May 6th is International No Diet Day,” an annual social media campaign that encourages people to question and reject aspects of popular diet culture that are not beneficial for them. This movement reinforces the importance of defining health and wellness on one’s own terms, encouraging body acceptance and showing respect for all body shapes and sizes. 

The connection between diets and eating disorders

Research shows that people who diet are more likely than those who don’t to develop eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Unfortunately, pandemic restrictions have been shown to exacerbate these conditions, increasing disordered eating for many individuals. People previously diagnosed with eating disorders have reported more binging, purging and food restriction behaviors during lockdowns. Those without formal eating disorders have also experienced eating related problems, with almost 30% implementing greater food restrictions and nearly 35% increasing binge eating. 

It is estimated that 30 million Americans have been diagnosed with eating disorders, almost 10% of women and 2% of men. For adolescents, dieting is a significant risk factor for developing these conditions. In one study, teenagers who engaged in the strictest dieting behaviors were 18 times more likely to develop eating disorders then those who did not diet. 

Studies also show that teenagers who attempt to diet are more likely to gain weight and engage in binge eating. Diet culture often begins early and children as young as 6 years old—especially girls—can begin to become concerned with their weight. This fear usually continues into adulthood and can impact self-worth and mental health. In one study, over 70% of young women and nearly half of young/middle aged men reported being afraid of gaining weight, with well over half of the women reporting currently being on a diet. 

Diets hardly ever work

One thing the 72 billion dollar a year commercial diet industry doesn’t want you to know is that their methods very rarely promote long term weight loss. Ninety five percent of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years and 50% will gain even more. Fast and aggressive weight loss plans are particularly difficult to maintain, which explains why most of the winning contestants on the show “The Biggest Loser” went on to regain the majority of their lost weight. 

Dieting can also change people’s moods and reactions in negative ways. Research shows that exerting the ongoing self-control and denial needed to comply with most diet programs can lead to increased levels of anger, irritation and aggressive behaviors. Attempting to follow strict diets can also negatively affect self-esteem and increase feelings of helplessness and depression, “When we are eating out of synchronisation with our bodies, some people find that feelings of guilt and shame follow and this self-judgement cycle can lead to food restriction, overeating or yo-yo dieting which have shown to have a negative impact on well-being and health outcomes,” said Jo Withers, registered dietitian.

Though there are multiple reasons why most diets fail, creating a restrictive relationship with food that can not be sustained long term is one of the most common. Like any relationship based on shame, control and deprivation these types of diets are often harmful and non-sustainable. International “No Diet Day” encourages people to reflect on the impact popular diet culture and media has had on their lives and to move toward healthier relationships with food, their body’s and themselves. 

Ways to Celebrate “No Diet Day” (#NODietDay)

Reflect on your relationship to food and diet culture

What did you learn when you were younger about eating, body size and what was acceptable and desirable? Were you ever teased or watched others be teased for their size or weight? If you have tried diets to lose weight, what have the results been? Not just on the scale, but the impact on how you viewed yourself and your value in the world. No Diet Day encourages taking some time to reflect on these questions can provide understanding, clarity and a path for developing a healthier relationship with food.

Cut out the “weight talk” and teasing

Research shows that commenting on your own or other people’s weight can damage relationships, injure self-esteem and lead to increased weight gain. This is particularly true with the parent/child dynamic. Speaking positively about healthful nutrition and physical fitness did not have these same negative effects. 

Have a family/group meal together

Family meals are associated with increased intake of nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as healthier attitudes toward food. Making this a part of your daily/weekly routine can encourage healthier eating habits. 

Consider how you talk about food

It is easy to get into the habit of talking about food in terms of “good” or “bad: broccoli = good, french fries = bad. Using these moral—instead of nutritional—categories can lead to shame around indulging in certain foods, unhealthy food restrictions and eating habits. Instead, focus on how your body responds to different foods, finding balance in your choices and enjoying the foods you and your family choose to eat.

Tune Into Your Body

Also known as intuitive eating, this approach encourages noticing your body’s hunger and satiety signals and responding to them appropriately. This No Diet day, challenge yourself to start paying attention to those signals. If you are a lifelong dieter or someone who tunes out when eating, learning these skills can be a challenge and take some time. Be patient with yourself and with time you can make friends with your body’s signals and learn to work with your body toward a healthier, happier you.

International No Diet Day encourages us to think critically about diet culture and to reject the aspects of it that are damaging, ineffective and harmful. “Dieting may or may not lead to a smaller body, but it will most definitely lead to a smaller life,“ said “No Diet Day” advocate and nutritionist Holly Greenburg.