Why Crash Diets Don’t Work

Allison Holladay, RDN

This is the time of year when we are bombarded with dieting commercials, fad diet tips, and weight loss resolutions for the summer. Most people set out with the intention to lose weight and to be a little healthier in the new year, or maybe they have an event they want to lose weight for. Unfortunately, because our culture has normalized the obsession with body image, weight, and constant dieting, most advice pieces are pushed in the direction of articles titled “Quick Fix to Lose 20 Pounds!” or “How to Lose 30 Pounds in 30 Days”. Companies market to our human desire to have instant gratification and to see the fruits of our labor come to life quickly and, as a result, crash diets promising immediate results are created.

The “dieting” mindset

Crash dieting often leaves us approaching food in a black-and-white mindset. We make a quick mental list in our heads of which foods will be in the “good” or “healthy” camp and which foods will be in the “bad” or “unhealthy” camp (later on I’ll explain why as a dietitian I avoid using those words to describe food and encourage others to do the same 😊). Our brains instinctually like the simplicity of categorizing— which is why we are often drawn to these diet plans— when in reality, nutrition is a nuanced subject that requires an individualized approach. 

If you have ever felt like you failed or had self-blame because you couldn’t stick with a diet, you are not alone. The whole point of these diets is to keep us coming back while at the same time convincing us we are the problem.  

So, let’s dive into the science of why crash diets don’t work long term

4 Reasons Crash Dieting Can Be More Harmful Than Helpful In Our Health Journey:

1) Increased Health Risk

One study shows weight cycling or “yo-yo dieting” can lead to long-term negative health outcomes. In this article those who had a stable BMI had decreased risk of cardiovascular disease than those whose weight fluctuated up and down. 

2) Nutrient Deficiencies

When our bodies are in a state of restriction we are not getting the required nutrients we need. That may  lead to nutrient deficiencies and cause long term effects like hair loss, weak or brittle nails, fatigue, and irregular heart beat. Both macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) perform essential functions in the body— and getting enough of them is vital to our health.

3) Loss of Lean Muscle Tissue 

Not only will a person lose a substantial amount of fluids along with fat, but severe caloric restriction can cause a higher amount of muscle tissue loss as well. Losing muscle means decreased strength and potential for bone fractures. 

4) Decreased Metabolism

Our bodies automatically have something called “TDEE” which stands for Total Daily Energy Expenditure. It’s made up of 4 components but the majority of TDEE will be determined by our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Basal Metabolic rate is the amount of energy our bodies need to function at rest. When a person loses weight their BMR decreases in order to match the lower caloric amount being taken in and in turn halts weight loss—also called adaptive thermogenesis! From a biological perspective this response is a good thing because our body’s main priority is keeping us alive, but long periods of this low energy intake can lead to adverse effects in our bodies. 

How can we improve our nutrition in a healthy, sustainable way?

5 Tips Toward A Sustainable and Healthy Relationship with Food:

1) Protein At Every Meal

Studies support evidence this macronutrient is the most filling and can help a person remain satisfied and full. It keeps our blood sugar stable by slowing down the absorption of carbs so we don’t experience the effects a drop can have on us. Protein also protects lean muscle mass even when a person continues to lose weight–which is great because the more muscle we have, the more active our metabolism is! Consuming 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day is what we recommend. 

2) Eating Every 3-4 Hours

A good rule of thumb is to make  sure you’re eating every 3-4 hours. Going hours without eating can result in brain fog, intense food cravings, and low energy. 

3) Using Neutral Language Around Food 

There is a fancy phrase for the idea that no particular  foods hold moral superiority over others, and it’s called food neutrality. One of my favorite things to teach members is that “all foods have a place at the table” and whether you are eating broccoli or a piece of chocolate, there is some nutritional value to pull from in each item! Being mindful of how we describe what we eat is important for developing a positive relationship with food because it allows us to have variety and flexibility on a day to day basis without rules attached.

4) Focus On Addition Not Subtraction

The common theme with fad diets is the emphasis of restricting certain foods or decreasing calories. In order to foster a safe and healthy relationship with food, it is helpful to shift the focus away from what you have to eliminate and instead, focus on items you can add to a meal or snack to make them more nutritionally sound! 

Make sure meals are filled with variety like protein, carbs, fat, and vegetable and/or fruit instead of low calorie options to serve us better in the long run for our health.

5) Daily Activity

Not only does exercise provide a wide array of benefits like maintaining muscle and bone health and lowering disease risk, but it also helps digest food better! Going on a light walk after a meal or snack can help aid in the digestion process. 

The reward does not outweigh the risks when talking about crash dieting. The good news is there are other effective ways to lose weight and keep it off long term! Getting the right support system for you will be helpful in the long run. Here at Sequence, our team of Registered Dietitians are here to help with any goal— big or small. If you feel like you could benefit from the added support from the nutrition team please reach out to your Care Coordinator to book a 1:1 session with a Registered Dietitian. 

Not a Sequence member? See if you qualify.

Allison Holladay, RDN

About the Author

Allison is a Registered Dietitian with a background in eating disorders, disordered eating, and intuitive eating. She believes everyone deserves a peaceful relationship with food, and the best part of her job is to help foster that with each member. She practices through a weight-inclusive lens and makes sure each nutrition session is met with a collaborative approach. When Allison is not working ,you can find her in the gym or spending time outside with her husband and their two dogs.

Scroll to see all categories

Join the Community

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Popular Articles