Suzanne Manser, PhD

Licensed Psychologist

Alternatives to Dieting

Wanna guess what my opinion of dieting is? Yep, exactly. It is all kinds of hope wrapped up in a shiny package that wears off after days or weeks or months and almost always leaves you feeling worse than when you started. Most people who go on a diet and lose weight will gain it all back in 1-5 years. Not only that, most people gain back more than they lost.

When I say “most people,” I do mean most. 95% of diets fail. Those are not good odds. Those are not even just bad odds. Those are HORRIBLE odds. And yet, at least 45 million of us will take those odds each year, in the U.S. alone. The diet industry is worth $72 billion because we are so desperate to all be in that 5% that “makes it.” The ads promise us that we can be, and we really, really want to believe them.

We have been told – by the media and by our families – that if we change our bodies and make them thinner, we can be accepted, admired, and loved. We can feel good about ourselves. Every time someone comments on our weight, their own weight, or someone else’s weight, this is what they are conveying. This is the metaphorical weight our bodies carry. This is the pressure we put on ourselves to eat less and ignore what our bodies want. The diet industry is literally banking on us buying into that pressure. They create it and perpetuate it. They profit from it.

If you say that you diet not just to be thinner but to be “healthier,” I am raising an eyebrow at you. Being fat or in a bigger body does not automatically mean you are unhealthy. Not even a little bit. It is very possible to be fat and healthy. It is very possible to be in between thin and fat and be healthy. It is very possible to be thin and be unhealthy. Health is not about our weight. Health is about what we do in terms of moving our bodies and eating food. If you believe that fat people are fat because they eat too much and don’t exercise, you are engaging in weight bias, or weight stigma.

Bodies don’t work exactly the same. A fat person can eat the same and exercise the same as a person in a thinner body and still be fat. Different bodies have different needs. Bodies don’t process food or use energy at the exact same rates. They have experienced different levels of trauma. They are built differently from birth. They have different genetic backgrounds. They are not meant to look exactly the same any more than we are all meant to have the same personalities. Body size is not indicative of health. Stop correlating weight with health, please.

The diet industry people promote weight stigma, of course. The more scared we are of not being thin, the more money they make. Meanwhile, we lose. But not in the ways we had hoped. When the weight comes back, we lose a little more hope. We lose the joy briefly felt while our body was acceptable. We lose self-esteem. We feel like we did something wrong. We weren’t even good enough to make a “guaranteed” diet work. We turn on ourselves, and we turn on our bodies.

Diets take a lot from us. Diets take our money. They take our energy. They take our focus. They take our time. They take our connection with our body. They take away a lot of fun and enjoyment. They ultimately take our self-esteem. Yo-yo dieting takes our health. All for a 5% chance to have a potentially sustainable thinner body.

It’s not because we are not good enough that we only have a 5% chance. It’s because diets don’t work. We are being set up to believe that they work, and that we are the problem if they don’t. It’s not true. Diets don’t work because our bodies need what our bodies need. We don’t get to decide that because we want to be thinner, our bodies just don’t need as much food. We are not in control over that.

Our bodies indicate what they need in part through hunger and fullness cues. We have decided that these cues from our bodies don’t mean as much as what today’s diet tells us is true about our bodies. So we don’t eat when we’re hungry. Or we eat but stop before we feel remotely full. If we’re doing this on a consistent basis, we are eating less than our bodies need. And our bodies will have to make up for that lost energy somehow.

What happens when we eat less than our bodies need? Our brains often suffer first. We develop difficulty focusing, or we can only focus on food. Thinking will eventually feel slower and harder. We become moody and are more prone to depression and anxiety. We will lose muscle and get physically weaker. We’ll feel more lethargic. Hormones will get out of whack. The degree to which any or all of these occur depends on how much we are denying our bodies. We don’t expect our cars to go as far with less fuel, but somehow we expect our bodies to.

We can’t deny our bodies’ needs and expect no consequences. But, because we have lost a connection with our bodies, we do expect that. We see our bodies as objects to be judged for their social acceptability. As objects, they should be manipulatable. They should be able to do whatever we want them to do, just because we want it. We try to force them to look like other people’s bodies (i.e., become acceptable), and we don’t understand why this is a problem.

Diets insist that each of our bodies needs only and exactly what the diet tells us it needs. This is one facet of the problem. Another facet is that we are trying to solve valid problems using a wildly wrong tool. Wanting acceptance, approval, admiration, respect, love, health – these are valid wants and needs. But reducing the size of our bodies is the wrong tool to use to get them.

And, just to be clear, I know, recognize, and fully validate that it is easier to live in this world in a thinner body. It is easier in almost every way, if not every way. But for most people, it is not possible to lose “enough” weight, keep it off for the rest of our lives, and not be miserable or missing out on too much life because we restrict food. That’s hard to accept. We want to believe we can just eat less and our bodies will get thinner and it will be no problem at all to keep doing that indefinitely. It takes radical acceptance to believe that diets don’t work and aren’t worth it.

It’s not easy moving away from using our body as a tool for both self-esteem and social currency. The rest of the world has largely not yet caught on and still supports using weight as a cure-all. But when we break down the reasons for dieting (and, as a therapist who works with humans I’ve heard the large majority of them), more useful tools become clear.

Scroll down to see the alternative tools and strategies for each reason.

Because I want to feel better about myself (a.k.a.: I want to look “better.”).

This is probably the #1 reason people go on diets. They want to feel better about themselves, and society tells us that if we look “better” we will feel better. In our society, looking “better” generally means losing weight.

Society tells us that any body bigger than “thin” is ugly and therefore unacceptable (and unhealthy). This is a made-up judgment – let’s start there. If you are focused on looking better or feeling better about yourself and using your weight as part of that equation, I am going to ask you for some radical acceptance. What if it’s possible to accept that your weight does not have to be an obstacle to feeling good about yourself? What if there are ways to feel better about yourself without focusing on losing weight?

There are a number of tools that are actually effective in helping us feel better about ourselves. In my practice, I promote self-understanding, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. These tools help get us psychologically in alignment with ourselves. Being in alignment with ourselves is foundational for feeling good about ourselves. We have to start by being on our own side.

Self-acceptance removes any leverage the haters (external or internal) have. You can learn that you don’t have to look to others for acceptance. You don’t have anything to prove to anyone. That’s not how it actually works. You are already fully acceptable as you are, without any adjustments. This is news to most of us, and believing it is really hard to get to. It’s worth the trip. Self-understanding (understanding why you act and react like you do) and self-compassion (being kind to yourself, in the same way you would be to a friend in the same situation) support self-acceptance. Click on the green words to read my articles on those topics. Therapy is enormously helpful for developing those tools. There are also many books and articles and podcasts that explore these topics.

To specifically help with acceptance of your weight or body size, look for people who don’t attach their worth to their weight (check out @SonyaReneeTaylor @thebodyisnotanapology as a start). View them as teachers. Learn about body neutrality (I’ve written a few articles: Body Neutrality; A Path to Body Neutrality; How to Practice Body Neutrality). Focus on how your body allows you to live your life and have the experiences you have, rather than on how it looks. Set a daily intention to look at your body through that lens. Try it for a week and notice how it impacts your relationship with yourself.

Getting in tune with our bodies’ needs helps us feel better about ourselves. Being connected with ourselves in any way is useful. Reach out to a Health At Every Size (HAES ®)*-oriented dietitian or movement specialist to help facilitate connection with your body’s individual needs. Yoga and qi gong are helpful for a general mind-body connective experience. Energy work (e.g., Reiki, acupuncture) can also help us get more aligned energetically.

We also feel better about ourselves when we live in alignment with our values. If something is really important to you, and you’re not prioritizing it with yourself, you are not going to feel as good as you could. When you know what makes the hard stuff worth it, and you prioritize that, whether it’s knowledge, being loving, adventure, security, or wealth, you will feel better about yourself because you are more aligned with what’s important to you. You are keeping your best interest in mind. You are being on your side. (Here is an article to get you started – there is lots out there on using values to enrich your life.)

One thing that makes us feel worse about ourselves is comparing ourselves to others. It takes us completely out of alignment with ourselves. We see people on social media, as an easy example, and feel like we’re losing out if we’re not like them. Take a minute and identify who you compare yourself to. Who is doing it “right” in your eyes? Think about how you feel about yourself after you see their posts. Consider only following people whose posts make you feel good. You can work toward unhooking from the comparison train in general by reminding yourself that everyone is on their own journey. You do not have to judge their journey and you do not have to mimic their journey. Their journey is for them. What is right and wrong for them is not right and wrong for you just because they make it look good. Let go of your attachment to how other people are living life. Focus on how you want to live yours.

This next strategy may seem simple: notice the good bits about ourselves and our lives. We can’t be on our own side and ignore the good stuff. We have to notice and take in the times we felt connected to ourselves or felt proud about something or saw someone react positively to us or even just didn’t feel bad about ourselves. We tend to dismiss those moments, and we need to do the opposite. Those are moments to savor and celebrate. That’s the juice of life right there. They may be small, seemingly insignificant moments, but they will have a big impact if we can be present and take in each one as it’s happening. Over time, as we collect these good moments, we will start to believe them. We will get more oriented toward them. We will more easily notice more of them. For some of us right now, taking a shower is an accomplishment to be proud of. Please take that in. If you have 4 consecutive seconds of focusing on your breath during your meditation, please take that in. If a client gave you a heartfelt appreciation for your work, soak that in. Those are the moments I’m talking about.

Because I want to attract a partner.

This reason is rarely explicitly offered but often a motivator. It is easier to attract a partner when thin (because weight stigma is a real thing). And if it were easy and not soul-crushing to lose weight and keep it off, sure, why not? In reality, what happens is you lose the weight to find the partner and then being thin becomes your identity. You believe you can’t attract or keep a partner without it. Weight is still an issue – your identity and self-esteem are in constant peril, based on whether the numbers on the scale go up.

These are not ideal conditions for feeling good about yourself. It is easier to “put the work in” of searching for a partner when you feel good about yourself. Work on it if you can. The next strategy is a question: ask yourself if the possibility of finding a partner is worth having the emotions the search for that partner will evoke. It is rare to put yourself on the dating scene and not feel anxiety, self-doubt, low self-esteem, or fear of rejection at some point. Ask yourself: is it worth having some of those feelings?

If the answer is “no,” there are tools to that can help you manage and move through those feelings. Psychotherapy is helpful (check out Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Body movement (e.g., dance or movement therapy) can help process and express feelings. Energy work such as tapping can also help you move through emotions.

When the answer is “yes,” decide which actions you will take to look for a partner, and prepare to have persistence. As we get clearer about who we are and who we want in our lives, we may find that the pickings are slim. This is reality. You can decide if you want to widen your search by geography or other categories that may be lower on the priority list. Or not.

Dating apps are a good starting place. The strategy here is fairly straightforward: get on one. Don’t dither about your photos too much. If you can’t get yourself to write something, have a friend do it for you. Just get yourself on there. Then do the next hard thing. Decide and intend that when people who interest you match with you, you connect with them. Yes, it’s scary. You can do hard and scary things. You don’t have to be good at it, by the way. Just be willing to have a conversation. Then be willing to go on dates – whatever that looks like these days – even though that’s super scary. Remind yourself why it’s worth it. You can do hard and super scary things. Then, have patience. It is rare to find your person on the first or second or third date you go on. Prepare to have to meet a number of people and for it to take some time. When you are having a conversation or are on a date, please don’t waste your energy wondering if the person likes you. Focus on whether you like them. Focus on how you are feeling with them and how you feel about what they are saying. This is the relevant information.

There is no magic tool for finding your partner, as far as I know. But it is much more likely that you’ll find that person if you’re looking for them. Or at least in a place, virtual or otherwise, where they can see you. When pandemic-related safety allows, go do things you enjoy that involve other people. If you don’t like a lot of other people, stick to the apps. Maybe hire a matchmaker. For some people, all of this stuff is fun. I hated it when I was single. And. If you really want to find your partner, you have to prioritize it. You have to decide that it’s worth it, even though it’s hard and scary and takes time and may not be a ton of fun. Asking yourself if something is worth it (and what makes it worth it) is a useful tool for challenging occasions and is good to keep in your back pocket.

Because I want to feel happier.

Losing weight may make you feel happier while it lasts. But happiness is transient, so even if you lose weight, you will still feel all the other feelings too. No one can feel happy all of the time. And you don’t want your happiness to be dependent on your weight. Have I overexplained that enough yet?

Also consider that your weight may not be the only thing keeping you from feeling happy more often. Identify those obstacles (self-judgments or limiting beliefs about yourself, perhaps?) and work on letting them go. Decide what you want to focus on instead.

One focus that I use often is asking myself: What lights me up? Write down at least 5 things down if possible, and then set an intention in the morning to find opportunities to do those things. I have a Spiderminion water tumbler that just makes me happy to look at. Getting my kids to laugh lights me up – they have those little-kid giggles. Being in nature when it’s warm and sunny. Reading something that is exactly my sense of humor. They’re simple things, but I have to remind myself to notice them.

Another focus, or tool, is practicing gratitude. Write down three things every day that you are grateful for. Be as specific and descriptive as possible. This helps you focus on what you have, which keeps your focus off of what you don’t have. (Focusing on what you don’t have is not a useful tool for feeling happy, fyi.) It also creates those good feelings of appreciation. Practicing gratitude reminds you that you have parts of your life that make you feel good, if you just stop and notice them.

Which leads me to the next tool, mindfulness. Being mindful means being in the present moment without judgment. Noticing what is going on right now around you and/or inside of you, without judging it. The more mindful we are, the more we let go of judgment, by definition. Judgment rarely makes us happy. But stopping and noticing the sounds you can hear or the colors you can see can provide a moment of interest, peace, and the possibility of feeling wonder. It’s not exactly the same as happy, but you might find that it is as appealing.

Because I want to be healthy.

Please see above for my soapbox speech about not equating weight and health.

If you want to be healthy, first be clear about what is “unhealthy.” What exactly needs addressing? Your weight is not an acceptable answer. If you have lab results or vitals that are outside of normal limits and/or that your doctor has expressed concern about, that counts as unhealthy or potentially unhealthy. If you are having experiences like feeling lethargic or feeling physical pain, please check with a doctor to determine its cause. That will be relevant to addressing the issue. Once you are clear about what is unhealthy, you can work on addressing it directly via your movement and food habits and perhaps medicine or supplements. This is how you get healthy.

“Food habits,” by the way, is not code for “a diet focused on losing weight.” Eating based on your body’s needs and your wants is the goal. Pay attention to what you are eating and drinking in terms of how it makes you and your body feel, not in terms of calories or weight. Consider working with a HAES® -oriented dietitian to help you figure out how to eat and move to address your specific health and human needs.

Also pay attention to your sleep, your stress level, and the time you spend in the present moment (do you think about the past or worry about the future a lot?). All of these factors are more relevant to health than weight is. Meditation is a great tool for improving all three. And it has well-documented health benefits.

Because I want to move more easily.

The size of your body and your weight may genuinely impact your stamina and your ability to move or move with ease. I am not saying that losing weight wouldn’t help with those things. I am saying that if you focus on losing weight, you are likely to fall into the traps I’ve talked about and ultimately not get to your goal of moving more easily.

This tool is about shifting your mindset. Instead of focusing on losing weight, focus on moving your body more. Always consult with your physician first if there are any medical concerns. Then start moving your body a little more than you currently do. Make a plan about how you will do it: what movement will you do, for how long, when? Start slow – that’s key. Stretch a little. Walk a little. Dance a little. Start with whatever part of your body you can comfortably move. Consult with a HAES®-oriented movement specialist (if that’s hard to find, look for a personal trainer or movement specialist who is on board with increasing stamina or ease of movement, not losing weight). Keep your focus on moving your body.

Please stop dieting. It doesn’t work. The weight doesn’t stay off, and it doesn’t fix our self-esteem. More often than not, it makes both worse. The kindest thing you can do for yourself when you want to try another diet is to shut that door and try something that targets the actual issue. If you need more ideas, let me know. I’ve got ‘em.

References and good reads:

Body Respect: What conventional health books leave out, get wrong, or just plain fail to understand about weight. L. Bacon & L. Aphramor (2014)

Health At Every Size: The surprising truth about your weight. L. Bacon (2010). 

The Body is Not an Apology, Second Edition: The Power of Radical Self Love. Sonya Renee Taylor (2021). 

The Prevalence of Metabolically Healthy Obesity: a systematic review and critical evaluation of the definitions used. JP Rey-Lopez et al. Obes Rev. 2014 Oct.

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