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Step away from the scales! Why dieting isn't effective


What does the word diet mean to you? Technically we all eat a diet but more often than not the term diet has become synonymous with weight loss, cravings, temptation, desire, restrictions and more often than not misery, guilt, blame and even shame.

So, why do so many people go on a diet? Well, you may think that’s fairly obvious, we have been in a slow pandemic long before the Covid-19 pandemic. We have a global pandemic of obesity. We have significant increases in the number of obesity related co-morbidities such as Type 2 Diabetes.

We have Government initiatives year after year to 'tackle' obesity. We have slimming clubs (these are the worst in my opinion), products, books, celebrity endorsements, shakes and potions all with various weight-loss claims that dieting is the answer.

But if diets are the solution and everyone has been going on diets, then why are obesity issues increasing each year?

Turn back time

The diet industry dates back to the 1970's following a health scare in the US, when cases of Coronary Heart disease rose and dietary fat became the named culprit. Many foods became demonised and the low-fat industry was born. This particular view of the nutritional influence of fat was largely upheld from roughly 1974-2014.

Year after year since the 1970’s people have been on diets, the diet industry has boomed, the supermarkets have become full to the brim of diet this, alternative that, sugar free, fat free products. People have made millions from ‘the miracle cure’ this is the one folks, ‘The diet to end all diets’ this is the one that will work. There’s every type of diet book, there’s all manner of clubs and yet, and yet, obesity has also risen year on year since the 1970’s.

The whole time the diet industry has been making money out of making us thinner the whole of the western world has been getting fatter.

Key facts from the World Health Organisation on Obesity statistics

  • Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.

  • In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these over 650 million were obese.

  • 39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2016, and 13% were obese.

  • Most of the world's population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.

  • 39 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2020.

  • Over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016.

Obesity, can we say it?

Due to the way in which obesity is often portrayed in the media it has gained a rather negative image. One which causes a divide and a lot of misunderstanding. An example of this is that obesity is simply caused by ‘greed and laziness’ and can be solved by ‘moving more and eating less’. Neither of these are the case but people are often afraid to mention the word for fear of causing offence. We need to treat obesity as a medical condition and not something to be ashamed of.

  • Obesity is a very complicated combination of issues: -

  • Obesity is a medical condition

  • Obesity is an extremely complicated mix of issues, emotional and physical

  • Obesity is not just to do with what you eat

  • Obesity has many co-morbidities

  • Obesity is preventable

According to the NHS by 2030;

50% of the UK will be classified as obese

So, do we all need to go on a diet? No. Obesity is a complicated issue. It is actually many issues and restricting calories does not address these issues.

Dieting and obesity

There are many reasons why dieting contributes to an ever-increasing obese population:

  • There’s still a lot of sugar in diet products but they are now accompanied by artificial sweeteners

  • There is a real lack of nutrients in most diet products, it is often the little things that make the biggest difference and vitamins and minerals support fat metabolism

  • Artificial ingredients in many diet products are harmful to the gut microbiome – the gut microbiome is an essential part of fat metabolism and blood sugar regulation

  • Fats are a useful energy source to the body and can make us feel full. Eliminating them can lead to over-eating on less nutritious food without ever feeling full

  • Counting calories is pointless if you don’t consider what is in the calories

  • Dieting can lead to feelings of guilt over food indulgence which is damaging to mental health and self-esteem, this can often lead to emotional eating

  • Weighing yourself is damaging to self-esteem and counter productive to fat metabolism as the scales don’t tell you your body composition only your weight

  • Diet clubs can damage mental health as everyone is unique and will only lose weight in a way that suits them individually. There is definitely no one-size fits all solution

  • Public weigh in events at diet clubs are very damaging to self esteem

  • Diet related guilt and self-esteem issues can often lead to emotional eating

  • Diets damage food relationships, making people see ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food or feeling ‘naughty’.

  • Diets lead people to punish themselves via food restriction not nurture themselves via food choices

  • Stress (often brought on by the diet itself) increases the stress hormone Cortisol which increases abdominal fat, so worrying about your diet can actually make you store more fat

  • Restricting a food makes you want it more

This is not an exhaustive list, there are many more factors but fundamentally the problem with diets is that they only look at what is on your plate, what we need to do is to look at what drives the food decision to choose that food. This could be a combination of emotional eating, food habits, food addictions and/or misinformation on food choices. Educating ourselves on nutrition and fat metabolism is key to then actually losing weight, and more importantly maintaining a healthy weight whilst not damaging our relationship with food.

If diets worked then we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic, as stated in a webinar I attended recently on Public Health Nutrition Professor David Katz stated that there had been a slow pandemic happening throughout the western world, long before the Covid-19 pandemic. This pandemic was due to the fact that: -

Diet is now the number one predictor of all cause mortality surpassing tobacco”.

To put it another way, our food environment has changed and is causing poor diet to be the number one cause of premature death around the world. When we factor in the fact that for 40 years’ we followed a health trend that actually caused obesity despite being launched as a low-fat health initiative, it’s hardly surprising that everyone is a bit confused and doesn’t truly understand why the food we eat is making us ill.

We are heading towards a future where obesity is normalised as it is so common place but no matter how common it is, obesity is a serious health concern, one which causes a deterioration in the quality of life and life expectancy. We cannot expect any fundamental changes from the global food-industry overnight, if anything in the last 20 years our food has got much worse with the rise in Ultra Processed Foods ( ).

Without any significant change, we need to be the change, to understand for ourselves what we are eating, what we are feeding our children and how this food has the potential to shape all of our future health. One thing is for sure, there is no diet, club, fad or fix that will solve this issue, understanding your own body and making an informed decision is key.

Check out our activity for the month to get some sensible, science backed ideas and tips for a healthy weight and how we really metabolise fat.

I was delighted to be joined by Robert J Davis for an interview on my podcast.

Robert AKA The Healthy Sceptic, is an award-winning health journalist, host of the healthy sceptic video series and author of 4 books. The latest of which, 'Supersized Lies - how myths about weight loss are keeping us fat' Robert joined us from LA to discuss myths and, well lies!

Keep an eye out on Apple/Spotify/Google etc to get notified when we go out with this one.

Keep an eye out on all social media for some helpful hints and tips.

Louise Mercieca

Nutritional Therapist

Personal Trainer

Early Years Nutrition Consultant

Award-winning Author

Food & Health Writer

Presenter on Early Years TV Food

Keynote speaker

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