Why Can't I stick to a Diet?

As a therapist specializing in food-addiction treatment, I have heard the stories. She stayed home from her high school reunion too embarrassed to attend having gained weight after having a couple of kids. He feels mortified on a plane when he realizes his overweight frame takes up part of the seat next to him. She longs to play with her grandchildren but finds it too difficult to get up from the floor. He hates using a C-pap machine but he has sleep apnea and snores so loudly he keeps his wife awake at night. She has Type-2 diabetes and pushes out the images of people with missing limbs, blindness and fear of stroke from her mind. At 23 she sits at home on a Friday night believing that if she could lose weight someone might ask her out on date, might even love her.

It’s heartbreaking. What makes it even worse is the judgmental comments they hear. The fat jokes. The suggestions for weight loss. The shaming criticism “Why don’t you just do something about this? Don’t you care about your health? Your kids?”  Then there are the things that they don’t hear but they see like missed job promotions, invitations, rejection, frowning stares and clicking tongues. They are embarrassed to order in a restaurant certain that others are wondering how much they will eat. 

Then there is the self-judgment. “Why can’t I lose weight? Stick to a diet? I am such a disgrace.” They look in the mirror and feel confirmed in these self-loathing thoughts and comments… or they don’t look in the mirror at all. 

No one wants to be overweight. If losing weight was so easy no one would be overweight. Studies have shown that 95% of diets fail. There are reasons people can’t lose weight on a diet. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

1. Environmental changes: If we look at the changes in society over the past seventy years we see a shift from farms to fast food. Restaurants compete against each other with portion sizes. If you are my age, you know that the small hamburger in the kid’s meal today was the normal-sized adult hamburger in the 1970’s. Eating out when I was a kid was a special treat. Today 42% of Americans eat fast food a minimum of 12 times a month for a diet of mostly high-fat/high-caloric food in portions larger than we need. Is it any wonder that 69% of Americans are overweight?[ii]  

2. Set point: Our body has a very a complex system in place to regulate us within a set range for body fat. The fact is that our brain doesn’t know we need to lose weight. So when we start to shed a few pounds our brain thinks we are starving ourselves and it kicks in to defend our current set point! With greater intensity our system tells us that we are famished and our body begins to burn less calories for fuel. The diet is over and we eat.

3. Dopamine: Another reason we fail at dieting is that when we overeat our brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is a feel-good chemical that we produce all by ourselves. It’s also addictive. So whether we eat food for comfort, look at porn to numb out or shop or gamble to escape, dopamine is the result. Our brain on dopamine does not differentiate between compulsions- and that includes the compulsion to eat. If we repeat these behaviors often enough we become addicted to the dopamine and keep repeating the behaviors. It’s not about willpower anymore, it’s about addiction.

So now can we drop the judgment against 69% of our population and work together to find solutions? 

If you have dieted and failed repeatedly, you don’t need one more diet. You need compassion and you need treatment. Treatment can help your brain to heal from food addiction. It can help you uncover the issues you may be distracting yourself from with food. You’ll gain tools for developing healthier ways to manage stress, emotional pain or loneliness. You will find unconditional, non-judgmental support through the process. 

With your food addiction managed, you will find you have more capability to stay with a healthy nutrition plan that can lead to weight loss. Combining your addiction treatment with visits to a registered dietician that can help you change your set point could bring positive results! It has for others just like you.

If you struggle with compulsive eating, seek treatment. It’s time. You are worth it.

[i] Stories shared here are composites and not based on any one individual or group.
[ii] Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. www.yaleruddcenter.org