11 January 2008

Why Diets Don’t Work:

So you want to go on a diet? Well let me save you what is most likely going to be a lot of pain, suffering and guilt by saying don’t bother. The problem with diets is essentially that they don’t work. Well, to be honest scientifically speaking diets if followed will cause weight loss, but my point is rather that they are immensely hard to follow, and therefore they are flawed not in their ability to work, but in their ability to be implemented in the first place. Diets by the very definition they have come to hold in modern lingo have become a thing of short term results. As the rather prominent bodybuilder Tom Venuto and author of “Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle” commented 95% of all conventional diets fail.

I believe this is largely because dieting is seen as a purely physical phenomena. Obviously what you eat is what everything else to do with your body is dependant on. However it is most always seen as a pure matter of willpower as to whether someone can follow a diet or not. Admittedly some willpower and dedication is required to eat healthy, but to be honest what I feel eludes most people is the psychological state of mind that is required and how often dieting causes psychological harm. It has been proven that people who have been starved become neurotic about food, and many dieters without meaning to don’t diet properly and end up becoming obsessed with food and ultimately slaves to some variety of eating disorder. Eating disorders have been rising dramatically worldwide and the two biggest causes could be seen to be the unrealistic ideals we strive for as dictated by the media at large and our own attempts to control our eating habits forcefully which leads to psychological stress and food addiction.

Diets themselves go against human nature, they are in themselves rather counter intuitive. Yet the fact remains that even if someone really knows what their doing nutritionally and on a physical level and constructs a very healthy and reasonable diet to yield slow consistent fat loss (not just weight loss) with the inclusion of exercise and so forth that they can still fail. Why is this? It’s largely got to do with the approach to the diet. Here again psychology is the key word. Dieting is a flawed concept. It has become associated with short term goals.

It’s all well and good to know that X does Y to Z, it’s essentially science at its most simple and thus at its best. However it could also be seen as science at its worst as its all well and good if X indeed does to Y to Z, but the question still remains how the hell do well actually get people to do X? Essentially science in regards to dieting often amounts to little as it cannot be properly duplicated outside of strictly controlled laboratory conditions, and no one wants to live life like this.

So why does dieting fail? Well this is a difficult question to answer, but I’ll give it a shot. Firstly I’d say that all people are unique, we are individuals, both physically in how we respond to various foods and environmental conditions but even more so in how our psychology works. Therefore it is absurd for there to be one perfect diet for everyone. However this does not mean we cannot generalise and create malleable guidelines which can help guide virtually everyone in the quest to be healthier.

Allow me to give a quirky yet effective example. Let us say that you were raised such that every Wednesday your mother gave you a piece of Turkish delight to you and your favourite cousin who you saw only on Wednesdays. Imagine how important eating Turkish delight on Wednesdays becomes to your internal wellbeing. If you go on a diet that doesn’t allow you the flexibility to maybe eat even a small bit of Turkish delight on a Wednesday afternoon I have a feeling that you would only last on your diet until the next Wednesday! Of course it all depends on how you reacted to the Turkish delight on Wednesday. If you hated it, maybe you could easily go without it. If however you enjoyed it as most would it would be very hard to suddenly change old age habits. I hope my rather odd example has stressed the point here. People need to know themselves how to adapt their own diets to fit themselves and their lifestyles.

I can honestly tell you right now that if your sole goal is lose weight then you can easily do this by just eating a few carrots and celery sticks each and every day. It’s true. I never said it was easy, but it’s true. You can accuse me of being many things but in this instance you can’t accuse me of being a liar. The thing is not that this won’t help you lose weight if it’s done, but rather whether it can be done. So what’s worse is that it makes us look weak if we cannot comply with the diets standards. The notion of healthy eating isn’t much better in how it has been manipulated but I suppose it is an improvement on dieting. I prefer to think of healthy guidelines, so that only guidelines to health are suggested and that the individual can tweak these guidelines to suit there own situation

In a nutshell healthy guidelines would suggest that people eat a diet focusing largely on fresh fruit and vegetables with lean meats, fish, eggs and limited amounts of diary products. As a rule of them it is best to shy away from processed food. The more processed typically the less nutrients it contains and the more energy dense the product is. Even so every now and again it is okay to have small treats, indeed it is encouraged for our psychological wellbeing. While grain products are fine I believe that our current eating guidelines place to much emphasise upon them. When grains are consumed they should ideally be wholegrain as these contain more nutrients. However fresh fruits and vegetables should ideally make up the basis for the diet.

Admittedly what is given above is not complex and is neither very detailed. Yet it is easy to understand and easy to implement. It does not say that you can only have some sorts of fruits and vegetables as that is in my opinion becoming much too fussy and essentially confuses people with unneeded, hindering complexities. If I was to say more I would suggest that people try and gain the majority of their fats from the healthier unsaturated fat sources and that regular exercise should be strongly encouraged so that the body can tweak itself hormonally better.

Unfortunately the psychology of dieting has still barely been looked at in this article, but it is indeed a most intricate issue. The healthy eating guidelines above are simple, are not strict or definite, they allow room for some freedom and they really emphasise simply changing what one bases ones diet around. Simply moving from largely grain products and high fat meat products and dairy to a more vegetarian based diet with leaner protein sources and some healthier fat choices will be more than enough to help people to improve their health. On a psychological front it is most important that people don’t allow themselves to get to carried away with food and that they don’t become obsessed with the finer intricacies of eating and dieting, as this can often be detrimental. The fact is that most people intuitively understand what it takes to eat a reasonably healthy diet, but simply struggle to do so. Here is where psychology really comes into play. In many ways dieting typically places to much emphasis on weight and not enough on our general health and wellbeing. After all our weight is really just a number and only a very small part of who we truly are, why let it dominate our whole lives?

Diets can be extremely harmful, generally speaking I would avoid anything that calls itself a diet and anything. As "Beyond Dieting” put it:
"Weight loss attempts of any kind: dietary, exercise programs, pharmaceutical interventions, stomach or intestinal surgery and liposuction, have proven to have short term success and intermediate to long term failure often with the additional insult of weight rebound above the original starting point (Ciliska, 1990). The emphasis on "success" and "failure" usually succeeds in intensifying one's preoccupation with food and weight and lowering self esteem."

So for now I will leave you with the above healthy guidelines. I hope you find them useful, and also psychologically easy to implement.


Brandon Harshe said...

Great post! I couldn't have said it any better. I recently walked into a Barnes and Noble and first display as you walk in was diet books galore. There was the "3-Hour Diet," the "SuperFood Rx Diet," etc. It was really goofy.

Instead of dieting, it's more productive to focus on getting healthier. When you get healthy, you lose weight automatically. Much more effective than, say, the "Cabbage Soup Diet."

Brandon Harshe said...

Great Post! I totally agree.

If people focused on getting healthy, instead of just losing weight, they would actually lose weight easier.

I've seen it happen with my wife so I know that approach works.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually on Weight Watchers, so I'm not unbiased on this topic. This program at its best is all about lifestyle changes - better food choices, good portion control (which is my area of need), exercise and the group and/or online community of support.

I've seen exactly what you talk about. The members that are successful long term are the ones who are in it for the long haul - who are trying for the healthy lifestyle, not just the weightloss.

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