What To Do When Diets Stop Working

“For every diet there is an equal and opposite binge.” —Geneen Roth

Most emotional eaters or binge eaters get to a point where their old faithful quick-fix—dieting—stops working. That’s a time of incredible fear. If dieting doesn’t work anymore, aren’t I just going to get hugely fat, majorly depressed and eventually just die, miserable and alone?!

I felt a little bit like that in my mid-20s when I gained all the weight back from the last diet I ever went on. But far from leading me into a dark, unhappy future, giving up on dieting lead me to where I am today: Happy, healthy and recovered from binge eating disorder. Letting go of the diet mentality (“Everything will be better when I’m thin, and if I just have enough will power, I will get there”) allowed me to stop focusing on the symptom (my weight) and start focusing on the real problem: The fact that I used food to cope with life.

That’s the happy message I want to send to HealthyGirl.org reader Stacey, 18, who sent me this note a while back:
“I recently lost 40 pounds in this pattern: One month liquid fast then three months of strict low-fat, low-carb and low-calore (no joke) eating. I was happy, everyone said I looked good, I said ‘I will never be fat again.’ Then one day I decide to have a piece of chicken, and after that I wanted rice, and cookies, and then on my birthday I had a chocolate cake, and some cheesy artichoke, then I started visiting the dorm vending machines at night. I kept doing that until I completely ended my diet, and now I am about 30 pounds heavier and still eating. I have tried going back on a diet, a healthy one. It’s not working. I tried eating in moderation. Didn’t work. I am mostly mad at myself. I cry a lot now, but I still eat.

How can you be angry with yourself for something that’s not your fault? Yeah, that’s right, failing at dieting is NOT YOUR FAULT. When you restrict your eating, it’s a natural and normal physiological reaction for you to crave more food. It’s like a rubberband—pull it back too far and it’s bound to bounce back (hard). Emotional eating expert Geneen Roth put it best: “Every diet has an equal and opposite binge.”

There was a classic study done decades ago in which researchers had a group of normal, healthy men cut their eating back far enough that they lost 25% of their body weight over two years. What happened? These once totally normal guys became obsessed with food. And when the dieting study ended, they started to binge eating. Their eating habits and thoughts about food remained screwed up for a long time.

Why should it be any different for us? The way to get to a healthy weight is by dealing with the issues that cause us to overeat in the first place: Anxiety, pain, fear, low self-esteem and the need to avoid uncomfortable feelings.

Ladies of HealthyGirl.org: Have you stopped dieting? Why? And what’s happened since?


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6 Responses to What To Do When Diets Stop Working

  1. Trish says:

    I have stopped dieting, and my life has seriously changed so much. all the years i tried dieting, i’d lose max 5lbs, then plateau, binge, and quit. but since i’ve given dieting up altogether, i feel good, my esteem is wayyyyy up, and i’ve lost 12 lbs without starving or eating celery for breakfast lunch and dinner. i never thought this could happen, but trust me it can!

  2. m says:

    I gained 10 pounds so far (i’m not on a diet for 4 months, after 8 years of dieting, yay!), but i’m determined that i’m not going on another diet again, becuse i know that i need to focus on my real problems..
    I just read Geneen Roth’s book and i think it’s the best about this topic. Everyone with binge/emotinal eating problem should read it :)
    Trish well done!

  3. Katee says:

    I remember reading one of Geneen Roth’s books when I was still doing Weight Watchers. I don’t think I made it halfway through (her eating chocolate chip cookies and gaining weight scared me off).
    Last year,after the binges were becoming really bad, I read Intuitive Eating and it clicked. I was on the wrong path and had stayed on the wrong bath for so long my sanity was in question. So I quit and ate, and gained 40 pounds. But starting with my graduation from grad school things of slowed down. I binge a little, but not as bad as before and my weight has finally stopped increase. I’ve stopped obsessing about food (especially “bad” foods). I’m going to start treatment Wed and am very excited to finally be able to work through my issues and have a healthy relationship with food.

    • Sunny says:

      In all honestly M and Katee, I gained a bit at first too. But eventually my weight evened out, and my body slowly let go of the extra. It felt like a miracle. :) But it wasn’t! It’s the way it works!

      • Kate says:

        Thanks Sunny!

        I kept waiting and waiting and when I finally realized I stopped gaining it felt like another piece of the puzzle finally fit into place. Now I just have to be patient and know I have a closet full of clothes for when my body decides to let to weight go.

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Sunny Sea Gold

About the Author

Sunny Sea Gold is a media-savvy advocate and commentator specializing in binge eating disorder, cultural obsessions around food and weight, and raising children who have a healthy body image.