How to Break the Diet Cycle

January, late spring, and September. That’s when search volume for “weight watchers” spikes on Google.

a graph depicting peaks in "weight watchers" search term on google. There are arrows point out the peak in January, May, and September.

But if Weight Watchers worked, why do we keep seeing the same spike, season after season, year after year?

I don’t mean to pick on Weight Watchers – really, it is just a perfect analogy for what we call the dieting cycle

What is the diet cycle?

The diet cycle is what happens when you go on a diet. It is a vicious cycle. It often starts with body dissatisfaction, leading to strict dieting and restriction. It may also go by the restrict-binge cycle.

As weight loss occurs, normal hormonal changes take place which increase hunger and cravings. This may be sustainable for a period of time, especially if you are seeing the results that you want to see! However, they are often short-lived because as you know: life happens. You go on vacation, work gets busy, kids go to summer camp, and so on.

Day-to-day stressors increase tension. This tension, coupled with all-or-nothing thinking (“I’ll just start again in the fall”,) leads to overeating and binging on “forbidden” foods.

At this point, guilt and shame take over and body dissatisfaction returns, and the cycle is at risk for restarting. 

What causes the diet cycle?

The diet cycle is often triggered by body dissatisfaction. However, it does not necessarily have to be body dissatisfaction, though it is often dissatisfaction of some kind (more on that below.)

As seen in the Weight Watchers example, we can see CLEAR points that the dieting cycle shows up: in the New Year, in the spring as you prepare for summer, and back to school. When I worked in a traditional weight-loss setting, our busy seasons followed these same patterns. 

But there are many other times you might be triggered to start a diet!

New year

Coming up on the new year is one of the most popular times to start a new diet. You are coming off of the holidays where you have indulged in foods and treats that aren’t around at other times of the year. Gym memberships and exercise equipment are on sale. There are messages everywhere telling you that you need to be better than you were last year. 

Spring

As the weather warms up, many people are concerned about how their body will look coming into summer. As a result, spring time can be a trigger for starting a new diet. This interest fades as summer goes on.

Back to school

Motivation returns during “back to school” season. For many families, this offers not just a return to school, but a return to a “normal” routine. There tends to be more structure involved in the fall than there is over summer.

Upcoming Event

Weddings, reunions, and vacations are all big triggers for starting a diet. In most cases you will be around other people, possibly people you haven’t seen in a long time. Everyone wants to look their best (nevermind the pressure on brides on their wedding day!)

Recent events/bad day

Sometimes there is no obvious reason for wanting to start a new diet. You may have had a bad day or something put you in a bad mood. In these cases, it is easy to automatically find something wrong with your body. This is known as mis-attribution. 

Think about the last time you had a “bad body image day” or had the urge to start a diet. What else was going on that day? Were there other stressors or things out of your control? All of these can mis-represent themselves as a problem with our bodies. 

What are the risks of the diet cycle?

The diet cycle does not provide any lasting solutions for anyone. 

It can lead to a disordered relationship with food at best, and an eating disorder at worst. It can contribute to anxiety and depression. Not to mention, it’s just a miserable way to live!

Physiologically, the dieting cycle can lead to another phenomenon known as weight cycling. Weight cycling is the process of losing weight and then regaining it, oftentimes regaining more weight than was originally lost in the beginning. 

Weight cycling is associated with an increased risk of chronic disease. We would be better off if we never even went on the first diet to begin with. 

How can you break the diet cycle?

I believe we can break the diet cycle at ANY point, except those aspects that are out of our control (i.e. “life happens”.) 

An intuitive eating approach can help you break the cycle and make peace with food and your body. Intuitive eating is a pattern of eating that allows you to connect to your body’s internal hunger and fullness cues to determine what and much to eat. 

Give up the Diet

In order to truly break the diet cycle, it requires first and foremost: give up the diet! 

Why is this so important? If you are in a restrictive state, the drive to eat is going to be there, no matter how much willpower you have. It’s a lot harder to make mindful eating decisions when you are starving!

Practice Self-Compassion

After giving in to forbidden foods, rather than falling into guilt and shame, practice self-compassion and see if you can get curious about this behavior. 

Ask yourself: what was the trigger? Was I stressed, hungry, overwhelmed, or did I need a break? See if you can identify patterns here. Apps such as Rise Up and Recover are great for keeping track of these patterns. 

Make Peace with your Body

I get it – we live in a culture that makes it incredibly difficult to develop a positive body image. But making peace with your natural body size is only going to help you break the dieting cycle. See below for some tips to improve body image, and I especially love this resource!

  • Surround yourself with a variety of body types and sizes. Does your social media page need a refresh?
  • Think about what your body can DO rather than what it looks like. 
  • When trying on new clothes, consider how they feel to you before you look in the mirror. 
  • Reflect on your “good body image and “bad body image” days. What is the difference here? Chances are your body did not change!
  • Question the thoughts in your head telling you that your body is not right or that there is something wrong with it. According to whom?

But what about your health?

I know – if the goal is not to change your body size, the goal of a diet is to improve your health. But as discussed, diet and weight cycling may do more harm than good when it comes to your health. 

And studies have shown that intuitive eating and weight neutral approaches to care demonstrate similar outcomes as those receiving standard diet advice.

ALL of the benefits and NONE of the risks? Win-win!

What could you achieve if you stopped spending so much time thinking about food and your body? Book an appointment to get started on your path to freedom today!

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