Can Dieting Cause Weight Gain?
Written by Andrea Clares
How many times have you you been told that diets don’t work? Yet time and time again you are drawn to start another one?
The pursuit of weight loss and thinness encouraged by diet culture has led to an outstanding number of people engaging in some type of restrictive dietary behaviours during their lifetime. Interestingly, the prevalence of dieting behaviours has been increasing over the last three decades (1), along with rising overweight and obesity rates (2), and a doubling of cases in eating disorders (3).
The dieting industry promises a miracle quick-fix to solve weight loss problems and body image insecurities - but ultimately it profits from them.
What the dieting industry isn’t telling you is that:
a) their first priority is making money - really, they don’t care about your health and,
b) what has been scientifically proven – that is, the futility of dieting resulting from their low success rate.
If fad diets worked, then we wouldn't be having this conversation
Before you jump on the dieting bandwagon again, let's unpack the actual facts about dieting.
Dieting is a predictor of long-term weight gain
It is paradoxical that many diet programs promise effective weight loss yet studies show the exact opposite. Studies investigating the long-term effects of dieting have shown that two thirds of dieters (if not more) regain more weight than they had previously lost after 4 to 5 years of finishing a diet (4). A study investigating the relationship between dieting and weight gain in twins, found that over the course of 8 years those engaging in two or more intentional weight loss episodes (i.e. diets) were at greater risk of becoming overweight compared to those who didn’t engage in dieting behaviours. Interestingly, weight gain was also shown to be independent to the effects of genetics, meaning that dieting was the cause (5).
Dieting leads to weight cycling or yo-yo dieting
This phenomenon known as weight cycling is best described as a repeated pattern of weight loss and weight regain resulting from restrictive and unsustainable dieting practices. Weight cycling is concerning due to the association with health problems including increased risk of eating disorders, anxiety and depression, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diminished bone health and overall wellbeing (6). The Framingham Study, a large 32-year follow-up investigation, reported strong associations between weight cycling and increased mortality from coronary heart disease, predominantly amongst young participants (7). Since then, a large body of research has documented similar associations and reported that the detrimental effects of weight cycling are certainly not limited to obese or overweight individuals but also to those considered to be at a normal weight (6).
Dieting increases fat deposition
Yes, you’ve heard it right, you may lose some fat at the start of your diet but soon your body will identify that there’s a shortage in fat and protein. Consequently, hunger-inducing hormones (e.g. Ghrelin, NPY) will increase causing heightened appetite. Typically, once a diet ends, your body will have adapted to a number of processes to store more energy and fat (8). This natural response is triggered as a survival mechanism to preserve more energy while protecting the body against starvation.
Dieting is associated with binge eating
The foundations of most diets lie within the restriction of energy (food) intake. Dietary restraint has been shown to impact regions of the brain associated with food reward whereby dieters are hyper-responsive to food stimuli (9). This increases the desire for food (i.e. intense cravings) and therefore, the risk of overeating and binge eating. In an observational study which examined the relationship between food restraint and food intake, researchers found that restraint eaters assigned to starting a new diet after the end of the study, ate significantly more than restraint eaters which weren’t facing a diet afterwards (10). This increase in food intake in response to anticipated food restraint (e.g. starting a new diet on Monday) is commonly referred to as “the last super effect”.
Right, what happens now?
We see so many people in clinic that come to us feeling confused as to why they are "failing" at dieting, and unable to lose weight (or why they are gaining weight). It is absolutely okay for you to want to lose weight, but if you have an unhealthy relationship with food, chances are it isn't going to work. If you want to lose weight in a healthy and sustainable way, first you need to improve your relationship with food and your body. Learn how to nourish your body and mind for long-term health. A non-diet approach will teach you how to connect with your body, to be in tune without having to follow a restrictive diet, follow meal plans, measure your food or count points ever again!
If you are considering 1:1 dietetic support, please do get in touch with our team.
Andrea is a Registered Nutritionist and Intern at TCN! Her mission is to empower and equip you with all you need to live a healthy and fulfilling life, diet and guilt free. You can find Andrea on instagram @andreacm_nutrition and check out her website here.
1.Solmi, F., Sharpe, P., Helen, Gage, S. H., Maddock, J., Lewis, G., & Patalay, P. (2020). Changes in the Prevalence and Correlates of Weight-Control Behaviors and Weight Perception in Adolescents in the UK, 1986-2015. JAMA Pediatrics.
2.Yaemsiri S, Slining MM, Agarwal SK. (2011). Perceived weight status, overweight diagnosis, and weight control among US adults: the NHANES 2003–2008 Study. Int J Obes, 35: 1063–1070.
3.Galmiche, M., Déchelotte, P., Lambert, G., & Tavolacci, M. P. (2019). Prevalence of eating disorders over the 2000–2018 period: a systematic literature review. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 109(5), 1402-1413.
4.Mann, T., Tomiyama, A., Westling, E., Lew, A., Samuels, B., & Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare's search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer. The American psychologist, 62(3), 220-233.
5.Pietiläinen, K. H., Saarni, S. E., Kaprio, J., & Rissanen, A. (2012). Does dieting make you fat? A twin study. International journal of obesity, 36(3), 456–464.
6.Montani, J. P., Schutz, Y., & Dulloo, A. G. (2015). Dieting and weight cycling as risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases: who is really at risk?. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 16(1), 7–18.
7.Lissner, L., Odell, P. M., D'Agostino, R. B., Stokes, J., 3rd, Kreger, B. E., Belanger, A. J., & Brownell, K. D. (1991). Variability of body weight and health outcomes in the Framingham population. The New England journal of medicine, 324(26), 1839–1844.
8.Dulloo, A. G., Jacquet, J., Montani, J. P., & Schutz, Y. (2015). How dieting makes the lean fatter: from a perspective of body composition autoregulation through adipostats and proteinstats awaiting discovery. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 16(1), 25–35.
9.Burger, K. S., & Stice, E. (2011). Relation of dietary restraint scores to activation of reward-related brain regions in response to food intake, anticipated intake, and food pictures. NeuroImage, 55(1), 233–239.
10.Hill, A. (2004). Does dieting make you fat? British Journal of Nutrition, 92(1), 15-18.
Talia is a registered dietitian working in private practice and as an eating disorder specialist dietitian in London's leading private mental health hospital. As a freelance dietitian, Talia not only offers 1:1 consultations but can present at your workplace, create recipes or articles or host a cooking demonstration. To enquire please fill out a contact form.