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Why women who diet often gain weight

Karen Hawthorne is a health and lifestyle writer and producer in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications including Glow, Homemakers, BestHealthMag.ca and the National Post.

Dieting doesn't lead to weight loss

Enough with the calorie-counting and punishing workouts — our preoccupation with diet and weight is taking its toll, one expert says.
Unhappy woman eating a carrot

Marsha J. Hudnall, dietitian, author and owner of women's health retreat Green Mountain at Fox Run, is out to end the yo-yo dieting struggle and help women make long-term healthy lifestyle changes.

SheKnows: Isn't pledging to diet a way to kickstart positive lifestyle changes?

Marsha J. Hudnall: One of the outcomes of telling ourselves we cannot have food is that we want it more, we think about it more and we tend to overeat it when we finally stop denying ourselves. Also, diets lead to all-or-nothing thinking. So once we've blown it, there is a perception that failure has already occurred, so why bother? It's clearly not a recipe for putting a healthy lifestyle in place.

Diets teach us to ignore hunger cues

SheKnows: Why are women who repeatedly go on diets more susceptible to weight gain?

Marsha J. Hudnall: Diets teach us to ignore our hunger cues, and research suggests ignoring “hunger monkeys” with the hormones that regulate our eating lead us to overeat. It stimulates production of ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger, and makes us resistant to leptin, the hormone that helps us feel satisfied. So bottom line, if we don't eat when we're hungry, we set the stage for overeating and weight gain. What's so devastating is that many obesity experts somehow continue to ignore this fact and prescribe diets. All this does is drive our bodies in the exact opposite direction we want to go.

SheKnows: Is dieting actually hard on our bodies, even though some diets are well-balanced and filled with healthy foods?

Marsha J. Hudnall: The impact on our bodies comes from the psychological stress [diets] impose. When we can't eat what we think we want or as much of it as we think we want, and we're so worried about how much we weigh, we set up a stressful situation. And because many of us live on diets or with the diet mentality that has us thinking similarly, we live in a state of chronic low-level stress. That raises levels of cortisol and insulin, two hormones that in excess signal the body to store fat and interfere with building muscle. Stress also interferes with the optimal digestion, absorption and metabolism of our food, causing us to not get the most out of what we eat.

Food is a first-line therapy

SheKnows: Is food more important than exercise in the healthy living equation?

Marsha J. Hudnall: Putting food up against exercise is a hard contest. Exercise goes a long way toward helping us metabolize the food we eat into a healthy body. It certainly helps reduce stress and also produces anti-inflammatory compounds that are important to keeping us healthy. As a dietitian, though, I tend to vote for food as the first-line therapy. My rationale: If you're not eating well, you sure don't feel like being active.

Yes, eat the bacon!

SheKnows: What are your top three tips to break free of dieting?

Marsha J. Hudnall: Focusing on health and well-being at any size is what results in long-lasting change. If people want to end their struggles with eating and weight, they have a better chance if they do it diet-free and start living their way to a healthy weight. My three tips:

  • Find the fun. Find a physical activity that really makes you feel good. Figure out if you like group activities or are a solo adventurer, if you like being inside or outdoors. If you don't love what you're doing, you won't continue.
  • Take care of your inner child. Speak to yourself compassionately, the way you would speak to your 9-year-old self. Beating yourself up only leads to overwhelming emotions, and for many people, emotional eating.
  • Eat the bacon. Eat foods you love as part of a well-balanced plan for healthy eating. A specific food generally isn’t a problem; it’s what we eat overall that makes the difference. Trying to completely eliminate foods or food groups generally backfires in that we think about them more and end up eating them more.

More healthy living tips

Diet obsession: How to break free
6 Healthy eating myths - debunked
Top 10 tips to eat like The Biggest Loser

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