Why Dieting Does Not Usually Work

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“Five years after a diet, most people have regained the weight. Forty percent of them have gained even more.” Here’s why…

If you’ve ever been interested in controlling your weight, then you need to see this fascinating talk by neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt.

The full talk is at the bottom, but here’s a quick summary.

She begins with a personal confession:

“Three and a half years ago, I made one of the best decisions of my life.

As my New Year’s resolution, I gave up dieting, stopped worrying about my weight, and learned to eat mindfully.

Now I eat whenever I’m hungry, and I’ve lost 10 pounds.”

The talk doesn’t describe a miracle cure, but rather the hard science behind diets and why they don’t usually work.

Here are the main points Aamodt makes about dieting and the brain:

  1. The brain has a set-point for the body’s weight and it’s very difficult to move out of this range (it’s around 10-15 pounds or 5-7kg).
  2. If you lose too much weight, the brain goes into starvation mode, stores up fat and conserves energy.
  3. Successful dieting cannot lower your weight set-point.
  4. Unfortunately your weight set-point can go up over the years as your brain gets used to a higher norm.
  5. People classified as ‘controlled eaters’ (in other words dieters) are more likely to overeat and go on food binges, leading to more weight gain.
  6. Children who diet are more likely to end up overweight and develop eating disorders.

So, what’s the answer?

Mindful eating.

Aamodt continues:

“Give yourself permission to eat as much as you want, and then work on figuring out what makes your body feel good.

Sit down to regular meals without distractions.

Think about how your body feels when you start to eat and when you stop, and let your hunger decide when you should be done.

It took about a year for me to learn this, but it’s really been worth it.”

In other words: go from being a controlled eater to being an intuitive eater.

Mindful eating in this way won’t necessarily help you lose weight — unless you’re the kind of person that eats when you’re not hungry.

What it will do is help you enjoy food more and probably stop you gaining weight.

Apart from anything else, diets usually don’t work, so why torture yourself?

Here’s the clincher:

“Five years after a diet, most people have regained the weight.

Forty percent of them have gained even more.

If you think about this, the typical outcome of dieting is that you’re more likely to gain weight in the long run than to lose it.”

Here’s the full talk:

Image credit: TED

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 16 May 2014

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License