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Why Dieting Does Not Work

Scientific research is clearly proving what most of us already knew but hoped was not true: following short-term restrictive eating plans (diets) does not result in long-term weight loss or health benefits.  Two recent books review the scientific literature for the general public, and make clear what happens and why.

The books, Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, by Traci Mann, PhD, of the University of Minnesota’s Health and Eating Laboratory (2017) and the more pithily named Why Diets Make Us Fat, by Dr. Sandra Aamodt (2016) both conclude that:

  • The subconscious has a weight range it will defend, which is usually near your current weight.  If you are hungry or cold often, you’re below.  Binge eating, probably above.  The subconscious easily moves within this range, and resets the defended range higher much more easily than lower.

  • Calorie restriction to lose weight causes the subconscious to react as if it is starving.

  • The subconscious does a vastly better job of balancing energy inputs and outputs than you can ever hope to accomplish by counting calories and tracking physical activity.

  • Prejudice against overweight people results from the erroneous belief that self-control is a significant factor in weight loss.

  • Some things are more susceptible to self-control than others.  Because taking in food is essential for survival, eating is not amenable to self-control.

But if diets don’t work, what should we do?  Both authors are at pains to give advice that sounds an awful lot like diet advice, while not calling it diet advice.  These are “strategies” or “healthy habits” that have the result of a diet, without the dieting.  The real problem here is that the word “diet” has two different definitions: (1) a programmed plan of eating to achieve a specified goal, typically weight loss; (2) a description of eating habits – for example, “the panda lives on a diet consisting entirely of bamboo.”  One is time limited with a specific purpose, the other is just what you (or pandas) do.  Both authors agree that definition (1) is the problem, and the trick is to make definition (2) apply to you in ways that support health, rather than undermine it.

Related: 3 Steps to Improve Your Nutrition

In other words, make your habitual eating patterns healthy, and then you won’t need to worry about it – the subconscious will set a new defended range, and minor “cheats” or the like will not knock it out of range.

Related: 3 Key Elements of a Successful Nutrition Plan

So what’s healthy?  I’ll call upon a third author here to help us: Michael Pollan and his book, In Defense of Food.  Pollan summarizes his own book in seven words: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  The catch is the definition he uses of “food.”  He has a long list of rules that help you identify food, though most are neatly summarized this way: food does not have ingredients.  Rather, food is edible by itself or as an ingredient.  Helpful tips include shopping the perimeter of the supermarket and staying out of the middle.  This is because real food is capable of rotting, and the refrigerators are on the outside of the supermarket, while packaged food-like products occupy the middle.

So how to make the change?  Aamodt arguably as the best approach, which is simply paying attention to what you’re eating, when, and why.  This “mindful” approach is everywhere these days, but it works, and is a necessary antidote to the constant distractions of our lives these days.  Paying attention, noticing how you feel during and after a meal and eating slowly enough to notice if you are feeling full are great ways to start.  Contact me at john@crossfitslipstream.com if you have questions or comments. I’d love to hear from you!

John Bryant

Founder & Head Trainer