Many among us want to shed a little weight. With holiday treats behind us and swimsuit season lurking ahead, it's the perfect time to work off those few lingering pounds. For most Americans, latching on to the latest diet seems like a sensible solution. After all, with all those diet books making fabulous claims, diets must work. Right?
Maybe not. A 2007 study by UCLA found that dieters initially lost 5 to 10 percent of their weight through dieting, but almost all gained the weight back. To make matters worse, as many as two-thirds of those who initially lost weight were heavier after five years than they were when they first started trying to lose weight. Not only was dieting ineffective, it encouraged dieters to pack on more pounds in the long run.
The danger of diets
With more than one-third of Americans now considered clinically obese, people are desperately looking for ways to get and stay healthy. For the past 40 years, our knee-jerk reaction has been to recommend restrictive dieting, and yet obesity is still on the rise.
Dieting ignores our evolutionary biology — which favors eating more in times of feast to save up for times of famine. However, in our abundant culture, many of us in developed countries live our entire lives with more than enough food. This condition, a very recent development in human history, wreaks havoc with our "set points" — our bodies' ideal weights based off of our body types. Our brains control this ideal weight range for each individual body, and dieting works against the brain's natural system of balancing weight.
Furthermore, the food we eat is now laden with chemicals designed to increase our cravings. At the risk of delving into conspiracy theories, modern food makes and keeps us fat. Dieting does nothing to remove food cravings, and some diets even encourage eating processed "diet foods," continuing the cycle of manufactured food dependence.
Before you sign up for the latest fad diet, take a moment to consider how it will affect your health long-term. Is the method of eating sustainable for your entire life? If not, then it can't help you keep the weight off for your entire life. The only way to stay healthy in the long run is to make sustainable lifestyle changes.
While it's tempting to want to lose a lot of weight quickly, we need to look at being overweight and obese as a bigger picture. It's nice to fit into a smaller size of pants or see a smaller number on the scale, but look at the more consequential health benefits of real lifestyle changes. Being overweight is associated with heart disease, diabetes and stroke. This is about so much more than your measurements. Your entire life is at stake.
A better way
There are ways to get healthy, and they don't involve following a restrictive diet. It's time to get back in touch with real foods — fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains. To quote food journalist, Michael Pollen, "If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't." Switching your family to a more whole food diet is one way of reshaping your relationship with food and changing your family's food culture. This type of shift is sustainable over a lifetime, making you healthier throughout your life.
You should enjoy food, not fear or abuse food. Dieting is one more way society makes food seem scary, but what you choose to eat each day is the greatest tool you have in creating a healthy lifestyle. Take charge of your eating habits today, and look for ways to make permanent changes in the way you eat.