Why can *they* diet but I can’t?
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
95% of diets fail long term-- and it can be SO hard to see the 5% succeed.
Enjoy June’s guest post by Stefanie Bonastia below!
If body image is something you struggle with, you have most likely intersected with concepts like “anti-diet” and “intuitive eating” in your social media searches.
Dieting is usually our first learned route to controlling body size, but it’s been found to not only fail to keep weight off long term (for more than two years) ninety-five percent of the time, it also leads to increased body dysmorphia and dissatisfaction, and causes all kinds of damage to both physical health and mental health.
The pursuit of body acceptance therefore typically involves the exploration of not dieting— even permanently giving up dieting— a concept that feels foreign and maybe even impossible at first. It is not uncommon for people to entertain this idea only in theory for many months, if not years, into their body image healing journey.
Dieting is like a quick-fix drug, and even if it feels like climbing uphill in quicksand, we resist the option to disengage in the pursuit of weight loss… just in case it works this time.
My client Anna started working with me months after learning about Intuitive Eating, but was still dabbling in its approach. With a decade of dieting and disordered eating behind her, Anna was well-versed in the cycle of losing weight, struggling to maintain it, and ultimately “falling off the wagon” and gaining it back (plus some). Still, the issue felt to her like a defect in her own character, an absence of willpower. She couldn’t understand why she could be SO successful with any given “lifestyle change” for months at a time (and even for years at a time, at one point right after college) and then watch herself lose control of it, time and time again, like trying to hold a beach ball underwater.
“Here’s the thing,” Anna said to me during our first call, “I know that dieting doesn’t work. I’ve read that ninety five percent of diets fail, and I’ve reached a point where I see what it’s doing to my physical and mental health. But I still want to be in that five percent*. I don’t understand why I can’t be, because I’ve done it before and I know I have a lot of willpower when I put my mind to something. I keep getting sucked back into the idea that I can do it right the next time, like the reason I failed was because I got distracted by work or went on vacation and lost focus. My cousin is doing Noom and she’s lost weight and kept it off so far, and when I see that, it’s like, why can she do it and I can’t?”
(*Quick note: According to the National Eating Disorders Association, thirty five percent of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting, and up to twenty five percent of those individuals develop eating disorders. Which means the documented five percent of dieters who “succeed” with weight loss long term very well might be engaged in disordered eating patterns or a full blown eating disorder.)
Comparison syndrome is one of the most common reasons I see people holding onto the diet mentality, despite the lived experience of having diets fail them time and time again. We not only compare ourselves to the former version of ourselves that “successfully” lost weight the first time, but also to our friends, family, and colleagues who seem to be doing it “successfully” right now.
And since most diets do work in the short term, and everyone around us seems engaged in that endeavor, it’s easy to feel like a mirror is being held up to challenge our conviction that dieting is bound to fail.
So let’s talk about why someone else in your life might be succeeding at dieting, and you’re not?
You’re only seeing the beginning of the journey. Diets often do work at first, which is why they remain so alluring. You may be witnessing the temporary high of the initial phase, which looks a lot like success (and you may have experienced this before yourself). The adrenaline of restriction can be self-sustaining for quite some time before the body’s natural cues kick in to increase hunger and decrease metabolism. Eventually, the ease of the initial phase wears off, weight loss plateaus, and what you see as “focus” starts to wane. This loss of focus is not a moral failing — it is a natural survival response to famine (dieting) that is hard-wired into humans to keep our weight from decreasing, which is recognized biologically as a threat.
You aren’t seeing the whole story. Remember that listening (or watching) other people’s stories of weight loss is a highlight reel. You’ll hear about the wins, but not so much about the struggles. What’s going on behind the scenes? Is this person obsessed with tracking their food intake or missing out on social events to avoid temptation? How often does this person feel deprived when they can’t eat in community with others, or wake up hungry in the middle of the night? How much of their mental real estate is taken up by their new “lifestyle”? The face of the weight loss journey is not a whole picture, and the parts that aren’t working usually stay private.
They don’t have a diet history. Some people are trying a diet for the first time (for example, someone with a naturally high metabolism who suddenly starts gaining weight later in life due to hormone shifts or other natural changes) and don’t have a complicated history of dieting. For people who haven’t been on and off of the diet train (and subsequently haven’t attached their worth to diet successes and failures), weight loss may not be as threatening to their physical or emotional state. That’s a lot of baggage they don’t have to contend with, and makes dieting a lot easier.
They are genetically smaller to begin with. People who live in naturally smaller bodies are going to have a much easier time maintaining a lower weight than people who are genetically programmed to weigh more. Those who are naturally smaller appear to be successful dieters because their biology is not fighting them to stay within a culturally acceptable body size.
They have more flexible thinking styles. People with disordered eating tend to be more rigid, controlling, and prone to obsession than their laid-back counterparts. It’s possible that the successful dieter doesn’t put as much meaning into this diet as you might, or they have no plans to risk their mental health when and if their hunger signals eventually do kick in. Mental flexibility reduces guilt and increases trust between you and your body, so the likelihood of bingeing is less for them than it might be for you.
For people like Anna, an extensive history of dieting (combined with decades of subscribing to a “weight-as-worth” philosophy) is likely to always interfere with successful attempts at long term intentional weight loss.
As a result, Anna and I spent close to a year working on letting go of the deep-rooted belief system that weight loss was important, that it was possible for her (and should be easy), and that it would bring her happiness.
While diet-talk (or “success”) among friends and colleagues remains a trigger for her, remembering the above reasons why some people can seem to lose weight and others can’t is a helpful tool for her to recognize diet culture when she sees it, avoid behaviors that lead to mental distress and disorder, and feel rooted in her value of acting in her own best interest instead of feeling competitive with or pressured by what other people are doing.
In a culture that makes dieting a socially sanctioned hobby, it takes intention and practice — and a certain level of courage — to reject weight loss as a collective pastime and live for reasons beyond how we look. When you begin to prioritize your lived experience over the diet culture rat-race, it becomes easier to deflect the external chatter and stay grounded in your values.
And that level of freedom has no comparison.
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