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Authored by Erin Risius, MA, LPC, Director of Behavioral Health at Hilton Head Health

International No Diet Day was created to symbolize freedom from dieting, weight obsession, and negative body image.  

Um – yes, please.  

I know of many people – particularly women – who would like to experience freedom from these constraints. Dieting, the pursuit of weight loss, and body loathing are the top three obstacles to well-being that I see among those I have worked with over the past 25 years. If we feel like our weight is THE reason we are unhappy or unfulfilled, then fad diets appear as the holy grail; the promise of being on the opposite side of frustration, feelings of food addiction, and/or that elusive, coveted weight loss.   

How Do I Spot a Fad Diet? 

The term ‘fad diet’ refers to any approach to food that overly restricts, deprives, and/or omits food groups usually for the pursuit of weight loss. Fad diets, by their very nature, are not only unsustainable long term, but they can also do some real damage on our mental, emotional and physical health. Because fad diets are typically unsustainable, people tend to go on and off them, hence the term yo-yo dieting. For those who have yo-yo dieted for years, it can feel like a losing battle between food and their willpower. But, we aren’t failing at these diets; these diets are failing us. Fad diets have a 95% failure rate. Would you try something that only had a 5% chance of working? Most of us would say ‘no way’ but this industry rakes in over 60 billion dollars on an annual basis. 

That’s billions – not millions.  

With that in mind, I want to caution that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all nutritional approach, so I encourage you to evaluate what is working – or not working – for YOU. For example, a lower carbohydrate diet may feel energizing and sustainable for one person but elicit food cravings and feelings of deprivation in another.  

The following are common indicators that can help you spot a fad diet: 

  • Promises a quick fix (i.e. rapid weight loss)  
  • Places foods into ‘bad’ and ‘good’ categories 
  • Completely eliminates entire food groups (i.e. fat, whole grains, fruit, starchy vegetables) 
  • Doesn’t feel sustainable long-term 
  • Focuses only on numbers (i.e. excessive calorie counting) 
  • Requires supplements or expensive ready-made meals for ‘success’ 
  • Eliminates food completely (i.e. liquid diets) 
  • Leaves you feeling deprived and even more obsessed with food 
  • Makes you feel guilty when you eat a forbidden or ‘bad’ food 
  • Sounds too good to be true 
  • You keep going on and off the same diet 

These are just a few indicators that you have entered into fad diet territory. At H3 we teach an evidence-based nutritional approach that is proven through research to be healthy and sustainable. 

Below are 5 additional components to put on your radar as you strive to create a healthier relationship with food and your body. 

Beware of Food Deprivation 

Feeling deprived or overly restricted is a powerful trigger for completely going ‘off the wagon’ with our food choices. This doesn’t mean something is wrong with our willpower or that there is no desire for change, but it may be an indicator that the approach is just too extreme to sustain. The definition of insanity, according to Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. You don’t necessarily need to try harder at the same approach, that is the fallacy of willpower – but maybe you need to try DIFFERENT. Don’t assume you lack the desire, resolve, or discipline to make different food choices. I work with many people who have these qualities in abundance as is evidenced by their professional lives and/or how they show up for others. Taking a step back and evaluating the approach that is being taken will be an important reality check for what is or is not working for YOU.  

Evaluate Your Real Motivation 

If your motivation for going on a diet is only to lose weight, be careful. Desperate thoughts often lead to desperate measures and when weight loss at any cost is pursued, desperation and impatience for ‘results’ are often unwelcome companions. This tunnel vision pursuit has led many people down a dead-end path toward fad diets.  

The pursuit of weight loss has a short shelf-life because the thinking is this: “I need to FIX myself” instead of “I choose to CARE for myself.” These two statements are vastly different from one another. The first statement comes from a place of feeling ‘not good enough and the second statement comes from a place of feeling worthy of self-care. Which mindset would you rather embody? The “I choose to care for myself” mindset focuses on behavior not just a number on a scale or a size of clothing. To quote Bob Wright, H3’s Director of Education, “weight follows behavior, but not right away.” Healthy weight loss through sustainable, healthy nutrition and regular exercise is rarely as fast as we want it to be, but the results tend to be more long-lasting because of the lifestyle that was changed for the better.  

Sarah Polite

Don’t Ascribe a Morality to Food 

If you have a history of yo-yo dieting you may have been programmed to place foods into ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ food categories. This is black and white or all-or-nothing thinking that tends to backfire when we feel like we’ve caved and eaten “bad food”. We may feel like we’ve blown the diet and then all bets are off until tomorrow, or Monday, or after that project is completed, or the pandemic has passed (oy vey). When we ascribe morality to food, feelings of deprivation, resistance, and downright rebellion are often right around the corner. 

NEEDS for energy, health, and well-being, cravings, and feelings of food addiction will surface. And, if food is serving important roles such as comfort, companionship, and distraction from anxiety and stress, these primal needs will override the most rational, educated, and reasonable mind in that need of the moment.  

Rather than placing foods into good versus bad categories, be intentional with the frequency and portion of those ‘fun foods’. This process requires experimenting and reality checks along the way. For example, I have personally learned during this stay-at-home period that I cannot have certain foods in my cupboard without feeling the compulsion to eat some of them (okay, A LOT of them) every day.  I love ridged potato chips and I can’t rely on my willpower to manage portions when a big bag is in my sight every time I go to my cupboard. Which admittedly, has been too often lately. Now, instead of buying a big bag and relying on willpower to manage the frequency and portion, I now purchase a single serving bag one day a week and savor every bite without feeling the guilt that overeating this food in excess will inevitably unleash.  

The Fallacy of Willpower 

Many people I work with feel like if they just had more willpower, more discipline, or more desire to eat ‘this’ and not eat ‘that’, then all would be well. This is why fad diets are seductive because they provide an illusion of control over what may feel OUT of control. But, our relationship with food is much more complex than the black-and-white thinking that fad diets try to force upon us. We aren’t robots, and we have unique life experiences that are influenced by cultural and familial expectations, environmental factors, and psychological considerations. These influences inevitably impact how and what we eat as well as WHY we eat.  

Food provides different roles other than just fuel for energy, and hopefully at the foundation is the role of nourishment and enjoyment.  You can be a ‘foodie’ and appreciate the pleasures of eating delicious foods and being healthy. But, when food is temporarily fulfilling other needs, such as self-soothing, companionship, or stress management, and it has become a reliable go-to for coping, this is when our relationship with food requires a deeper exploration and understanding of the role(s) food is serving and WHY.  

We have to eat to live, but if we are living to eat, dieting will not fix the problem. It will only add fuel to that fire, instead of magically extinguishing what we are truly hungry for in the moment and often – in life.  

Be Kind to Yourself 

International No Diet Day was created to help instill self-compassion into the process of change. Striving for better health and well-being is a worthwhile goal, but you can’t deprive, hate shame, or criticize yourself until you make better choices. Positive change can only come from self-regard and self-respect. Loving and caring for yourself takes some time to learn and is a daily practice that involves compassion and forgiveness.

Sometimes we need a kickstart and a good support system to get out of our bad habits – in which case a wellness resort or program could be helpful – click here to check out Hilton Head Health’s award-winning wellness programs.

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