Editor’s Note: This is part of a year-long series that takes a closer look at eating disorders, disordered eating and relationships with food and body image.
Many dietitians are making a plea you might have always wanted but never thought you would hear: Stop dieting.
Now, you can find some of them on social media platforms such as TikTok, using the latest dances, trends and science-backed information to reach younger generations. These anti-diet dieticians want to steer people away from what they call “diet culture,” which they say prioritizes smaller sizes over health and drastic restriction over lifestyle changes.
“Fitness people, they’re the ones demonizing the food,” said Sarah Williams, a registered dietitian and TikTok creator who goes by Nutritionalsarah on the app. Instead of glamorous photo shoots and descriptions of impossibly low-calorie diets, she said she wanted to provide content that showed an accessible, welcoming version of health.
Where once professionals may have stressed maximizing “good” foods and cutting out the “bad,” this generation of dietitians is preaching maximizing balanced, sustainable changes and ending food-based shame for a life that is healthy in multiple ways, they said.
“If we are experiencing guilt and shame with food, we could have the most nutrient-dense meal plan in the world, and it’s not going to be beneficial because of that guilt and shame … and the psychological effects of dieting and restricting,” said Sam Previte, registered dietitian and founder of Find Food Freedom.
The message is being spread more broadly via social media now, but it has a longer history. For more than 20 years, some dietitians have been encouraging intuitive eating, which breaks down eating “rules” and focuses on listening to your body’s cues.
Being kinder to yourself and enjoying the food you eat is not only more fun – it also works better than the traditional approach to nutrition, the dietitians said.
“That’s why the diet industry is so successful. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry because so many people do it, they fail and then they go back on that diet,” said Steph Grasso, dietitian and TikTok creator. “I am an anti-diet dietitian. I am against these fad diets, these quick fixes, because in the long run, they don’t work.”
Grasso, Previte and Williams are registered dietitians and make money through TikTok’s creator fund and paid partnerships on the site.
Diets don’t work
The research agrees that this kind of dieting doesn’t lead to long-term success when it comes to weight goals.
Dropping weight drastically is likely to be followed by it rising again, and slow, sustained changes are often more successful, according to a 2017 study.
“My best recommendation for patients, based on this research, is to try to keep their eating pretty similar day to day,” said Emily Feig, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Building a habit of healthy, consistent eating can help patients reduce weight variability and lose weight more consistently, even if it’s at a slow pace.”
Dieting can mess with your mind and body, too.
As you drastically lose weight, your metabolism changes to require even fewer calories to continue losing weight. And neurological changes can make you restrict yourself from “indulgent foods,” making you crave them more.
When you cave to the food you’ve been resisting, it often goes downhill from there, said Brooke Alpert, a registered dietitian and author of “The Diet Detox: Why Your Diet Is Making You Fat and What to Do About It.”
Feeling guilty about your food choices causes you to make more poor choices, and so it becomes a cyclical pattern, according to Alpert. “There is a time and a place for French fries and pizza and a piece of cake.”
Defining a healthy relationship with food
What works better is developing a healthy relationship with food, experts said, and they are looking to help people redefine what that means.
“There are many definitions of a healthy relationship with food. For me, it’s really just appreciating the food you eat,” Grasso said. That means appreciating the function and nutrients it provides, but also the pleasure and social aspects and “definitely not being afraid to eat dessert or going out to eat,” Grasso said.
Part of appreciating food is removing the morality from food decisions, experts said.
“You are not a better or a worse person if you happen to eat a Snickers bar over an apple,” Williams said. And losing weight does not have to come at the cost of your healthy relationship with food, she added.
“You can lose weight, and it not be a game of obsession,” Williams said. “You can still enjoy the foods that you like, and you don’t have to cancel plans with friends. You can still live a full life and still be on a weight-loss journey.”
Adding instead of restricting
Whatever your health goals are – around nutrition or weight – going on a mission to cut out food deemed “bad” doesn’t work anyway, dietitians said.
“OK, you lost those 5, 10 pounds. What’s your lifestyle going to look like when you reach that goal? Are you going to continue on this restrictive path, or are you going to implement a more inclusive lifestyle?” Williams asked.
Dietitians such as Williams and Grasso advocate adding to foods instead of restricting them and making small, gradual changes rather than big, dramatic ones.
“They can actually do more harm than good,” Grasso said. “You might lose a lot of weight, but eventually that weight is going to come back, and then you might even gain more because you restricted yourself so much.”
Their content on TikTok does not focus on what to cut out of a diet, which restaurants are blacklisted or how to cut down on calories. Instead, they preach adding nutrients to meals to strive toward balance.
That can look like having pizza for breakfast, then making sure you add lots of vegetables to pasta for lunch. It can mean eating the piece of chocolate you have been eyeing, enjoying it and moving on with your day. Or it can mean ordering Taco Bell in a way that gets you a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats and vegetables.
“A lot of people when they are dieting or just trying to have a healthier lifestyle, they like to restrict themselves from food,” Grasso said. “I would like to change that mindset to what can you add to your life.”
“Instead of what can I take away, what can I add to my plate that’s going to nourish my body to the best of my ability?” Williams added.