Have you ever dieted? More than once?

Most of the methods we may have tried to control our eating have not worked long term. I hope to explain why diets don’t work and present some ideas for you to consider that do work.

Diets don’t work. Let me contradict myself now and say “all diets work.” The protein diet, the grapefruit diet, low carb diet, the (fill-in-the-blank) diet, all work. The more bizarre the regime the better it works, at least temporally.

The problem is that we go off them. We rebel. We get fed up with the diet and we eat all the things we have been depriving ourselves of. We go off the diet. Then we gain the weight back… plus more.

Due to the food restrictions of the diet, our metabolism has slowed down. Our body thinks it is experiencing a famine; it is in starvation alert mode and is trying to store every calorie. The result is that we gain weight with a vengeance, faster than ever before.

Repeating this behavior over time forms a predictable pattern. We gain weight, go on another diet, rebel, and then start the yo-yo cycle of eating and dieting over and over again.

When we diet, we set ourselves up to overeat because we subconsciously rebel over restricting our food. Binge eating often starts as a direct result of dieting. Thirty-five percent of "normal dieters" progress to eating disorders.

Currently over half the population of America is overweight, and nearly one-quarter obese. There are more overweight people in the US than any time in history. Americans spend over $50 billion on dieting and weight loss products each year. Weight loss is a national obsession. At any given time, 25 million Americans are seriously dieting. Only 1 out of every 200 dieters lose their weight and keep it off for a year or more.

Currently 2 million Americans suffer from eating disorders. At least 50,000 individuals will die as a direct result of their eating disorder. Because of the secretiveness and shame associated with eating disorders, many cases are probably not reported.

Even before we start our diet the thought of going on a diet begins to influence our overeating. Have you ever thought “I’ll go ahead and eat that cake now because tomorrow (or on Monday, or the first of the month or year) I am going on a diet”? How many times has this happened to you?

What is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating involves a mental obsession about food, weight, diet, and body image. It affects our self-esteem and robs us of the quality of life that we deserve. We may become depressed, withdrawn, or anxious because of our eating patterns. It affects every area of our lives and our family’s lives.

There is a difference between unhealthy eating habits and disordered eating. A person with disordered eating is using food to cope with life. We overeat as a means to stuff down feelings or thoughts. We refrain from eating or go on a diet to feel in control. We may use the eating to avoid or block some painful part of our life.

Psychological factors that contribute to eating disorders include: low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, perfectionism, feelings of lack of control, inadequacy, loneliness, emptiness.

Situations that can set us up to develop eating disorders are limited coping skills to deal with feelings, denial of feelings, secrets, sexual abuse, excessive ridicule (real of perceived), unrealistic expectations for achievement, parental enmeshment, family disharmony or enmeshment, a cry for help, perfectionism, peer pressure.

Disordered eating has varied definitions and types. It is eating when you are not physically hungry and/or not stopping when you are full. It may result in excessive body fat. It is not necessarily apparent on the outside. We can be normal weight, but we know what we are doing to stay there. We may be bingeing, then starving or exercising excessively. We may use diet pills or other drastic measures. Labels associated with disordered eating are compulsive overeating, binge eating, anorexia, and bulimia (several types). We may go from one disorder to another and another.

Compulsive Overeating

I call this “grazing”. It’s eating non-stop all day. Some of us get through the day using food. This person could be any weight. They may be a yo-yo dieter. They may binge and restrict foods. They could be obese.

Binge Eating

Binge eating is characterized by the following:

eating food when not feeling physically hungry mindless eating, eating in a short period of time, a large amount of food feeling that one cannot stop eating if they start while eating feels that one can not control what or how much one is eating eating until feeling uncomfortably full eating much more rapidly than normal eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much or what one is eating feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating constant thoughts about what to eat or not eat and weight.


There is a refusal to maintain normal body weight, resulting in a 15% below normal weight. The anorexic denies hunger and is preoccupied with weight and body image. They believe they are fat even if underweight. They believe they look better the more weight they lose. Their whole focus becomes dieting, weight and body image.

They avoid eating and activities around food. When they do eat, they avoid whole groups of food; perform rituals around food such as eating in a certain order, excessive chewing of food, moving food around the plate. The person suffering with anorexia has an intense fear of getting fat.

The effects of Anorexia are many. The skin, hair and nails become brittle, dry and thin. Due to the absence of body fat they are usually cold and dress in layers even in the summer. They may lose their monthly period and develop fine body hair. They may exhibit compulsive hyperactivity followed by extreme fatigue.

Due to chemical disturbances and malnutrition, they may experience thought and mood distortions, making decision-making difficult, thinking illogical and marked confusion. Hospitalization may be necessary due to dehydration, malnutrition, depression, anxiety or heart and kidney problems.

After an episode of anorexia, approximately 2/3 completely recovers and 1/3 continues to have periodic problems with eating disorders later in life. They may transition into bulimia, compulsive overeating or take substances to control their weight or to cope. This eating disorder has a mortality rate of 20%, the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition.

Bulimia Nervosa

BULIMIA is recurrent episodes of binge eating, zoning out on food, eating in secret, then getting rid of the food.
They may self-induce vomiting, misuse of laxatives, diuretics, enemas, or other medications, periodical fasting, or excessively exercise. There may be an intense feeling of fullness even after a small meal, with an urge to get rid of the food. People with bulimia nervosa may binge 3 to 20 times per day. Once in place, this pattern of binge eating and purging can continue over a lifetime.
Research has shown a link between bulimia and severe depression and anxiety. Clinical studies have found a dramatic decline in the frequency of binge-and-purge episodes in response to antidepressants, regardless of whether the bulimic is suffering from depression at the time or not.

Bulimia nervosa is a potentially serious condition that disrupts the body's chemistries, causes harm to the digestive tract, erodes tooth enamel, and creates the risk of potentially fatal heart irregularities due to impaired physical health or chemical imbalances.

Effects of Disordered Eating

Eating disorders can lead to substance abuse problems, obsessive-compulsive disorders, relationship, learning, spiritual and financial difficulties. It can affect every part of our life.

Physically, eating disorders can cause infertility, heart irregularities, osteoporosis, chemical imbalances in the brain & body, swelling of face, abnormal hair growth on the body or hair loss, rupture of the stomach or esophagus, malnutrition, mental disturbances, and death.

The primary thing that keeps a person in the illness is FEAR . . . fears of being fat, fear of sharing the secret, fear of abandonment, and fear of feeling. By concentrating on our body size, our weight or diet we avoid this fear and numb the feelings.

What we are looking at is a battle between the mind and food with the body being the battleground.

Disconnection from our Appetite

Some of us are so disconnected from our appetite, our Self, and feelings that we are getting caught up in mindless habitual eating or yo-yo dieting. Some of us don’t know when we are hungry or full. We may confuse an emotion or feeling with being hungry. We may use food to comfort ourselves or as a way of relieving stress. We may feel hungry when we are actually bored or lonely. We zone-out on food or compulsive thoughts about food, weight or body image. We push all this down with a mountain of food. We don’t pay attention to our appetite.

We don’t access that internal control—our appetite. We just want to eat. It’s not about physical hunger. Food becomes our best friend, our companion, and our comfort. We reach for food to fill that empty hole that food cannot touch.
We have to learn to identify the feeling, thought or trigger behind the reaching for food. Many of us mistake hunger for many other feelings. We can not fix something we are not aware of. If we do not know what we are feeling, we can not take appropriate action to deal with that feeling. Food does not work for emotional reasons.

For example, a lot of eating is triggered by stress. Food does not fix stress. A few quiet moments to relax, meditation, connecting with a Higher Power or observing nature are tools that can help. Food has become a substitute for dealing with the stress in our life, but it creates more problems, health and self-esteem issues, and more stress.

Let’s take a look at what happens when we use food for reasons other than physical hunger. I call this the Binge Cycle.

The Binge Cycle

Something happens in our environment, a situation or even a thought. We immediately reach for food. It’s like we are hard-wired to reach for food. We don’t even ask our self if we are hungry. We just want to eat.

In the vain attempt to feel better, we use obsessive thinking and eating to block our pain. We focus on the food, the taste, what else to eat, etc. Some times we block out thoughts about our body size, our inadequacies, our negative self-talk, or what we are going to eat after we leave work. We’re not in the here and now.

Then we start beating our self up. “Why did I do that? I’ll never lose this weight. I am so fat.” So now we are focused on the negative self talk. We need to connect back to ourselves and become a friend with ourselves instead of battling this internal dialog. This internal battle actually perpetuates the disordered eating.

We don’t even know what triggered this binge because we automatically reach for something to eat. Our focus is the food and our body image. We never learn what sent us to the food in the first place. So we stay in this vicious cycle.
Food becomes the solution to our problems. Food can be distorted into becoming our best friend, our support, our escape, and our obsession. Dieting or thinking about what to eat or not eat and body image can become our focus in life. It takes away our energy and prevents us from becoming the people we were meant to be. We are really looking for relief and peace, but food does not provide relief or peace in the long run.

How to Get out of the Cycle:

It helps to recognize that there could be a relationship between our emotions, feeling, thoughts and our eating behaviors. Our feelings are there for a reason. They point towards our next step on our learning journey. We know we feel bad about certain actions, so we learn that those actions are to be avoided in the future. But what if we block that out with food or other things. After awhile we are not in touch with that learning mechanism. We may become addicted to our method of pushing our feelings down. We may overreact to situations that trigger the unrecognized pain from the past.

The triggers are our way of saying to self. STOP I need your attention here, something is wrong here. I need healing in this area. That healing does not come from food or outside distractions. It comes from being aware that we need help, ask for it and allow our self to receive it.
All behavior starts with a thought whether we are aware of it or not. Let’s examine our thoughts for a moment. What are we telling our self throughout the day? Are we thinking thoughts that are beneficial to our self and the people around us?

What percentages of our thoughts are about how we look, what we should eat or not eat, diet plans, etc? Are these thoughts building us up or tearing us down? Does our negativity spill out onto others? Are these thoughts blocking us from becoming all we can so we can be of maximum use to God and our fellows?

Some people with eating disorders do not want to be alone with their thoughts or self-talk, so they drown them out with food. Crunchy foods seem to work best here.

Journey Back to our Appetite and Self

It is a worthwhile endeavor to make the long journey back to you and your appetite. Our real Self can be our best friend.

How can we have self-control if we are not connected to our Self? We don’t know what we need, feel, or want. We are disconnected from our body, our feelings, and appetite. We know what we should feel, want, and need or we think we know what other people need. But these external controls running our life sets us up for disaster.

How do we best move toward our goals? Does criticism, sarcasm, and belittling help us? Or do encouragement, respect, patience, and compassion work better?

We lose a lot of energy with negative self-talk. Imagine an athlete running a race. Can you imagine how much harder it would be if they were battling negative self-talk. How could they stay focused on achieving the goal of winning?
We come into this world and we leave this world with only one being—our Self, the real spiritual Self. If we don’t have this connection, life can be so hard and lonely. No other person or substance can provide what this connection can. They may seem to temporarily fix it, but after awhile, we are left alone again. If we don’t have our Self, we are really alone.

As we become more self aware, we start to notice the effects some foods have on our body and mind. Many of us see a link between sugar and binge cravings. We may notice we have a harder time with controlling our food intake after we have white flour. Once we make these connections we can think it through and we may decide not to eat that today.

The eating disorder has often pushed aside the person's various interests and social activities. Helping them to reconnect and develop these interests is a necessary part of the recovery process. When we let go of the obsessive thoughts and actions associated with the eating disorder, we need to replace that with enhancing rewarding alternatives.


Awareness is the key. We can’t change something we’re not aware of. We need to learn how to CONNECT back to our SELF, FEELINGS, THOUGHTS, and APPETITE. Pay attention to your appetite. Eat when physically hungry and stop when full. We can always have more food when we are hungry again. If you are not physically hungry and you want to eat, ask yourself what do you really need at this time?

Get rid of the things you are pushing down with food. When you are reaching for food and you are not hungry, this is your red flag, your alarm system. Pay attention. Notice what you really need when you want to eat (rest or just some down time). Allow good nutrition to supply your body and mind. Feed your spiritual self on a continual basis. Freedom is thinking about food only when hungry or preparing for a meal.

“Diets Don’t Work®” treats disordered eating by helping people recognize and change self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors. “Most of my clients could write books on diets and nutrition.” Through guided imagery and hypnotherapy, patients are helped to “connect back to their ‘healthy’ Self.” According to Rebecca, “All actions start with a thought.” “By changing our thought patterns and self talk, we can change the feelings that result in using food for reasons other than nourishing our bodies.”

Rebecca and all the counselors have personally been through the yo-yo dieting and have found a way out. “I struggled with this problem for twenty years and I have maintained my current weight without dieting or binging for the last sixteen years. This is a freedom I want to share with others,” says Rebecca.

"I've literally seen people come back to life," says Rebecca Cooper about the results of her Diets Don't Work program. "I have a deep passion to help others with out-of-control eating because I've been there myself," she continues. "My past is now my greatest asset."

Author's Bio: 

Rebecca Cooper, MFT, CEDS, is the author of the Diets Don’t Work®; a structured program to heal disordered eating. For more information about her program, contact her at 800-BULIMIA, www.rebeccashouse.org or rebecca@DietsDontWork.org.

If you a friend or loved one that needs treatment for an eating disorder, go to www.rebeccashouse.org or call 1.866.931.1666.