Today we have an awesome guest post from Ryan Andrews over at Precision Nutrition. For starters, I consider myself lucky to be able to call Ryan a friend, but he's also one of the smartest people I know when it comes to nutrition and helping people form life changing habits. Enjoy the article!
“While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions.”
-Stephen R. Covey
Starting a diet feels good. It feels productive. Dieting makes me feel like I give a crap about my nutrition. I’ve started a new diet many times and my motivation was always the same. It was about bettering myself, losing body fat, gaining muscle, getting healthier, and taking ownership of my life. Many of us venture into the land of dieting at some point in our lives. More than 50 percent of young adults report that they diet (1), and 20 to 35 percent of adults in the U.S. are likely on a diet right now (2).
Unfortunately, with dieting comes “dieting blinders.” We focus on girths, skinfolds, pictures, and the scale….and not much else. Dieting can become quite self-centered.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that this self-centered approach to nutrition can lead us to forget the big picture. We begin to follow a diet plan; meanwhile, we forget about any obligations we have as people.
Here are three unintended consequences I’ve observed with dieting:
Getting fatter in the long-term
The quickest way to gain 25 pounds is to lose 20.
Americans are chronic undereaters. We cut back. We eliminate. We deprive. We count. Over and over until…we don’t. Hunger hormones spill into the bloodstream and we eat, and eat, and eat. This overeating can last for months, or even years. At some point frustration might kick in and we get back on a diet. But by this time, we’ve already gained substantial body fat and greatly compromised our health. Plus, our body now clings to fat stores before the next famine.
Diets are about rules. And rules are extremely useful when there would otherwise be chaos. A room full of kindergarteners with no rules? Chaos. A person who consistently eats for reasons other than hunger? Chaos. We often turn to dieting rules when we don’t trust our eating intuition. The problem here is that once we deviate from the dieting rules (as we all do), we have nothing left to guide us. Should I eat after 8pm? I don’t know – it depends on if I’m hungry or not and what else was going on in my life that day. A diet rule can’t dictate that.
If I told you that starting tomorrow you could no longer have ice cream, what would you do tonight? That’s what I thought. If you want to trigger a binge on food X, deprive yourself of food X. And this is what diets set people up to do.
The more we diet, the fatter we get (3-5).
I used to think that dieting was the opposite of gluttony. I’ve come to realize it’s not.
Just as someone can be sad about the right thing but express it in the wrong way, people can diet in a way that is gluttonous. We exclude beans while over-consuming meat. We exclude fruits while over-consuming artificial sweeteners. We restrict during the week while over-consuming on the weekends.
Diets are built upon immoderation. Immoderate restrictions. Immoderate food choices. Immoderate expectations. Going on a diet is not a viable solution to the deep-rooted problem of immoderation.
Gluttony (and thus dieting) often distances us from others (friends, family, career goals, spiritual goals, and so forth). And this can undermine our deeper values.
So, if you think being on a diet automatically qualifies you as non-gluttonous, think again.
Many diets emphasize protein. I’m a big fan of protein. And protein is essential for us to live. Protein-dense foods might even help with satiety and promote a healthy body composition.
All good, right?
Well, when most Americans want to eat protein, they eat meat. And this is reflected in our intake patterns. Annual consumption of meat per person in the U.S. is about 171 pounds. Compare this to beans, another protein-dense food, of which Americans consume about 7.5 pounds per person annually.
While meat is a protein-dense food, it also tends to come with a higher cost of production.
About 32 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) animals were killed for food in the U.S. in 2011 (6). And for animals to grow, they need to eat. In the U.S., nearly 160 million tons of cereals, legumes, and vegetable protein are fed to livestock to produce just 28 million tons of animal protein in the form of meat (6).
Putting one pound of meat on the table requires nearly 1,800 gallons of water. Compare this to one pound of potatoes requiring 119 gallons, one pound of barley requiring 198 gallons, and one pound of beans requiring 216 gallons (8).
Meat protein is often a poor return on investment. And with 7 billion people on the planet (and counting), building a diet around meat doesn’t appear to be a sustainable option.
Five steps to combat the unintended consequences of dieting
We can all do whatever we want. But there’s no such thing as consumption without consequence.
We all know that eating healthful food is a good idea, but too often we forget why. It’s not just about us. It’s not just about a tight waistline. It’s about our place in the world and the role we need to fulfill. Dietary repercussions extend far beyond the bathroom scale. The diet we choose to sustain us must also sustain the planet.
Here are five steps to combat the unintended consequences of dieting:
1. Listen to (and trust) body cues. Food won’t solve problems, unless the problem is hunger.
2. Get help from a coach (like Precision Nutrition’s Coaching Programs). Bouncing ideas off of someone goes a long way to sane eating. When we rely on our internal dialogue to make decisions, things can get a bit kooky. Utilize a coach to figure out what nutrition approach works for you.
3. Focus on the big picture. Instead of spending time worried about losing a few pounds or thinner thighs, take your focus to the big picture. Go beyond superficial wants and instant gratification. Volunteer at a farm or help at a school. Ask yourself the following question: Are my food/drink habits dedicated to serving my immediate gratifications rather than serving my life mission and deeper values?
4. Avoid scale obsession. If it’s up, we get pissed at ourselves, diet, and inevitably binge. If it’s down, we justify food as a reward, feel pressure to lose more weight, and inevitably binge. Instead of using the scale, think about your actions each day. Are you living the life of a lean and healthy person?
5. Be reasonable. Three reasonable meals per day go a long way towards a leaner and healthier body.
About the author
Ryan D. Andrews is a registered dietitian, strength and conditioning specialist and registered yoga teacher who completed his education in exercise and nutrition at the University of Northern Colorado, Kent State University, and Johns Hopkins Medicine. He’s written hundreds of articles on nutrition, exercise, and health, authored Drop The Fat Act & Live Lean, and coauthored The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition Certification Manual. Ryan is currently a coach with Precision Nutrition, offering life-changing, research-driven nutrition coaching for everyone.
1. Goldschmidt AB, et al. Which diets are at risk for the onset of binge-eating? A prospective study of adolescents and young adults. J Adolesc Health 2012;51:86-92.
3. Mann, T. Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. Am Psychologist 2007;62:220-233.
4. Field AE et al. Relation Between Dieting and Weight Change Among Preadolescents and Adolescents. Pediatrics 2003;112:900-906
5. Neumark-Sztainer D. et al. Obesity, disordered eating and eating disorders in a longitudinal study of adolescents: how do dieters fare five years later? J Am Diet Assoc 2006;106:559-568.