Is diet culture setting us up for failure?

And why a healthy diet is more than just calories.

From cutting out carbs and avoiding sugar to subsisting on shakes and skipping meals, chances are you’ve tried countless diets over the years with varying success, often ending up heavier than when you started. While you can stick to it for a while, most of us eventually fall off the bandwagon, unable to maintain the strict rules and berating ourselves for a lack of willpower before finding ourselves in front of the fridge

That is until we’re lured in by the latest plan promising quick results, only to wind up in the same place soon after. Sound familiar? The merry-goround of weight loss is undoubtedly exhausting, with each failed attempt more demoralising than the last. 

This was the case for Lyndi Cohen. Growing up, she was told “You’d be so pretty if you lost weight” so many times, she started to believe it. 

“I was five when my turbulent relationship with my body started. I was in ballet class, in a pink leotard, staring in the mirror when I noticed it. While the other girls had straight up and down bodies, I had a tummy and thighs that touched. It was the beginning of feeling like my body was flawed.” 

Lyndi Cohen had a turbulent relationship with her body and diet culture.
Lyndi Cohen’s turbulent relationship with her body began at age five in a ballet class.

By age 11, Lyndi was placed on her first diet, even though she was within the healthy weight range. 

“I went to bed at night with a calorie counting book, calculating whether or not I’d been ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that day. In addition to the regular weigh-ins at the nutritionist’s office, I became obsessed with weighing myself.” 

This led her to develop binge eating disorder (BED), the third most common in Australia. Impacting 21 per cent of people with eating disorders, BED is characterised by frequently eating large amounts of food in a short period. 

“I’d devour ‘forbidden’ foods like ice-cream straight from the tub just as readily as I’d gorge on healthy foods like cucumbers or berries,” she recounts. 

After a decade of diets and battling BED, Lyndi was categorised as obese, her turning point coming in a clothing The big dieting dilemma Weight loss With no end to the diets, pills and programs promising lasting weight loss, it begs the question: Wouldn’t we all be at our goal weight by now if they actually worked? store change room. “I hated myself so much that I jumped in my car and drove straight to the doctor, completely distraught. But instead of recognising my eating disorder, I was prescribed a new diet plan. I couldn’t escape diet culture, even inside my doctor’s office.” 

Weight loss & our wallets 

It pays to keep us stuck in the dieting cycle. Last year Australians spent $483 million on weight-loss services, lowcalorie foods and dietary supplements, with a myriad of apps, programs, books and meal replacements claiming to be the solution we’ve long searched for. 

Over the past decade, ABS data shows the proportion of adults struggling with their weight has increased, and that almost two-thirds of Australians are now overweight or obese. So where are we going wrong? 

While we’ve been led to believe we lack willpower or commitment, traditional diets set us up for failure from the start. 

This is largely thanks to evolution – our bodies are hardwired to hold on to fat stores to get us through famine. We might initially see the number on the scale go down, but our physiology is working against us. 

“After just a few kilograms of weight loss, our metabolism starts to lower, meaning we burn fewer calories at rest, driving us back up to our starting point,” explains obesity researcher Dr Nicholas Fuller from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre. 

This is compounded by the fact that when we diet, appetite hormones like ghrelin surge, signalling for us to eat more. We eat more food, store more calories, and put on the weight we’ve lost. While this was beneficial in times of deprivation, it’s less helpful today. 

“Our bodies don’t know any better. They’re good at protecting us against weight loss and not so against weight gain due to our in-built evolutionary survival mechanism,” says Dr Fuller. 

Why diets don’t work 

The one thing all diets have in common is some form of restriction – whether that’s the number of calories you’re eating or cutting out entire food groups – which makes them almost impossible to stick to long term. 

According to research, the biggest predictor of weight gain isn’t family history or lack of willpower around cake. It’s whether a person is on a diet. 

The way to beating diet culture is by eating intuitively.

This is because dieting increases cravings for foods you’re trying to avoid, and boosts hunger hormone levels while making it harder for you to feel satisfied after eating. 

What’s more, when our metabolism is slower, it makes future weight-loss attempts harder. This often leads to diet burnout, where each attempt becomes less successful – a feeling Lyndi is all too familiar with. 

It took her four years, but after realising that ‘trying to be good’ wasn’t working, she learned how to stop dieting and ditch years of rules, like her irrational fear that fruit had too much sugar. The dietitian and author of Your Weight Is Not the Problem ended up losing 20kg in the process. 

“I shifted my focus away from my life-long efforts to weigh less. Instead, I created new habits and ways of thinking about food and exercise, redirecting my mental energy to focus on how my body felt instead of looked.” 

Diets are clearly failing us, yet still we’re lured in with the promise of weight loss. Beyond the mental load of requiring us to think about food every waking moment, they could also be doing the opposite and lead to weight gain.

Calories in, calories out 

While the concept of ‘calories in, calories out’ is good in theory, the reality is far different. Research shows that calorie counting can be inaccurate by up to 25 per cent and how much energy you burn each day varies, depending on activity and stress levels. 

“There’s no question that to lose weight you need to be in a calorie deficit, but this is not about restricting your food intake,” says Dr Fuller. “When you embark on a health and weight-loss journey, you should be eating more, but you should be eating more foods found in their natural or whole states, not processed and packaged.” 

Inaccuracies aside, calorie counting doesn’t seem to help people lose weight and keep it off. You might have had some success with a calorie, points or macros counting system before, but you’re likely to end up putting on more weight than what you started at. 

The way to beating diet culture is by eating intuitively.

This was illustrated by one of our biggest social experiments when it comes to weight loss, The Biggest Loser. In a 2016 study, researchers followed 14 contestants during and after one season of the show and found they regained much, if not all, the weight they’d lost. Worryingly, the more weight a contestant lost, the slower their metabolism became, explaining why weight regain is inevitable, even when eating less. 

“This is not about restricting and eating small amounts of food. It’s about eating more from the food groups that we typically restrict or cut out on a four-, eight-or 12-week diet plan. When you start to restrict, your body is going to go into shutdown mode,” Dr Fuller explains. 

How can we lose weight? 

The trick, researchers say, is to focus on three key pillars: nutrition, exercise and sleep. Without getting the basics right any weight loss attempts will be thwarted. This means having a clear understanding of the impact food has on your body, incorporating sustainable movement and clocking enough quality shut-eye. 

The other part of the puzzle is to lose weight at a pace that doesn’t trigger your body’s survival response. Losing weight too quickly can prompt the body to store calories, which is what led Dr Fuller to develop his evidence based Interval Weight Loss approach. 

“We get people to lose weight in small, manageable chunks every second month. This involves losing a couple of kilograms, followed by a month of weight maintenance, followed by another couple of kilograms until you hit your goal weight.” 

This helps the body to recalibrate to its new lowered ‘set point’ (the predetermined weight our body protects) instead of triggering its survival response. 

The biggest challenge? Imposing those maintenance periods and not getting excited by the number on the scales going down. 

“You can reprogram your set point, but you’re not going to change it through traditional diets. We’ve been doing that for the better part of the last five decades and it hasn’t worked.”

Focus Shift

For long-term weight loss, you don’t need more willpower – you just need to change your approach. Here’s how.

  • TUNE IN TO YOUR BODY: Intuitive eating isn’t just another buzzword. Being more in tune with your body’s internal hunger cues can help you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. 
  • RESIST THE URGE TO RESTRICT: When you reach a weightloss plateau your body activates starvation mode, so further restricting food may only boost your appetite and slow your metabolism. 
  • DROP THE FOOD RULES: Food rules like ‘no snacking between meals’ help you to feel in control at the time, but generally result in feelings of shame and guilt. Instead, aim to build healthy habits, like adding an extra serve of vegetables. 
  • THINK HEALTH, NOT WEIGHT: Exercising for enjoyment rather than punishment and eating for longevity instead of weight loss will help shift the focus from how you look to how you feel.

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