As recently as a few years ago, almost everyone who made New Year’s resolutions included something at least tangentially weight loss-related on their list. That has changed a lot, thanks to the mainstreaming of body diversity and to a greater emphasis on being kind to ourselves generally — especially amid a global pandemic. Still, many of us will make diet resolutions for 2021, whether that’s setting a goal weight, exercising for weight loss, eating less or cutting out certain food items in the hope it will make us smaller.
It makes sense: Despite great advances being made towards dismantling diet culture and moving away as a society from the once-prevalent idea of the “perfect body,” we are still fed the message that being smaller equals being better in a million little ways every day. Fat people are still ridiculed online and in the street; they are still dismissed by medical professionals. We are still taught that being fat is one of the worst things we could be.
If, in this context, you decide you want to go ahead with losing weight in the new year, that is of course a valid choice that you get to make for yourself. That said, there are mindful ways to set diet resolutions without making anyone around you uncomfortable. SheKnows spoke to non-diet registered dietitian Kirsten Ackerman, certified eating disorder registered dietitian Casey Bonano and Laurie Wollman, LCPC (site director at The Renfrew Center in Baltimore) to guide you through what that looks like.
Though wanting to lose weight is justifiable in a world that encourages it, there are many considerations to work through before you embark on a diet — now or ever. Put simply, the evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that most, if not all, diets backfire.
Diets have consequences for your physical and mental health
Diets often work for a while, then begin to “slip,” which leads to frustration as well as more serious consequences for your overall wellbeing. “The diet begins with specific food rules and defining certain foods as good or bad, the bad usually including the majority of food and our most favorite foods,” Bonano says. “For a while these rules provide guidance, structure, and reassurance, but since most foods are on the bad list, you are unable to adhere to the diet for longer than a short amount of time.”
Eventually, you feel compelled to “cheat” on your diet rules. “Feelings of deprivation increase, cravings begin, and the drive towards the forbidden food intensifies,” Bonano continues. You eat something you had decided not to, and this makes you feel guilty or like you have no willpower. This can then lead you to feel out of control and binge. Then you restart this diet or another one and the cycle continues.
The consequences for both your physical and mental health can be disastrous. “Because diets often cut out key foods, they often cause the following symptoms: dehydration, weakness, fatigue, nausea, and headaches,” Wollman says. “Constantly dieting can also be harmful to self-image and lead to ongoing food issues.”
“The single most common outcome of a diet is weight regain,” Ackerman says. “In fact, you often gain more weight than you had before the diet. Diets are extraordinarily good at causing weight gain because they send your body into survival mode which causes your body to try to prepare for future famine (by storing extra weight).”
Even if you think you’d rather lose weight in the short term and worry about gaining back more weight later, you still need to be extremely careful. “Weight cycling (the loss and regain of weight often caused by dieting) is harmful to health,” Ackerman says. “It has been demonstrated to cause worsened cholesterol levels, dysregulated blood sugar levels and high blood pressure.”
The diet industry has an interest in keeping you hooked to the cycle
There is a lot of money to be made in keeping you in the diet/binge cycle, so don’t underestimate the influence of media and advertising on your desire to lose weight in the first place. “If dieting worked, there wouldn’t be a thriving 71 billion dollar diet industry,” Ackerman says. “It would be a one and done kind of thing. Instead, we have a scam of an industry that has convinced generations of people that the reason they keep failing at long term weight loss is because they haven’t found the right diet OR they haven’t tried hard enough yet.”
When making money is the primary goal — as it is for manufacturers of diet foods, diet pills and diet programs — you can be sure that your health and wellbeing are secondary, if they factor in at all. “The diets are ultimately unrealistic and unsustainable,” Bonano says. “They don’t know your individual preferences, your day-to-day schedule, or your life experiences. The diets are cookie-cutter, short-term solutions that know nothing about you or your life.”
Don’t tell everyone you know
If you’re still determined to lose weight in the new year, one of the most important things to remember is that not everyone will want to hear about your weight loss journey. Discussing your goal weight or describing your diet plan at length can be especially triggering to many people, including those in the process of unlearning disordered eating habits.
You might feel pretty excited to get started on your new resolution, but make sure you know your audience before you share your journey with others. “Recognize this is a personal journey and not one that should be enforced or pushed on others around you,” Wollman says. “Acknowledge that conversations centered around weight loss or body image may not be helpful, and can be harmful, to friends and family.”
If you know the person you’re talking to struggles with body image issues, diet cycling or disordered eating, or if you’re unsure of that person’s relationship with their body and food, it’s best to avoid the subject altogether. “In order to avoid contributing to disordered eating behaviors of those around you, be mindful to avoid mentioning goal weights, exact portion sizes, or rigid food rules (such as eliminating whole food groups or not eating at certain times of the day),” Ackerman says.
Besides encouraging extreme eating behaviors, discussing your weight loss diet can also inadvertently edge into body-shaming or fatphobic territory, implying that thinner bodies are always better and that your body — and perhaps by extension the person you’re talking to’s body — is unacceptable as it is. Ackerman advises you “avoid talking badly about your body to others as this can insinuate that certain body types are preferable to others.”
Some people may be willing to talk about weight loss with you, but you should always check with them before bringing it up. “Although it is culturally normal to discuss these topics openly, not everyone is comfortable doing so,” Bonano says. “Each of our journeys are individual and personal, and we should never assume someone is OK with discussing these topics.”
Actively pursuing weight loss can endanger your physical and mental health, which is why all three experts discourage following any manner of restrictive diet plan. That said, if you have decided to lose weight in the new year, there are ways you can minimize the negative impact on your health.
According to Wollman, “for someone to pursue intentional weight loss without endangering themselves, they should: (a) be clear about the reasons and goals behind this lifestyle change, (b) consult with a physician to ensure it isn’t dangerous and/or won’t impact any prescribed medications and their effectiveness, and (c) learn about balanced eating, which incorporates all food groups, rather than elimination or restriction of certain foods or meals.”
Many diet plans are centered around punishment and restriction, triggering feelings of guilt and weakness. If pursuing weight loss, try to be kind to yourself instead. “Focus on behavior changes that serve your mind and body,” Ackerman says. “Prioritize what your body needs over what will change the number on the scale. The answer is not always the same.”
Ackerman also recommends you “focus on consistent and adequate intake throughout the day. Finding yourself at extremes of hunger and fullness won’t contribute to a pleasant relationship to food.”
TL;DR: You should be gentle with yourself (especially after the year we’ve just had and the difficulties yet to come in 2021), put your wellbeing first and be mindful of those around you who may not want to hear about weight loss and dieting
Before you go, check out our favorite inspiring quotes to help you cultivate positive attitudes about food and bodies: