In a recent article in the September/October issue of Mind Magazine, psychology professor Charlotte N. Markey explains why most diets fail. In this blog we will review Markey's findings about why diets fail, and to our mind, why attempts at other kinds of behavior change tend to fail.
Markey, Charlotte N. (2015) Don’t Diet. Scientific American Mind. Vol. 25. No. 5, September/October.
The Key Points
Research shows that most people who try to diet fail to lose weight or to keep the weight off. Most diets, in fact, cause people to gain weight. A 2013 study in Frontiers in Psychology found that 15 out of 20 studies showed that dieting predicted weight gain, not weight loss.
Psychological studies show that diets cause mental fatigue, create cravings for forbidden treats and set people up to binge when they fall off the wagon.
An overwhelming body of work now shows that a more moderate approach is the best way to achieve lasting weight loss and health.
The best approach is to create a healthy lifestyle that you can enjoy and sustain over the long term by making small changes to your routine, one at a time.
This is the message MINDRAMP has been preaching for over a decade about not only weight loss, but also about a broad array of conditions that affect both brain health and mental flourishing.
Why do typical diets fail?
Binging, The “what the hell effect”
Diets that restrict the amount of food you can eat, or the type of foods that can be consumed, seem to create a craving for the forbidden food. This craving, in turn, increases the temptation to splurge and binge when we fall off the wagon. One slip up and we feel like we have blown the diet and “what the hell,” might as well go whole hog and pig out.
Many diets recommend the total elimination of a certain type of food, like meat, or sugar, or carbohydrates. But, this radical approach rarely works. Going cold turkey creates a craving for the forbidden food, as above. Trying to suppress thoughts about the particular food – “I must not eat ice cream! I must not eat ice cream!!” -- just ends up making the desire to eat ice cream that much more powerful. Ironic, isn’t it? Hence the term, “ironic processing.” The better approach seems to be to indulge from time to time, but with restraint and with mindfulness. Limit the amount of the offending food. Limit the number of times you indulge. Wean yourself off of dangerous foods rather than go cold turkey.
Another irony is that our attitude and mind-set also affects our ability to lose weight. Women who are dissatisfied with their bodies are less successful at losing weight. Well, gosh. If I am overweight and uncomfortable, I am likely to be dissatisfied with my body. So, it seems like a lose-lose situation. Or, I guess, a no lose (weight) situation. The recommended solution to this conundrum is to work on self-esteem (see recommendations in a subsequent blog.)
If dieting becomes an obsession, the mental energy needed to focus on what you should and shouldn’t eat will exhaust your brain and make it harder for your mind to performing other important functions. One such function is, ironically, self-control. Will power requires mental energy and if obsessing about food has exhausted your energy reserves, you won’t have the will power to resist temptation.
Strict diets that are hard to maintain can also give rise to feelings of guilt when you inevitably give in to temptation. “Why did I eat that M&M? I’m so weak. I have no will power. I’m a failure.” And, so on. This kind of guilty reaction causes a rise in cortisol levels, an indicator of elevated stress levels. This kind of stress is bad from your health and, what is worse, we often try to handle the increase in stress by eating.
The approach Markey recommends for weight loss is to make small, incremental changes to behavior patterns that affect what you eat and how much you eat. Aim to make changes that will last a lifetime. “Creating good habits,” says Markey, “takes time, patience and resolve,” but if you stick with it, “you may find yourself on the road to the body and active way of life you’ve always dreamed about.”
In a subsequent blog we will review Markey’s recommendations for how to diet effectively. These approaches are consistent with MINDRAMP’s general approach to behavior change and attitude change of all kinds.