Why Do We Diet?
The social pressure to diet starts young — really young — and this is what has some nutritionists and eating disorder experts worried about people who want to try restrictive diets. In 2008, a study on nearly 200 five-year-olds showed that a mother’s dieting behavior shapes how her daughter thinks about dieting. Other estimates suggest that one-third of preadolescent children report dieting.
The pressure builds throughout middle and high school, as the media projects beauty ideals that often differ from reality. Diet books crowd bookstore shelves, magazine articles plaster diet tips across their pages, and Instagram influencers peddle “skinny tea” as a miracle weight loss strategy.
“Everybody is attached to a device that flashes a million times a minute — not just the messages of what you should look like, but also messages about feeling bad about yourself,” Kronberg says, noting that these messages increases a person’s vulnerability to developing an eating disorder and dieting. “It’s part of: Get up, breathe, brush your teeth and go on your diet.”
Dawn Brighid, an integrative nutritionist at New York’s Eleven Eleven Wellness Center, tells Inverse she sees a lot of anxiety around food. “I see people in tears because they’re hungry and they don’t know what to do and they were told not to eat X, Y, Z, and now they feel like their diet is so restrictive,” she says. “It’s like information overload.”
Many people diet to lose weight, but not always for health-related reasons. “We have a weight bias in our culture and there is a hierarchy of thin versus normal versus overweight,” says Kronberg, who has counseled patients with eating disorders for over four decades. “You know, thin people get better jobs, better boyfriends, better lives. It’s coveted.”
Kronberg has found that dieting is often about finding control and a sense of accomplishment in a chaotic world.
“People who are genetically predisposed to developing an eating disorder are much more vulnerable to the chaoticness of the world, global, and economic threats, not just the chaoticness of their family,” she says.
Between 2013 and 2016, almost half of Americans tried to lose weight in the last 12 months, according to a data brief from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).
A lot of the time, diets don’t work — or at least, their impacts don’t last. Across 31 long-term diet studies, a group of UCLA psychologists found in 2007 that dieters typically lost five to 10 percent of their starting weight in the first six months, but one- to two-thirds of people regained more weight than they lost after several years.
When diets don’t have the intended result, people plunge into shame: Diet culture tells them they are lazy and undisciplined. And so, they look for the next best diet, and the relentless cycle continues.
“Not only does dieting not work, it causes harm. That’s the bottom line,” Tribole says. “It increases the risk of eating disorders and it really disconnects people from their bodies.”