• After the indulgence of December, it's hard to escape stories and images of New Year diets

  • Nutritional therapist Milda Zolubaite explains the damaging reality of unsustainable dieting

  • Long-term body image issues or an unhealthy relationship with food are both good reasons to consider therapy - find your therapist here

Another January and another New Year is upon us and following a hectic December packed with Christmas parties, too much alcohol and over-indulging, diet talk starts to feature heavily in the media. But stay vigilant and avoid the marketer's trap this year, as this may cost you much more than just a couple of lost kilograms (which you are likely to put back on).

Dieting industry is worth multiple billion and it profits from people feeling miserable about themselves and even hating their bodies. Dieting seems to be the “common sense” way to “get back in shape”, “loose a few extra pounds” and “get fit again”, especially since family, friends and colleagues are all talking about it.

Whether it is a diet that cuts out a particular macronutrient (carbs or fats), juicing, eating monofoods like cabbage, strictly cutting down calories or attending dieting clubs, extreme diets are not meant to work. If diets worked, there would be no people left, who need to diet once, twice or three times and we know that it simply is not the case.

And if you are tempted to go on a diet, there are a few things you might want to know about diets and dieting, that will help you make a better decision.

Weight fluctuates throughout the year

It is normal and to be expected that for most people weight will fluctuate throughout the year. It is completely normal to gain a little more weight in the winter, as we are spending more time indoors, it is much cooler and we need the extra fat to keep us warm and allow the system to function properly. Our weight even fluctuates during different times of the day, it is never static.

Having richer foods, occasionally eating when not hungry and eating for social reasons alone is bound to happen during the festive season. This in itself is not the problem, as the weight and health will normalise within a few weeks once back to the regular routine and rhythm.

However, if we push the body to do things quicker and more extreme, it is very likely that natural body’s metabolic processes, as well as relationship with food will be negatively affected. In short, that means trouble!

Restrictive diets slow down metabolism

Many would argue, that diets do work as they have lost weight on a diet and can prove it. Yes, the weight does drop initially, however it is mainly fluids and muscle mass that is lost, as sustained fat loss takes much longer. Unfortunately, during the process of restriction, the body gets a signal that food is not readily available and slows down the metabolism to make sure that no more weight is lost so quickly. And this is when weight loss plateaus.

Once the diet is finished, it is very likely to gain all the weight back and even more, because fatty tissue was never lost in the first place PLUS metabolism is now slowed down. This also explains why dieters keep doing diet after diet, never getting the same results and putting on more and more weight.

Around 25% of dieters will develop an eating disorder 

When the body is deprived of nutrition, it is programmed to send strong cravings and urges to binge for survival. It is very common for dieters to develop an eating disorder following a time of intense restriction, whether it is bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder or anorexia nervosa. Eating Disorder Hope statistics say that a quarter of all dieters will go on to develop an eating disorder, which is a really high and alarming statistic.

Needless to say that dieting can have an enormous effect on your relationship with food and mental health and often it starts with using words such as “good”, “bad”, “naugthy”, “treat” and “calorific” in the context of food.

Don’t believe the “before” and “after” photos

Still hard to believe that diets don’t work, especially after seeing all the convincing “before” and “after” photos on slimming club marketing? Perhaps that was even one of your friends on Facebook? It’s key to remember that weight loss takes time and it is only considered true weight loss, if it is sustained for prolonged periods of time.

Did you know that 95% of dieters regain the lost weight (and often more) within the next 1-5 years? However this you won’t see in an “after” photo, although it’s so much more common than most imagine. Whoever can maintain weight loss during a period of dieting is an exception to the rule and not the other way around. Often, other factors are in place that ensure their success, such as nutrition education or counselling.

Trust your body, get consistent and have fun

Whether you want to “shape up” or “lose a few pounds after Christmas”, I hope you are convinced against trying a diet that will wreak havoc in the body and the mind. The body likes balance and consistency and if you do want to get your health into a better shape, make sure you eat regularly, have good quality nutrition and keep moving. And whatever you choose to do, make sure it is consistent.

Remembering the natural weight fluctuations throughout the year and allowing the body to go with the flow, accept that for a few weeks or a month you may carry extra weight and feel less comfortable. Swap extreme diets and overtraining with gentle support on both nutrition and movement front and the body will be back to its usual place within weeks.

Build health by making things exciting and interesting, not by punishing your body with a diet. Perhaps that means choosing a type of movement that feels fun to you, like hiking in nature or swimming, rather than going to exhausting spinning classes, and spending time to prepare your meals and cook some new interesting recipes up, rather than eat plain lettuce without dressing in January. Life is too short for plain lettuce.

What can you do when others around you start talking about diets? 

If you are feeling the pressure about going on another diet and the topic seems to be unavoidable wherever you go, take a step back and consider some coping strategies. You can smoothly change the topic of the conversation or physically remove yourself from the situation when possible. New Year's resolutions tend to fizzle out and people around you will stop diet talk within a month, so make sure you are focused on keeping resilient, body and mind.

Milda Zolubaite is a nutritional therapist trained by the National Centre for Eating Disorders (NCFED).

Further reading

Shame, guilt, and your relationship with food

My relationship with my body: from control to connection

Finally finding peace with food

Dear body, a love letter

The 10 principles of intuitive eating