Few words irritate me as much as “diet” does. I can accept it as a description of all of the foods that we eat. But when it comes to “dieting” or going on a “diet” to control what we eat as a weight loss method, steam starts to pump out of my ears.
Why does this common lingo make me so inexplicably angry? Well it’s because diets, in the second definition above, simply does not work from a psychological standpoint. Does. Not. Work. Not one itsy bitsy bit. Before you start developing your counter-argument in support of the miracle diet you tried that changed the game, hear me out, because I say, there’s no such thing.
There have been plenty of diet fads over the years. We are indoctrinated with them time and time again. Diets like the Atkins diet made carbs evil. It promoted eating all of the protein and low-carb veg that you want but avoiding things like bread, pasta and even high-carb vegetables like the plague, thus removing the basic building block of human sustenance. Programs like Jenny Craig advocate sticking to their meal plans to shed the pounds. The kicker is, you have to buy their food.
Weight Watchers has some merit, and that’s only because it encourages tracking what you eat, one strategy that has been shown to help facilitate weight loss, and keep it off (Marrero et al., 2016). Monitoring what you eat--tracking your meals, snacks, and beverages, and writing them down--has been scientifically shown to help with weight loss, namely because it keeps you accountable (Thomas et al., 2014). If you can see that the burger you ate came in at a whopping 700 calories, you are less likely to eat it on a regular basis. That being said, Weight Watchers is still a “diet” that comes with the short-term dieting mentality that tends to hurt people more than it helps them.
So, what’s so wrong about cutting carbs, following a meal plan, or restricting what you eat? The simple answer is that it’s not sustainable. The biggest issue with dieting is the premise that it is possible to make changes and reap the benefits now. No one wants to hear that they will see results from lifestyle changes (eating healthier and exercising most of the time) months from now (Thomas et al., 2014). We know, a diet that advertises losing those last 10 pounds in just 10 days is simply much more appealing. But, did this so-called miracle diet teach you anything about actually sustaining the weight loss over time? Did you replace your old habits--the ones that led to your weight gain in the first place--with healthier ones to keep the pounds off (e.g., Knäuper et al., 2014)? No? That’s why after you lose the willpower to live off of juices alone, you gain the weight back, and then some. Anyone can eat nothing, exercise like a maniac, and lose weight, but such drastic measures end up backfiring and contributing to yo-yo dieting.
What if we changed the way we approach weight and weight loss? First, what if we shift the focus from weight loss to lifestyle change (e.g., Delahanty et al., 2013)? To do this, you need to carefully evaluate your reasons to lose weight in the first place by examining your values (Forman & Butryn, 2014). Is your motivation to slim down for swimsuit season, or is it because you want to be healthier and feel better in the long term? The more superficial your values are, the less incentive there is to listen to them. Diets may have you convinced that if you lose the weight, you will somehow feel better about yourself, but since when did weight and happiness go hand in hand?
We have to eat, and it’s not merely for sustenance reasons. Food is social and pleasurable, neither of which dieting accounts for. I’m not advocating that you eat whatever you want, whenever you want to, but there has to be a balance of pleasure and moderation. Deprivation does not work, as evidenced by the fact that weight regain following 99 per cent of all diets is as high as it is (Brownell & Jeffery, 1987). Successful weight loss is slow and sustainable. It focuses on habit change over time, habits that you can keep engaging in for the long term. After all, it didn’t take you a week to gain the weight so why do you think it will take you a week to shed it?
Delahanty, L. M., Peyrot, M., Shrader, P. J., Williamson, D. A., Meigs, J. B., Nathan, D. M., & for the, D. P. P. R. G. (2013). Pretreatment, psychological, and behavioral predictors of weight outcomes among lifestyle intervention participants in the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP). Diabetes Care, 36(1), 34-40.
Knäuper, B., Ivanova, E., Xu, Z., Chamandy, M., Lowensteyn, I., Joseph, L., Luszczynska, A. & Grover, S. (2014). Increasing the effectiveness of the Diabetes Prevention Program through if-then plans: Study protocol for the randomized controlled trial of the McGill CHIP Healthy Weight Program. BMC Public Health, 14(1), 1-8.
Marrero, D. G., Palmer, K. N., Phillops, E. O., Miller-Kovach, K., Foster, G. D., & Saha, C. L. (2016). Comparison of Commercial and Self-Initiated Weight Loss Programs in People With Prediabetes: A Randomized Control Trial. American Journal of Public Health. 106, 949-956.
Thomas, J. G., Bond, D. S., Phelan, S., Hill, J. O., & Wing, R. R. (2014). Weight- Loss Maintenance for 10 Years in the National Weight Control Registry. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 46, 17-23.