Why So Many Diets Don’t Work
Dysregulation: Why Diets Don’t Work for Us & How They Affect Our Bodies
So many of us try different diets, only to be left wondering: Why can’t I lose weight? What am I doing wrong? We’ve been sold on this idea that ‘going on a diet’ automatically leads to weight loss and better health. But, the truth is, so many diets don’t work the way that we want them to. Today we’re diving into why diets don’t work for us and what dieting does to the body.
The whole premise of dieting is one-dimensional, focused on food and weight alone. Simple slogans like “calories in, calories out” are accepted as conventional wisdom. But, our bodies are far from this simple, or this one-dimensional. So many health approaches and diets don’t work because they treat our bodies like machines, rather than whole, complex systems.
None of us is just a body! Each of us is a whole person, with a physical body, a mind, emotions—and some might even say a spirit. And our weight loss and overall health are shaped by the entire system that makes up who we are. In today’s video, we’re diving into why diets don’t work and what they do to our bodies—and how they can actually get in the way of our health goals.
Is 'Healthy' Actually Wholeness?
- The word “health” originates from the Old English word hal, which means “whole.”
- And “health” shares its roots with the word “heal”—which literally means “to make whole again.”
- Our healing involves us becoming whole again. And true health is being whole—all of the parts of our system working together.
Unfortunately, Western approaches to health and medicine have become a form of “illness care” rather than “health care.” Currently, our systems are set up to “fix” what’s been broken, rather than prevent or address the root cause of our health issues. Similarly, this is also why diets don’t work for so many of us.
Additionally, our society and culture place great emphasis on science—which is wonderful! However, this narrow focus on medicines and the biology of the body has also led to a somewhat reductionist approach to health. Rather than acknowledging our complexity, modern medicine tends to treat humans as machines.
Yes, human bodies may all work in a similar fashion. But, the reality is, each of us as individuals has many varying factors that will contribute to our physical health. This includes components of our mental and emotional health—both of which are almost completely neglected from the Western model.
Mind-Body Connection: The Triangle of Health
I’ve found in my own experience, as well as emerging nutrition and health research, that our emotional and mental health are key to achieving physical health. It’s like a triangle, and each component needs to be addressed for the “whole” to function. Viewing health in this way is what many would call an “integrative” or “holistic” approach to health.
I grew up thinking holistic health was ‘woo-woo’ and fake. At the same time, I also grew up not understanding what an emotion was… In reality, holistic approaches merely acknowledge a truth: that our mental and emotional health are real, and these have a profound impact our physical health. Thank goodness I let go of my judgments and could see the wisdom in this, or else I truly believe I would have been stressed, gaining weight, and miserable forever.
Now, so much research has revealed to us just how much our stress and emotions impact our physical body—from our digestion, to our skin, to our heart health, to our metabolism, and more. This is the mind-body connection. Many health approaches and diets don’t work because they only focus on the physical symptoms in the body, yet neglect the root causes in the mind and emotions.
Why Diets Don’t Work for Us
In today’s video, I talk about an integrative concept called “systems theory.” Essentially, it suggests that parts of a system (such as a body) are interconnected, affecting the various differing parts.
If we think about our own bodies, they function by the various organ systems interacting. A heart without lungs, a liver, or a brain, doesn’t do one much good. Additionally, our mental states and our emotions are also parts of this interconnected system, affecting the various parts. Again, the mind-body connection.
So, recognizing this interconnectedness, why do our health approaches, medicines, and diets tend to target just one isolated part of the system? Just one symptom? So many diets don’t work (even with a significant calorie deficit) because there are broader, deeper issues that need to be addressed within the system (a.k.a. your body & mind).
Self-regulation is the idea that systems (like our bodies) can regulate by themselves. Our bodies know what to do! Again, thinking about your own body, you don’t need to tell your heart to beat, or your lungs to breathe, or your liver to detoxify.
Yes, you do need to take action to fuel (feed) your body so it can regulate. But, your body will even tell you when it needs fuel with a signal: hunger! Hunger is one of many signals that your system (your body) uses to regulate itself. And, would you believe that our bodies intuitively know what to eat, too?
This study demonstrated that preschool age children are able to regulate their eating based on their bodies’ needs for growth. In other words, children will choose nutritious foods and eat only as much as they need—without supervision or instruction. They may eat more or fewer calories from one meal to the next, but their intake balances out over time to provide adequate nutrition and nutrients based on their bodies’ needs. And they do it all intuitively!
No, this wasn’t some special or exceptional group of children. We all have this ability as humans—we were born with it, and we can tune in to it now. But, this is one of the major reasons why diets don’t work and can get in the way of our goals: Dieting disconnects us from this natural, intuitive ability.
Feedback Loops & Dysregulation
In order to function, a self-regulating system depends on feedback loops. Basically, the system signals that it needs something, and regulates with a response. In our own bodies, one of the simplest feedback loops to understand is hunger and fullness. When the body needs fuel, it signals with hunger, we respond by eating. Once satiated, the body signals with fullness, then respond with digestion.
- So, a healthy, well-regulated system is functioning and at ease.
- But, if its feedback loops are interrupted, a self-regulating system can become dys-regulated.
- Then, that dysregulation leads to dis-ease.
- Or, as we like to call it: disease.
This is the core of why diets don’t work for so many of us—disrupting the body’s feedback loops, and disconnecting us from the important signals it’s sending us. Download the attached PDF to see an example & illustration of how dieting can lead to broken feedback loops and dysregulation.
I know, it’s a lot to take in today, but don’t overthink the science here. I only encourage you to get curious about the mind body connection and see whether it feels true for you.
No, I’m not suggesting any of us ‘reject’ Western medicine, or discount science, or not listen to our doctors. (Please, believe scientists and listen to your doctor!) And, even though diets don’t work in the way that we want them to, I’m not ‘rejecting’ all diets or efforts at weight loss.
I’m merely advocating that we each take responsibility for our health by acknowledging all of its various components—rather than reducing it down to one. We can make real progress towards our health goals and healing by taking a more holistic approach.
Today’s Journal Prompt:
How do you take care of your physical, emotional, and mental health? Give an example of each.
What do you feel that you’re doing well? What would you like to improve? Do you notice the mind-body connection in your own life and experience?