What is the Diet Cycle?

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

If you’ve tried every diet and eating plan out there and nothing has ‘fixed’ your relationship with food…let me let you in on a little secret. It’s called the diet cycle.

Like most people, maybe you use the term ‘diet’ to refer to a specific plan (e.g. Keto, Weight Watchers, IIFYM, Paleo, etc) or a collection of behaviours (e.g. carb counting, exercise routines.)

That’s one side of it. 

But just like Jekyll & Hide, dieting has two sides. 

In Intuitive Eating, we call this the Diet Cycle (and if you’ve wandered over here via a search for the keto cycle diet, this is for you, too!) So what is the cycle?

What is the diet cycle?

What is the diet cycle?

Alright — buckle up, folks. Familiar with that whole diet rollercoaster thing? It’s the OG struggle anyone who’s tried to lose weight can relate to.

Blame it on Dieter’s Dilemma, brought to us courtesy of psychologists John P. Foreyt and G. Ken Goodrick.

It describes the wild ride every dieter hops on when they decide to shed a few pounds. These companies sell their diet plans like they’re the holy grail, promising a “lifelong solution.” But unsurprising spoiler alert: trying to keep that strict eating vibe forever? Not happening, my friends. 

I’m all about referring to the diet cycle when working with clients. Why? Understanding how the cycle works helps to relieve so. much. guilt. and. shame. Diets aren’t failing you. But it’s easy to get caught up in this messed-up cycle and assume you’re at fault.

The cycle kicks off with dreams of a hot new bod (or something like that?)…and wraps with falling off the wagon, swearing you’ll get “back on track” on Monday morning. Classic. 

Picture a pendulum. 

One side is all about strict diets. The other? Feeling out of control around food and possibly binge eating. 

If you’re in the struggle with eating past fullness or emotional munchies, thinking you’re just an “overeater” who needs more self-control, well, spoiler alert again: addressing that restriction might just be the secret sauce you’ve been missing.

Let’s break this down into digestible bites (I’m so sorry): 

What is the Diet Cycle:

#1. Desire for weight loss or thinness.

Everyone has a different reason for wanting to lose weight (maybe you have a few.) Maybe you’re aiming to drop some pounds to finally get your doc off your back and snag the legit medical care you deserve—been there, right?

Or perhaps you’re on the hunt for a special someone, but you’re low-key terrified of putting yourself out there, worried about being labelled a “catfish” or concerned you won’t match up with someone who catches your eye.

It could be you’re playing the comparison game with your squad or work crew, feeling like you’re not measuring up and itching for some changes.

Or maybe you’re just trying to balance out the discrimination you’re facing in other areas of life—think racism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism—by eliminating some of the judgment tied to your size or weight.

Regardless, we’ve all got a why, and you best believe it’s fueled by this diet culture hype and the constant pressure to be thin.

Oh, and these weight loss wishes? They often get triggered by life transitions like puberty, pregnancy, menopause, or even just the seasons changing.

Plus, throw in some events like weddings, reunions, a rough day, a job shakeup, award ceremonies, holidays, health diagnoses, pandemics, or the good ol’ New Year —bam, you’re in the weight loss wish zone.

#2. Dieting.

“Dieting” has come a long way in the last few decades. Dieting is out — wellness is in. If you worked with a professional or enrolled in a program that promised “weight loss without dieting,” I can truly empathize.

It’s more difficult than ever to distinguish a diet from true health and wellness. So, if you’ve ever hopped on a program promising “weight loss without dieting,” I feel you. It’s like trying to spot the difference between two identical socks in a laundry pile – nearly impossible.

Here’s the deal – regardless of its promises and claims of being “different from the other diets,” is set up to “fail.” It starts all promising and motivated, like a new relationship, bringing structure and plans into your chaotic life.

People might even notice your glow-up and cheer you on. But spoiler alert: it’s like that ex who swears they’ve changed—history repeats itself.

#3. Cravings.

We all have different tolerance levels for restricted eating, but that tolerance tends to dwindle over time. Maybe you were the diet champ back in the day, but now even thinking about dieting sends you straight into binge-eating mode.

Suddenly, you’re stuck in a mental food maze, thinking about meals, outings, and more. See: Low energy, poor focus, and mood swings.

#4. Loss of Control.  

Enter the “what-the-hell” effect (thanks Polivy and Herman), the point of no return. You rebel against the diet rules, grab something irresistible at the store, and suddenly, you’re back to eating like it’s your last supper. It’s the ultimate act of rebellion, satisfying all those cravings you had to suppress during the diet.

You might stay home from events or skip out on gatherings out of fear that you will “go overboard” or use the time as an “excuse” to skip a workout tomorrow. You notice you have less “self-control” and “willpower” than when you started.

#5. Guilt, Shame, and Feelings of Failure.

You regain the lost weight, blame yourself for having “poor willpower,” and swear you’ll start fresh on Monday. You’re flooded with feelings of guilt and shame. Little do you know, this whole rollercoaster from cravings to the “what-the-hell” moment is just part of the diet cycle.

What you may not realize: actions #3-#5 are part of the diet cycle

Feeling out of control around food? It’s not your natural state; it’s the aftermath of dieting. Your body’s wired for survival, and it can’t tell the difference between a diet and a famine. Even just thinking food is scarce can trigger a binge.

Dieting isn’t just actively restricting or controlling your food. It also includes a rebound period where you feel out of control around food. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right?

The more intense the restriction, the more intense the rebound effect is likely to be. Weak willpower is ultimately code for strong restriction. 

And get this: the cycle isn’t exclusive to those officially “on a diet.” You can rock the diet mentality even if you claim to hate diets. The diet mentality refers to thinking and behaving like a dieter, whether you’re a “careful” eater, “eat clean,” or happen to be the proud owner of a low-calorie snacks drawer.

Guilt and shame about “bad” foods? Yes – it’s all part of the diet mentality. Many people who would claim they’re living the diet-free dream still wrestle with binge eating, emotional eating, and the struggle to listen and trust their body’s cues.

Want out of the diet cycle for good? Here’s how we can work together:

  1. Work with me 1:1. Together we’ll review your current relationship with food and your body, discuss your goals for our time together, and help you to feel safe with food and your body without #dietmath. 
  2. New to Intuitive Eating and a non-diet approach? My book, Enjoy It All: Improve Your Health and Happiness with Intuitive Eating offers a guide to finding peace with food for good. 

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