Five Reasons Why Restrictive Diets Do More Harm Than Good

If you’re anything like the vast majority of the population, you started this year with one of these goals as a top priority: “get in shape”, “lose weight”, “get fit” or “get healthy”.

I get it. For the longest time my Januarys started with a rigid healthy eating plan to get back in shape and lose the holiday bulge.

Having tried almost every diet imaginable, it’s clear that most diets we follow do one of two things, they either restrict calories or restrict food groups. Even so-called it’s not a diet but a lifestyles are still a diet because you cut the amount of food, or food groups (despite the marketing suggesting they aren’t diets).

Diets “work” in the short term because in one way or another you are reducing the amount you eat. Whether that’s through counting calories or macros, limiting the time period in which you can eat, cutting out carbs or sugar, or “elimination” diets. When you are eating less, the idea is that you will lose weight.

And for the most part we do, at least to begin with… Research shows that during the first six months of any diet (be it calorie counting or cutting carbs), the vast majority of people lose around 5-10% of their body weight.

So far so good… but there’s a dark side that people just don’t talk about. In the long-run, restrictive diets actually do you more harm than good and here’s five reasons why…

#1 Diets don’t work.

I know, I literally just told you that diets “work” in the first six months. But what about afterwards?  What about after 2 years or 5 years?  After all, if you start every January wanting to get back in shape and lose the holiday bulge, surely it would make sense to find a diet that works – for good – so that you never have to start again the following January.

The stats vary from study to study, but we can pretty confidently say that diets fail in about 80-95% of cases when participants are followed on their diets for longer than 6 months. 

That’s a pretty high failure rate when you think about it – imagine popping into a shop to buy an appliance and the store owner telling you that there’s a high chance (80-95%) that the appliance will fail after 6 months? You just wouldn’t buy it, would you?  

#2 Diets are the biggest predictor of weight gain.

Seriously. Going on a diet is the biggest predictor of gaining weight in the long run. It’s wild to think that we go on diets to lose weight, but actually we’re more likely to put on weight over time.

The same research I shared above also shows that within 2-5 years, the vast majority of dieters have put weight back on, and in two thirds of cases are heavier than when they started. There’s a lot of other research that corroborates this finding – yoyo dieting is also implicated in several negative health outcomes, including increased levels of cortisol and stress

Maybe restrictive diets should come with some sort of health warning?

#3 The diet industry wants you to fail – over and over

What’s the best way to make money?  Repeat customers!

How’s this for a great money-making exercise? Offer your customers something that fails 80-95% of the time, and when it doesn’t work you blame the customer (yes, it’s your fault, your willpower is the reason it didn’t work). Then, you make the customer feel so bad that they try a slightly different product, but this has an equally high failure rate and so your customer starts the diet-fail-repeat cycle over again. All the while you blame the customer when they fail, over and over again. 

It’s a GREAT way to make money (hence, multi-billion dollar industry), but terrible for your self-esteem, self-worth and feelings of failure.

#4 Diets mess with your biology

Diets mess with your hunger hormones. When humans face a famine (i.e. diet), they are biologically programmed to stay within a certain weight range (that’s called set-point theory), so your body does everything in its power to prevent you from losing too much weight.

One of the cleverest things your body does during a famine/diet, is make you feel more hungry by stimulating hunger hormones, and also makes it harder for you to feel full by down-regulating your fullness hormones. It’s exactly why you have an insatiable appetite when you are on a diet.

#5 Diets are a big predictor of eating disorders.

You may have been on several diets and it’s never messed with your relationship with food. That’s awesome and I’m so glad that’s the case. However, in many instances, diets create a very negative relationship with food.

There’s a very fine line between diets and disordered eating. If you examine diets closely you’ll see that many of the recommendations are disordered – such as low calorie diets (1200 calories is less than the calorie needs of a toddler) and intermittent fasting which is really just skipping meals. 

In fact, the National Eating Disorders Association suggests that diets are a precursor to eating disorders.

So, you may be wondering then, if restrictive diets don’t work and are bad for your health, what can we do instead to “get healthy”? 

If you are officially ready to give up dieting, you can focus instead on health promoting behaviours that are related to long-term positive health outcomes (weight isn’t a behaviour). These include:

  • eating a variety of food including plenty of fruits and vegetables (as much as your budget will allow); 
  • getting good quality sleep at night (preferably 7-8 hours per night, but also, as much as your circumstances will allow – I’m thinking children / shift work here); 
  • and aiming to move your body regularly (it doesn’t have to be high intensity or sweaty exercise to qualify – a simple walk around the block or standing whilst you chat on the phone can also be considered movement).

Bottom line is, diets don’t work. They can be considered disordered and the precursor to eating disorders. You are much better off focusing on eating a good variety of fruits and vegetables, ensuring you get 7-8 hours of sleep per night and moving your body regularly. 

Dr. Lara Zibarras is a psychologist and food freedom coach, helping clients create a healthy and happy relationship with food. You can learn more about Lara’s approach to food freedom here, or find her on Instagram and YouTube


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