Are Diets Harmful? Let’s Ask a Supermodel

06/30/2016 08:18 pm ET

“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

Guess who said that? It wasn't cowboy movie star Roy Rogers, one of the first to wear skinny jeans. It also wasn't a weight consultant like Jenny Craig or Richard Simmons. And I certainly didn't say it (I love food way too much).

In 2009, when asked, "Do you have any mottos?" that was the answer given by supermodel Kate Moss. Needless to say, her reply infuriated body image advocates and sparked an ongoing discussion of weight loss. Many people felt the supermodel, by getting people to feel bad about their weight, was encouraging eating disorders.     

Dieting is a controversial topic because it's so tough to do and can perpetuate body image disorders, like anorexia. But the truth is, thinner people, and even “waify” models like Kate Moss may be at less risk for health problems than people who are overweight.

So, is dieting good for your health?

In one analysis by my undergraduate health psychology professor (and mentor), Traci Mann, 21 studies on dieting and health were combined into a single study. The authors only reviewed papers that included two groups: one that followed a diet (intervention) and one that didn't go on a diet (control). In addition, they only used studies where participants were placed on a typical low-calorie or low-fat diet.

Five health indicators were considered: total cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and fasting blood glucose. They also considered medication use and disease as related to these five health indicators.

What did they find? Only slight improvements in the five health outcomes were noted. Changes in blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels were minor, and none of the improvements correlated with weight loss. However, people on diets did experience a few positive effects for hypertension and diabetes medication use, as well as diabetes and stroke incidence.

Overall, the authors state there was “no clear relationship” between weight loss and health outcomes related to hypertension, diabetes, or cholesterol, “calling into question whether weight change per se had any causal role in the few effects of the diets.” The authors don’t discount the danger of being overweight, but they do point to studies that claim that weight loss may be unnecessary for health improvements.

So, if the goal is to improve long-term health, diets don't work. Temporary fixes, like slimming down to look good in a swimsuit or wedding dress, are not only bad approaches to weight loss—they can be harmful in the long-term. Being healthy is a lifestyle decision (which includes dietary choices), and full-blown lifestyle changes are needed to make a long-term impact.

That’s why I use the term “Immediate Dietication” (think immediate gratification) to describe the unhealthy trend of thinking diets will solve body image and health problems, when they actually only address a symptom and lead to or expose a lot of bigger underlying psychological and/or medical problems.

In addition, dieting is often not good for your health. Yes, people who are thinner are generally healthier, but this is not always the case because genetics and other factors play a role so that even people who are not thin can be healthy if they avoid other risk factors like smoking. (This idea is known as the Health at Every Size approach.)

Finally, being obsessed with “skinny” can lead to a host of other health problems, and it’s sometimes a cry for psychological help. But more on that topic in a future post about eating disorders.

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