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Imagine this. You’ve decided to lose a few pounds. You read up on the latest diet— the one your neighbor raved about—and stock your pantry and refrigerator with all the necessary foods. You’re excited about losing the extra flab and are already planning to splurge on a new outfit to show off your fit, new body.

Fast-forward two-and-a-half weeks. You come home after a horrible day at work, and your diet dinner just doesn’t cut it. You decide to order a pizza with extra cheese instead—you did have an awful day, remember—and wolf down six pieces. Then you realize that you’ve blown it, so you might as well go whole hog. You spend the rest of the week eating doughnuts at work, high-fat fast food for lunch, and snacking on chips and ice cream at night. Obviously, you’ll never lose weight. You’re weak and have no willpower. Not only are you no thinner than when you started your diet—now you’re depressed as well.

Sound familiar? This scenario, or something similar, is played out by millions of us every day. Few diets last for any length of time. Constantly trying to lose weight can affect your mood, your self-esteem, and your energy level—and, ironically enough, it can result in weight gain.

Why is dieting so dangerous? And how can you eat healthy and still lose weight? The answers may surprise you.

Fueled by False Hope

Think about how excited you feel when you make a commitment, whether it’s to lose weight, quit smoking, or manage your time better. You believe you’ll succeed, and you’re looking forward to the end result. Researcher Janet Polivy, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, calls this the “false hope syndrome.”

“The false hope syndrome is sort of the whole cycle people go through when they begin a self-change effort and dieting is just one type of self-change effort,” she says. “They have very high expectations. But these expectations don’t last long.”

The reason, she says, is that after some initial success, people start to run into difficulties. The change gets harder to maintain, and it isn’t as rapid.

“Worse yet,” Dr. Polivy says, “the magical outcomes people expected don’t appear, so their false hopes— that were held initially—are dashed as they slip off the program, whatever it is, because it’s not giving them what they thought they were going to get. Then they feel like failures and blame themselves.”

Dieting Can be Destructive

This self-blame can be particularly destructive because people who diet often have low self-esteem to begin with. Frequent dieters suffer other negative psychological consequences as a result of their weight-loss attempts as well. Studies show that women who weight cycle, or yo-yo, are less satisfied with their lives and more obsessed with their bodies than women who do not. Dieters are also more obsessed with food, more anxious, and more depressed than nondieters.

Researchers like Dr. Polivy who have studied frequent dieters often classify them as “restrained” eaters. Restrained eaters tend to limit the amount of food they eat, but under stressful situations, often binge or overeat, while “normal” eaters do not change their food intake in response to stress. “This approach to stress leads restrained eaters to overeat at the slightest provocation and makes them prone to bingeing because they feel they have failed, and thus are giving up,” she says. “Instead of just saying, ‘I’ll go back to normal eating,’ they seem to lose all control.”

Frequent dieting can affect your mood as well. Your brain requires serotonin produced from carbohydrates to function. “Short yourself on carbohydrates, and you’ll feel cranky, irritable, and spacey,” says nutrition therapist Elyse Resch, coauthor of Intuitive Eating: A Recovery Book for the Chronic Dieter.

Taking in too few calories can also cause low blood sugar, which may make you feel jittery or lightheaded. And when you’re continually hungry, you may be plagued with persistent, nearly obsessive thoughts of food and planning what and when you’ll eat next—as well as constantly worrying that you’ll blow it.

Escaping Dieting Depression

The problem with diets is that they are only short-term solutions. Even if you need to lose weight to improve your health, a temporary diet won’t solve the underlying reason for your weight gain. Once you return to your usual eating habits, you’re likely to regain it. According to Resch, 98 percent of people who go on diets gain the weight back and often more. “The system sets you up for failure,” she says, “because the system itself is flawed. Yet the person really doesn’tthink about the fact that the dieting is the problem. They put it back upon themselves and think they are the failure.”

If you want to lose weight, first, forget the idea that there is some magic plan, potion, or pill that will work overnight. Commit to fueling your body and feeding it what it needs rather than trying to starve yourself or limit the amounts or types of foods you eat.

“You have to start with the body physiologically,” Resch says. “You have to feed the body when it’s hungry, because if it’s fed when you’re hungry, you’re not going to build up these brain chemicals that cause you to overeat. And you’re going to be in a better state to judge whether you want food because you’re physically hungry or because you’re emotionally hungry.”

Many dieters think of foods as being either “good”—like nuts, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, or “bad”—such as chocolate, pizza, butter, and candy. While it’s true that some foods have more nutritional value than others, all foods can be part of a healthy diet. When you let go of food restrictions (for example, saying “I’m never going to eat chocolate again!”) and eat exactly what you want in accord with your hunger, you’ll find that you feel more satisfied, and you are more likely to stop obsessing over what you are— and aren’t—eating.

Thinking of all foods as equal helps you ditch the diet mind-set, and for good reason. If you always think of yourself as being on or off a diet, you’ll probably struggle with food the rest of your life. “The perpetual dieter is always thinking about the future diet and is always prepared for the future deprivation, so once he’s off the diet, he’s storing up all the food that he’s not going to get, like a chipmunk,” explains Resch. “By eliminating that restriction, this will help eliminate food cravings. Since you can always have it the next time you get hungry, people tend to naturally stop eating when they’re comfortably full because they want to be able to enjoy the food the next time—so there’s no urgency to stuff it in now because you’re not going to get it later.”

Exercise Benefits

When you let go of the dieting mentality, you might enjoy your workouts more, as well. Don’t look at exercise as simply a way to burn calories or because of how it affects your physical appearance. Consider how it makes you stronger, more flexible, and able to cope better with the demands of your life. Regular exercise creates more possibilities in life because you are fit!

“Exercise is an important way to honor your body,” says Resch. “The body is meant to flex its muscles and work hard but that’s only one part of it—it needs to be balanced.” Rather than rushing through your workouts, be mindful of your body and how it moves.

Finally, if you want to ignore the latest diet’s siren song, focus on other things that make you happy and give you pleasure. Sure, it’s great to have abs you’re proud of or to be able to slip into a size 8 dress. But achieving a slim, fit body won’t make you happy if you ignore the other aspects of your life.

Having other things that you value—meaningful relationships, a spiritual life, a satisfying career, —will prevent you from obsessing over your physical appearance. When you’re truly comfortable in your own skin and appreciate the person you are, you’ll find that constant dieting loses its allure.

Dieting Can Be Dangerous

by Kelly James-Enger
From the July 2008 Signs  

OOPS! You Slipped. Now What?

You’ve committed yourself to eating “clean” to look and feel better, and it’s working. You’ve cut out refined foods and have been focusing on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and adequate protein—and you were so proud of your progress! But then that office party caught you off guard. A slice of birthday cake led to an enormous brownie, and now you’re filled with guilt and recriminations, and you think, Oh, well, I might as well forget it.

Stop! Get back on track, and try the following suggestions:

Lighten up. A splurge won’t ruin your progress. In fact, a healthy diet can include all foods in moderation.

Work it off—sort of. Do a few extra minutes of cardiovascular exercise, or add a few rounds to your usual weight routine. (This doesn’t mean forcing yourself to spend an extra hour on the treadmill—you’ll risk an injury.)

Think long term. You might be tempted to skip dinner to make up for your indulgence, but that’s likely to backfire. Just follow your usual eating routine.

Use the experience. Why did you slip? Were you depressed? Overly hungry? Anxious about work? Figure out what made those sweets or fats so tempting, and you’ll be less likely to fall victim to junk foods the next time. It could even be that you just aren’t eating enough, so make sure you’re giving your body the fuel it needs.