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Why Diets Don’t Work and Can Make You Fatter

Though you’re aiming to become a “normal” eater, do you ever secretly consider returning to dieting? Do you envy dieters’ rapid weight loss? Or blame yourself for a lack of will power and an inability to keep weight off? If you answered yes to any of these questions, please read on to learn the scientific reasons why diets fail us.

In “Why diets don’t actually work, according to a researcher who has studied them for decades,” (Washington Post, 5/4/15), Roberto A. Ferdman interviews Dr. Traci Mann, psychology instructor at the University of Minnesota and researcher on eating habits, self-control and dieting for more than two decades. Here are some of Mann’s quotes from the interview which she discusses in more detail in her new book, Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again (HarperCollins, 2015). Watch for my review of Secrets in October.

According to Mann, “[Diet] companies make their money off failure, not success. They need you to fail, so you'll pay them again. One-time customers are not the sort of thing that keep these diet companies in business…If you think about it, people do drop below their set range and stay there. A small percentage of dieters—something like 5 percent—can do it. And they do do it. But they do it by devoting every minute of their life to staying at that weight. Basically, they spend their entire life living like a starving person, fighting biology, and evolution.”

“Everyone is blaming dieters for regaining weight they lose, and that's just wrong—it's not their fault they regain weight, and it's not about willpower, or any lack thereof. I have found time and again that it's actually some other thing that causes dieters to lose control of what they're eating.”

“After you diet, so many biological changes happen in your body that it becomes practically impossible to keep the weight off. There are three biological changes that take place that seem most important to me. 1) When you are dieting…your brain becomes overly responsive to food, and especially to tasty looking food. But you don't just notice it—it actually begins to look more appetizing and tempting. It has increased reward value. So the thing you're trying to resist becomes harder to resist. 2) As you lose body fat, the amount of different hormones in your body changes. And the hormones that help you feel full, or the level of those rather, decreases. The hormones that make you feel hungry, meanwhile, increase. So you become more likely to feel hungry, and less likely to feel full given the same amount of food. 3) Your metabolism slows down. Your body uses calories in the most efficient way possible. Which sounds like a good thing, and would be a good thing if you're starving to death…because your body finds a way to run itself on fewer calories, there tends to be more leftover, and those get stored as fat, which is exactly what you don't want to happen…It’s over the long term that you see all these biological changes take control.”

“When people lose weight on a diet, they call it a success. And if the weight comes back on, they don't say that the diet wasn't successful — they say 'I blew it.' But that's not correct. It's all part of the diet.”
“Willpower can be extremely useful in certain parts of people's lives. But when it comes to eating, it's just not the problem. It's not the fix…Let's say you're in a meeting, and someone brings in a box of doughnuts. If you're dieting, now you need to resist a doughnut. That is going to take many, many acts of self-control. You don't just resist it when it comes into the room—you resist it when you look up and notice it, and that might happen 19 times, or 90 times. But if you eat it on the 20th time, it doesn't matter how good your willpower was. If you end up eating it, you don't get credit for having resisted it all those times. In virtually any other arena, that would be an A+, but in eating that's an F.”

“So it's for reasons like that that someone's willpower, which is measurable by the way, does not correlate with people's weight. It just doesn't. But, and here's the thing, it does correlate with tons of other stuff, like SAT scores, grade point average, and all kinds of other achievement outcomes. And if you think about it, that makes perfect sense. If you're studying for an exam, and give in to checking Facebook, those 10 minutes that you waste don't erase the studying you did before. You haven't lost anything. Whereas with eating, when you suffer that one moment of weakness, it actually undoes all the successful willpower that came before it.”

How are you feeling now about considering another diet? Do you still envy dieters their weight loss knowing that all but 5% will gain it back and possibly more? Are you still blaming yourself for regaining pounds or do you now, finally, understand that regain is biologically inevitable? It’s time to put the myths that diets and will-power work to rest so that you can get on with the business of “normal” eating.

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