Dieting During the Shutdown? Here are 8 Reasons That’s a Terrible Idea

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How many tweets and Facebook posts have you seen from people worrying that they’ll pack on pounds during the coronavirus shut down? Zoning in on food intake and body size can offer a sense of control during out-of-control times—but experts we talked to say this moment of crisis is the worst possible time to focus on your weight. Negative self-talk and bad body image create undue psychological stress that can drag your mood down and weaken your immune system. And dieting itself, whether it’s actual reduction of calories or restricting certain foods, also adds to your overall stress burden. If that’s not enough to convince you that now is not the time to worry about your weight, here are a few other really good, science-backed reasons not to diet—not now, not ever. Getty Images

Dieting Often Worsens Body Image

“Diets that focus on weight and size inherently cause dieters to feel dissatisfied with their bodies,” says Jamie Mok, RDN, a registered dietician nutritionist who practices nutrition therapy at Memorial Care Long Beach Medical Center in Long Beach, California. That’s not just unpleasant—it may be harmful to your health. A 2018 study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that people who expressed greater body dissatisfaction had higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers in their blood. Underlying inflammation may contribute to a host of chronic conditions including diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma, notes Mok. “These findings suggest that the psychological stress of body dissatisfaction has a negative impact on our health.”

Dieting Can Cause Weight Gain in the Long Term

Research suggests that up to 98 percent of weight-loss efforts fail within five years, says registered dietitian and public health expert Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, author of Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. And many people who do lose weight gain back even more pounds than they lost, she notes. The aftereffects of crash diets may be even worse, suggests Mok. “Restrictive dieting for rapid weight loss can damage our metabolism,” she says. “Due to a phenomenon called metabolic adaptation, resting metabolic rate slows down following rapid weight loss.” In fact, a study on contestants from the television show The Biggest Loser found that their resting metabolic rate decreased by an average of 600 calories per day, a change that persisted for years after they left the show.

Yo-Yoing Is Dangerous

Most dieters gain the weight back months or years later, then go on another diet to re-lose those same pounds. This phenomenon is called weight cycling—or good ol’ yo-yo dieting. And it’s bad for you. “Not only are diets—aka lifestyle changes, plans, programs, protocols, templates, resets, etc.—ineffective, but they also put your health in jeopardy through this virtually inevitable weight cycling, which is an independent risk factor for things like cardiovascular disease, early mortality, some forms of cancer and many other conditions that mistakenly get blamed on weight itself,” Harrison says. “No matter a person’s weight or BMI, the more weight cycling they’ve undergone, the more their health tends to suffer.”

Dieting Makes You Obsess About Food

When you’re constantly depriving yourself, food can become all you can think about. In a famous World War II-era study known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, a physiologist named Ancel Keys sought to document the effects of famine and starvation. The study examined what happened to 36 healthy men as they dropped 25 percent of their body weight and cut their calories to 1,500 a day (a number that’s often considered moderate for many modern weight-loss plans). The men not only became gaunt and lost stamina, strength and sex drive, but they obsessed over food and often reported dreaming and fantasizing about it.

Dieting Takes the Fun out of Food

“When you’re not dieting anymore, your top food priority isn’t calories, it’s your preferences,” says dietitian and exercise physiologist Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, EP-C, author of Body Kindness: Transform Your Health from the Inside Out and Never Say Diet Again. “You can enjoy hot, crispy fries when you want and savor each salty bite. That broccoli in your grocery cart isn’t ‘good girl food,’ it’s just a vegetable you can’t wait to dip in hummus or swirl through guacamole.” When you’re not focused on consistently choosing the lowest-calorie option, you may open your eyes to the flavors, textures, and nutritional benefits of food in ways you didn’t see before—and even find yourself naturally craving fruits and vegetables.

When You Diet, The Scale Dictates Your Mood

Many of us have, at one point or another, let the number on the scale direct the course of our day. Number up? Prepare to punish yourself all day long. Number down? It may be safe to celebrate, but now you’ve got a new restriction to “keep you in check.” When you let go of dieting, you may let go of the need to let numbers like pounds, calories and fat grams, take control over your days.

Dieting Skews People’s Idea of “Health”

Being “healthy” is so completely wrapped up in body size that it is warping people’s understanding of the very terms, say some experts. The fact is, it is possible to have “excess” body fat and a BMI in the “obese” category and be quite fit and healthy at the same time, Jody Dushay, MD, an endocrinologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston told Health magazine. “I often advise patients to consider focusing less on, or even ignoring, the number on the scale,” she says. “This switch of focus may be a relief and actually make you more likely to pursue healthy behaviors. Eating a highly nutritious diet and exercising every day are incredibly good for you whether they shrink the size of your body or not. Focus on what you do in these two areas, and you’ll be healthier for it, no matter what your BMI is.”

Moving Beyond Dieting

When you’ve been watching your weight your entire life, picturing a life without dieting can be tough. One alternative is called the Health at Every Size approach. This weight-neutral philosophy focuses on promoting good-for-you behaviors without focusing on weight, allowing people of any body size to pursue health exactly as they are now. One 2018 clinical trial found that the approach “improved participants’ eating attitudes and practices, physical capacity and health-related quality of life” even if the people didn’t lose a pound. Isn’t that what “health” is really about? For further reading, check out Harrison’s bookScritchfield’s book, or Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works by dietitians Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RD.