Will This Diet Be Better Than The Last?
Happy 2022, friends!
We did it, we survived the second year/70th decade of life in a global pandemic while watching our fellow citizens give no fucks about public health and many fucks about eroding our control over our own bodies and also democracy. Now my kids are back to school in their tiny N95 masks for at least the next 45 minutes before Omicron sends them home. What a time to be alive!
So let’s talk New Year’s Resolutions. There is, of course, no logic whatsoever to making life plans based on the arbitrary social construction of time. If we are gonna do that, it would all be so much more useful if we resolved this year to unpack our internalized biases, to fight for a meaningful social safety net with paid leave and affordable housing and childcare, and maybe while we’re at it, to end this goddamn pandemic. But that all sounds pretty hard, so maybe just give up bread! Or sugar! Probably your life will change a lot if you deprive yourself of simple carbohydrates while the Supreme Court deprives you of your reproductive rights.
This time of year, I tend to hear a lot from readers asking, “Well, but what do you think about [insert new diet trend here]?” What they’re really saying is: Is this diet different? Is it The One That Works? Or at least, does it sound like a more reasonable way to torture myself than the last time I tortured myself and it didn’t work?
I do, every now and then, see the noise around a particular diet getting so loud that I’ll dive in and tell you specifically why it’s a bad idea. (See: Noom. Intermittent Fasting. Weight Watchers for Kids.) But I don’t dissect every diet trend that comes along. Because here’s the thing, you guys: They are all the fucking same. So I thought, for this New Year’s, it might be more helpful if I just write down for you the exact trajectory of every diet ever, for all time.
Stage 1: Sales Pitch
Your New Diet has such a clever new marketing premise! It sounds so different from other diets! But it can actually always be filed under either “wellness” (Paleo, cleanses, Moon Juice, everything Goop does) or “pseudoscience” (Noom, IF, keto, macros). Whichever category it falls into, the goal of said unique and enticing premise is to convince you that the diet is not really a diet, or at least not like all those other diets. There is never any substantial research behind the diet. Any studies that do exist on this topic have been wildly over-simplified and misinterpreted, and/or were only done on rats. But there is, maybe, a little nugget of half of a finding. There is, perhaps, a thin, white man who has had an epiphany that got excerpted in the New York Times. Or a thin, white woman who confused her genetic predisposition to a certain body size with her lifestyle choices. And that’s what Your New Diet is gonna run with.
Stage 2: Honeymoon
Having convinced you of its superiority to other diets, Your New Diet gets you started either with a bang or a whimper. Bang diets have you do something intense and drastic right away, like cut out six food groups or throw out everything in your kitchen that contains gluten or start working out for 90 minutes a day (and maybe call it something scary like “body shredding”). The goal here is to feel like YOU ARE DOING THE THING SO HARD. You spend a lot of time in online chat rooms talking to other people who are also doing the thing so hard, so you can talk about how hard it is, but hey, it’s only for three days or five days or thirty days, and you got this because you are all in it, comparing your shits, together.
Whimper diets start out with easy little baby changes to lull you into thinking this is all so doable. This is the Noom and WW approach: You get points right off the bat just for downloading the app! OMG, do you already look skinnier!?! Now you decided to eat breakfast! You’re on fire!
Obviously the whimper diet causes less immediate distress, but don’t worry, you’re headed there anyway. Because now it’s time for…
Stage 3: The Bait and Switch
This is when the whimper diet changes tactics and lets you know it’s time to start living on 1200 calories per day. What, like it’s hard? Can’t you just be happy with one quarter of a bagel? What are you, a monster who eats whole bagels and even uses condiments? Don’t you know a whole avocado is a red food, but ⅛ of an avocado is a green food as long as you eat it precisely twice a week?
The bang diet, on the other hand, was already horrible and now it’s even more horrible. The weird high of doing the crazy hard thing is wearing off. Maybe you sort of want to, I don’t know, eat a meal with other people, or take a trip without packing three kinds of protein powder. But you can’t. Because that’s not on your diet and by diet we mean lifestyle and by lifestyle we mean religion. It’s time to start cutting people out of your life who won’t let you speak your truth/join your MLM downline.
Stage 4: Failure
Well, the diet will call it failure, especially if there is a coach involved who once believed in you, heart and soul, or if they are also recruiting you to get five friends to buy the diet from you. The failure is yours, not theirs, to be clear. Because you’re the one who started eating carbs or sugar or processed foods again. You’re the one who couldn’t live this best life, and maybe you just didn’t want it enough.
Or, maybe, your body mounted the many biological processes it honed over eons of evolution to save you from starvation. It’s slowing your metabolism, spiking your hunger hormones, and focusing your brain on food because it does not know that you’re doing Optavia, not enduring a famine. Bodies, man. Do they even follow Kalya Itsines’ Instagram?
So. You could do that again. I get that it might even feel easier than not doing it, and is certainly easier than doing a lot of other things. But it’s going to go how it always goes. That’s why all the research continually demonstrates that diets don’t work. All the diets. Yes, including yours. Because they’re all the fucking same.
If you want to do something but NOT THIS THING, you can, of course, resolve to quit dieting. I like how Leslie Streeter wrote about this resolution (and the inevitable pushback she’s navigating) here. For myself, I now only make resolutions around how many books I want to read in a year because it gives my brain a place to put that itchy “loves to track a thing” energy, without any downsides. I’m good at reading and a happier person when I’m doing it a lot, so the tracking feels energizing, not restricting. Your mileage may vary! For lots of folks, tracking anything takes the joy out of it, and makes it into a weird, stressful competitive chore. If that’s you: Don’t make books a diet. And definitely don’t make not dieting a diet. (Side eye to the NYT Well Section.)
And if you’d like support resolving not to diet, considering joining the Burnt Toast community! We do not track anything, our Friday threads are a blissful anti-diet safe space, and you get special bonus podcast episodes and other perks. For the next month, you can take 20% off your subscription — that’s just $4 per month or $40 for the year.
How to eat whatever you want: I was so beyond honored to be the guest expert on this week’s episode of the Slate How To Podcast. I got to help their listener Tori start to envision an escape from diet culture—and it was maybe the best, most inspiring conversation I had last year.
Calling all adolescent medicine folks: I’ll be speaking about diet culture, teens, and building resiliency, at the virtual Annual Leadership and Education in Adolescent Health (LEAH) Conference, on Friday, January 28 at 10:15am. Register here.