Warning: Dieting Increases Your Risk of Gaining MORE Weight (An Update)

By Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD

     The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) asked if I would contribute an article on the dangers of dieting (specifically, how dieting increases weight gain)  as part of their outreach for National Eating Disorders Awareness week, which begins February 26, 2012.  Of course, I said yes, and here it is.

     While many people seem to know that dieting doesn’t work in the long run--most are shocked to hear that the process of dieting itself, (independent of genetics), increases your body’s propensity to gain weight.  Scientists call this “dieting-induced weight-gain” and it may be a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic.

     Dieting is biologically akin to compound interest—but in a negative context.  If you put your money in a compound-interest savings account, you will accelerate your earnings, resulting in more money accumulated, compared to an ordinary savings account.  In a similar way, dieting amplifies the amount of weight gained, compared to a nondieting person with similar genes and body.  Far-fetched analogy?  Not according to a new study on twins.

     The weight-amplifying effect of dieting was evaluated in a novel study on over 2,000 sets of twins from Finland, aged 16 to 25 years old (Pietilaineet al, 2011).  Dieting twins, who embarked on just one intentional weight loss episode, were nearly two to three times more likely to become overweight, compared to their non-dieting twin counterpart.  Furthermore, the risk of becoming overweight increased in a dose-dependent manner, with each dieting episode. 

     The results indicate that dieting itself, independent of genetics, is significantly associated with accelerated weight gain and increased the risk of becoming overweight.  The researchers concluded, “It is now well established that the more people engage in dieting, the more they gain weight in the long-term.” This study adds to a body of research dating back to World War II, which shows that dieting and the ensuing cycling of losing weight, re-gaining weight, and gaining more weight with each subsequent diet, ratchets the baseline weight up even higher, beyond the original weight

Here are other compelling studies, which indicate that dieting promotes weight gain regardless of age, gender, or athleticism.

  • Research on nearly 17,000 kids ages 9-14 years old found that dieting was a significant predictor of weight gain (Field et al 2003).  Moreover, the risk of binge eating increased with the frequency of dieting. Boys and girls who dieted frequently, were 5 to 12 times, respectively more likely to report binge eating compared to their nondieting counterparts. The researchers concluded, "...in the long term, dieting to control weight is not only ineffective, it may actually promote weight gain".
  • Teenage dieters had twice the risk of becoming overweight, compared to non-dieting teens, according to a five-year study (Neumark-Sztainer et al 2006).  Notably, at baseline, the dieters did not weigh more than their non-dieting peers. This is an important detail, because if the dieters weighed more—it would be a confounding factor, (which would implicate other factors, rather than dieting, such as genetics).
  • A team of UCLA researchers reviewed 31 long term studies on the effectiveness of dieting and concluded that dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain—up to two-thirds of the people regained more weight than they lost (Mann 2007).

       If you think that exercise will protect your body from the weight-promoting effects of dieting, research tells another story.  A study on over 1,800 people, evaluated the impact of repeated losing and gaining weight, (known as weight cycling), on world-class male athletes involved in weight-based sports, such as boxing, weight lifting and wrestling. Weight cycling predicted subsequent weight gain and the risk of obesity in the athletes with a weight cycling history (Saarni et al 2006.)

     Dieting also is associated with increased food preoccupation, binge eating, and eating in the absence of hunger.  Furthermore, dieting appears to be causally linked to both obesity and eating disorders (Haines & Neumark-Sztainer 2006). A large 3-year study on nearly 2,000 adolescents found that dieting is the most important predictor of new eating disorders (Patton et al 1999).

     Studies aside--what has your own dieting experiences shown you?  Many people say their first diet was easy- -the pounds just melted off.  But that first dieting experience is the seduction trap, which launches the futile pursuit of weight loss via dieting. But your body is very smart and wired for survival.

     Biologically, your body experiences the dieting process as a form of starvation.  Your cells don’t know you are voluntarily restricting your food intake.  Your body shifts into primal survival mode—metabolism slows down and food cravings escalate.  And with each diet, the body learns and adapts, resulting in rebound weight gain.  Consequently, many people feel like they are a failure—but it is dieting that has failed them, and contributed to the weight gain process.  Dieting disconnects you from your innate hunger and satiety cues, and it becomes easier to eat in the absence of hunger and develop a mistrust of your biological eating cues.

       So what’s a chronic dieter to do? The answer lies in attunement with your mind and body, an inner-oriented process, rather than an external approach (such as counting calories or points). This process is called Intuitive Eating, which consists of 10 principles, but can be summarized into these three characteristics  by the research of Trach Tylka (2006):

  1. Unconditional permission to eat when hungry and what food is desired
  2. Eating for physical rather than emotional reasons
  3. Reliance on internal hunger and satiety cues to determine when and how much to eat .

     To date there are over 25 studies on Intuitive Eating, which combined, show that Intuitive Eaters have lower body mass index levels, (without internalizing the unrealistically thin ideal), lower disordered eating and eating disorders, eat a variety of foods, enjoy eating, better cholesterol levels, and a psychological hardiness, which includes welling-being and resilience (Tribole & Resch, 2012). 

      No diet or meal plan could possibly “know” your hunger and fullness levels, or what satisfies you.  Only you know your thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  Only you, can be the expert of you.  But dieting interferes with attunement and Intuitive Eating, which is one of the reasons why the first principle is “Reject the Diet Mentality”.

     Dieting has harmful consequences, beyond lacking long-term effectiveness.  Dieting is not an innocuous right of passage, whether it’s for teenager angst, a wedding dress, a New Year’s resolution, or athletic performance. 

     Consider this article a public health service announcement and tell everyone you know:  Dieting increases your chances of gaining even more weight in the future, not to mention increase your risk of eating disorders, and body dissatisfaction. The dieting industry won’t like this message. A recent Wall Street Journal article described how a major weight loss company is targeting men to increase their market share, which comprises about 90% women.  (This company had $1.45 billion in revenue in 2011.) We don’t need another dieting casualty, male or female.

References

Mann, T. et al.  (2007).Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist, 62(3): 220-233.

 Field, A,E. et al (2003). Relation Between Dieting and Weight Change Among Preadolescents and Adolescents. Pediatrics,112:900-906. [Free Full Text http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/112/4/900.long ]

Haines, J. & Neumark-Sztainer  D (2006). Prevention of obesity and eating disorders: a consideration of shared risk factors. Health Education Research, 21(6):770–782. [Free Full Text http://her.oxfordjournals.org/content/21/6/770.long ]

 Kwoh, L. (January 9, 2012).Weight Watchers Chief Looks to Men, China for Growth. Wall Street Journal. http://on.wsj.com/xnZqfD

Neumark-Sztainer, D. et al (2006). Obesity, disordered eating, and eating disorders in a longitudinal study of adolescents: how do dieters fare five years later? J Am Diet Assoc,106(4):559-568.

Patton, G. C., et al. (1999). Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years. British Medical Journal, 318:765-768. [Free Full Text http://www.bmj.com/content/318/7186/765?view=long&pmid=10082698 ].

Pietiläinen, K.H. et al. (2011). Does dieting make you fat? A twin study. International Journal of Obesity, | doi:10.1038/ijo.2011.160

Saarni, S. E. et al (2006). Weight cycling of athletes and subsequent weight gain in middleage. International J Obesity, 30: 1639–1644. [Free full text at http://bit.ly/yvfnhE]

Tribole E. & Resch E. (2012-in press). Intuitive Eating (3rd edition). St.Martin’s  Press: NY,NY.

  Tylka, T. L. (2006). Development and psychometric evaluation of a measure of intuitive eating. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53,  226-240.

Copyright © 2012 by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD Published at www.IntuitiveEating.org

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DISCLAIMER: The information is intended to inform readers and is not intended to replace specific advice from a health care professional.