (and getting them to blame themselves) for the second part of the biological response (the weight regain). They have worked hard to perpetuate a narrative — with absolutely no research basis — that anyone can be thin if they try hard enough. This means that when people follow the diet industry script, they blame themselves for failing, despite the fact that they are having the same experience as almost everyone who diets. The more times we diet, the harder the diet industry works to convince us that we are weak-willed failures who just need to try (and pay them!) one… more… time.

Perhaps worse than that are the brief times when the weight loss is happening. Suddenly we are getting the approval of everyone — friends, family, doctors, strangers. We are (however briefly) moving ourselves out of an oppressed group and so we face less weight stigma — we may fit into more chairs, more stores may have our size, etc. Because we’ve been trained to see body size manipulation as an accomplishment, we bask in all of this — often beginning to perpetuate the same weight stigma that previously harmed us by posting “before” and “after” pictures, celebrating all the ways we are now accommodated by a fatphobic world, disparaging our previous fat bodies and toeing the line with anti-fat diet culture talk.

Then it all comes crashing down.

We find that (as the research told us it would) feeding our body less food than it needs to survive in the hopes that it consumes itself and becomes smaller is unsustainable. Our bodies are physiologically changed by the trauma we’ve put them through into weight regaining, weight maintaining machines.

We blame ourselves for being “failures.”

We blame ourselves for the weight stigma that we are again experiencing. Often, instead of fighting for a world where all bodies are respected and accommodated, by dieting we temporarily appeased our bullies by changing ourselves and, in doing so, gave those who oppress us even more power (and, in many cases, even joined the oppressors while we could).

Then there are all of those compliments. Every single compliment for weight loss is now an insult. We know for sure that friends, family, doctors and strangers think we are better when we are thinner because they enthusiastically told us so.

This is part of what lures people back into diet culture — even when we’ve failed over and over, even when we know that there is basically no chance that we will succeed. We just keep seeking the validation we got for the brief period of time when we were smaller than we are now.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can decide to get off the diet roller coaster. We can acknowledge that many of the people around us have also been duped by diet culture into believing that bodies are healthier/more attractive/better if they are thinner.

We can also stop being part of this cycle for other people in our lives. We can respond to weight loss by saying something like, “You look amazing in both pictures!” or “I celebrate you at all sizes” or “Even if you’re among the vast majority of people who regain their weight, please know that you are valid and worthy at every size.” This might not be well received when it happens (as the person basks in their temporary body change and expects the world to join in on that fatphobia) but when they are looking back, they’ll have the memory of at least one person who didn’t tie their beauty, health and worth to their body size.

Diet culture is harmful to our bodies, minds and spirits. The only way to win is not to play.

Photo by AllGo – An App For Plus Size People on Unsplash

Originally published: December 10, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home