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Illustration by Brittany England

From diet plans, pills, fitness packages, and juice cleanses, Americans spend millions of dollars on weight loss products each year.

Unfortunately, our culture’s pervasive message that a smaller body shape and size can make us happier, more attractive, and more confident causes many of us to romanticize the upsides of weight loss. People often imagine that by losing weight, they’ll magically transform their lives.

But, believe it or not, research suggests there’s a dark side to dieting.

Individuals who lost 5 percent of their body weight over the course of four years were more likely to feel depressed.

One 2013 study, conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University, found that when one partner lost weight, the relationship suffered. The researchers discovered that a partner’s weight loss could make the non-dieting partner feel jealous and more insecure about the partnership.

They also found that when partners’ weight loss goals did not align, the dieting partner became frustrated, feeling like their significant other was not dedicated to shedding the weight.

Other studies caution that weight loss can dampen people’s moods. A study, cited by Business Insider, discovered that individuals who lost 5 percent of their body weight over the course of four years were more likely to feel depressed than those who maintained their weight during that same timeframe.

For years, Selby tried numerous weight loss plans, but as the pounds melted off, she felt worse, not better.

“The pursuit of weight loss is more damaging than high weight itself,” says Linda Bacon, PhD, associate nutritionist at the University of California, Davis, and author of the book, “Health at Every Size.”

According to Bacon, losing weight requires people to stop trusting their bodies, which results in ill health. “We have a great regulatory system that can guide us in how to eat well, and dieting shuts down that system,” she points out.

Dieting can make you feel worse about your body

Years of dieting only worsened how Elijah Selby, 49, a feminist transformational coach in San Francisco, California, felt about her body. Selby tried many diets before she realized that the cause of her unhappiness stemmed from not feeling good enough about herself.

Dieting limits the happy chemicals in our brain, which can affect our mood.

“My journey to love my body has been a struggle,” she reflects. For years, Selby tried numerous weight loss plans, but as the pounds melted off, she felt worse, not better.

“I’d diet, lose weight and then feel terrible about myself, again. It was exhausting.” Like millions of men and women, Selby believed that losing weight would raise her feelings of self-worth: “I placed my value as a human in the world on the size of my body.”

It wasn’t until her son was born that she decided to make a lifestyle change.

Instead of focusing on weight loss, Selby began to concentrate on wellness. “I realized that I had to start accepting my body and learning to love it. I shifted my intention, focusing on eating well to feel good about myself and to have more energy.”

It took several years for Selby learned to how to love and accept herself, and she acknowledges the barriers our culture has, barriers which damage and shame women.

“Society gives us the message that we are not okay as we are. It’s hard to recognize these messages because it’s the cultural water we swim in, which makes us believe it’s the truth,” she says.

“I received lurid stares and sexual comments about my body. Walking down the street, I’d hear men whistling or say, ‘I’d like a piece of that,’ as if I wasn’t a human but some object to be had.”

Pursuing weight loss can change your brain chemicals

Kelsey Latimer, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Discovery, an inpatient and outpatient treatment program for eating disorders recovery, says that solely focusing on weight loss can damage our well-being.

“On a psychological level, there’s a certain feeling of ‘success’ that our culture sets us up to feel when we see the number on the scale go down. Unfortunately, no one tells us what to do when that stops, which can create a vicious cycle of not feeling good enough,” she says.

Latimer adds that most people aren’t aware that dieting limits the happy chemicals in our brain, which can affect our mood. And for some individuals, losing weight becomes an obsession or an addiction, straining one’s personal relationships and psychological health.

"The pursuit of weight loss is more damaging than high weight itself." – Linda Bacon, PhD

When Lianda Ludwig, 66 of San Diego, California, was in her 20s, she fell into the trap of reaching for the ‘thin ideal.’

“Seeing images of the thin model Twiggy convinced me that I needed to be thinner in order to feel attractive,” she says.

She began starving herself, eating only yogurt for breakfast and lunch, and increased her daily exercise routine by adding an aerobics class. However, weight loss didn’t make Ludwig feel like a beautiful model; it made her miserable.

“I was caught in a cycle of thinking something was wrong with me,” Ludwig recalls.

Messages of weight loss are so heavily woven into our culture; we often think of the scale as a sign of success.

“The pursuit of thinness hurts our culture because it instills the idea that the size of one’s body is what makes them valuable, which distracts us from finding and pursuing our true potential in life,” says Jenna Doak, a certified personal trainer who promotes body positive fitness on her Instagram page.

This culture can cause us to lavish with praise when a loved one drops a few pounds.

On weight loss and harassment

Cindy’s* weight had always fluctuated, but in college, she unintentionally lost 20 pounds. Friends and family members complimented her on the weight loss, which made it seem like it was an achievement. “It made me feel like my entire worth came down to my waist size,” she says. *Name changed at request of the interviewee to protect her identity.

Her weight loss also brought a lot of unwanted attention from men.

“I experienced street harassment multiple times a day,” she says. The harassment was so awful that Cindy became incredibly anxious and feared going outside or attending social gatherings.

“I received lurid stares and sexual comments about my body. Walking down the street, I’d hear men whistling or say, ‘I’d like a piece of that,’ as if I wasn’t a human but some object to be had.”

To cope with the unwanted attention and the anxiety that came with it, Cindy began dressing in baggier clothes so that she wouldn’t show too much skin. While she confided in friends about the harassment, she never saw a therapist.

“Sometimes, I used food and alcohol as a way to stuff down my fears and anxieties. But eventually, gaining back the weight seemed to be the only trick that worked. It was a way to keep myself ‘safe’ from unwanted sexual attention.”

The pressure of weight loss can also affect men

Despite what many of us believe, dieting isn’t something that only hurts women: it also impacts men. In fact, according to the National Eating Disorders Association at some point in their lives, as many as 10 million American men suffer from an eating disorder.

Studies also show that men have body image insecurities and may feel badly about themselves after viewing images of the “stereotypical” fit and muscular male on television.

Ten years ago, Bill Fish, 40, a certified sleep science coach in Cincinnati, Ohio, struggled with depression. An antidepressant caused him to gain a few pounds.

“The medication hurt my metabolism. Looking at old photos of myself, I knew it was time to make a change,” says Fish.

Like many people who embark on a weight loss plan, he enjoyed the challenge of being able to lose weight and fit into his old clothes.

Fish’s weight had affected his self-confidence and he imagined that by losing weight, he’d feel more confident spending time at the swimming pool and wouldn’t avoid seeing a doctor for his yearly physical.[eb2]  He eventually lost weight, although his experience post-weight loss sheds a light to Selby’s point about the pressure, mistreatment, and expectations society places on women.

For Fish, his weight loss affected his golf game with his sons and took him of the bonding moment.

“With my game struggling, my tendency is to focus on that negative aspect instead of cherishing the time with my sons,” he says. “I’ve learned to absorb more needling from my 12-year-old after a bad shot.”

Supporters of the movement Health at Every Size (HAES) focus on loving and accepting their bodies and exercising for joy, not weight loss.

However, the post-effects of weight loss do still detrimentally affect men.

In 2016, actor Matt McGorry wrote an essay for “Today” opening up about his body insecurities, even during his body-building period.

Matt McGorry on body image

  • When I was training for those [body building] competitions, I was miserable. One of the big draws for me was that this misery allowed me to test my will and self-determination. And yet, when I stopped competing, I couldn’t help but separate my misery from what I looked like.
  • Logically, I understood that in order to look like what I used to look like, I’d have to do things I never wanted to do again. But I couldn’t help but mourn not looking like that.

We have the power to change the cultural narrative around weight loss

Even though dieting has many downsides, there’s a lot society can do to support healthier mindsets around weight loss. In order to flip the script on how we view health, wellness, and body weight, we need to speak out against these damaging beliefs.

To help create a supportive community, Bacon started a movement called Health at Every Size (HAES), with a website where people can sign a pledge declaring their commitment to honoring HAES values of respect, critical awareness, and compassionate self-care. HAES supporters also focus on loving and accepting their bodies and exercising for joy, not weight loss.

Individuals who live by these principles seek to celebrate, not shame, body diversity. They also challenge the “thin ideal” and other inaccurate messages about weight and body image.

“We need to offer cultural support and bonding over how difficult it is to live in a world of judgment,” says Bacon. She adds, “The more we can recognize this cultural problem, the less dependent we become on how those messages define us.”


Juli Fraga is a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco, California. She graduated with a PsyD from University of Northern Colorado and attended a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley. Passionate about women’s health, she approaches all her sessions with warmth, honesty, and compassion. See what she’s up to on Twitter.