Many people across the globe have tried diets at some stage to attempt to lose weight. While some people would vouch that dieting helped them successfully lose weight, many others have had very negative experiences. As a result, there is an air of doubt into whether or not dieting really works.
There is evidence from a number of studies, that dieting does lead to successful attempts at weight loss¹.However, the majority of such studies show that dieting is often ineffective in the long term as people experience weight regain. In fact, one Australian prospective study found that dieting to lose weight can contribute to the risk of future obesity and weight gain². So why does this happen?
Well, the main issue with dieting is that the whole “going on a diet” concept, mainly focuses on weight loss as the only outcome and does not deal with the dieter’s relationship with food. The reason behind dieting may be linked to an unhealthy relationship with food¹ and that instead of food bringing an individual thoughts of pleasure, it actually brings thoughts of guilt. This is especially true for someone who emotionally eats and may binge on food for comfort but then feels guilty afterwards. Due to possessing a negative relationship with food and the focus being on weight loss and not improving one’s overall health and nutrition habits, no weight loss or weight regain is likely.
In addition, diets may worsen a person’s unhealthy relationship with food by creating or exacerbating food cravings. This notion is supported by a study who found that by putting rats on a diet where foods were severely restricted and then were allowed to be indulged greatly, this set off a cycle of anxiety, cravings and over-consumption³. Although this was an animal study, its findings may still provide an interesting insight into the consequences of dieting and an area of future research.
In contrast, a study by Provencher et al. 2009⁴, confirms that by removing weight loss as the only focus of dieting can make a big difference. In this weight loss study, the intervention called “What about losing weight?” emphasized the possibility of being healthy at every size. The intervention detailed positive things that obese/overweight participants could do to improve their overall health (good nutrition, enjoying exercise etc.). By the end of the study, the participants showed better control in situations that trigger over-consumption. Also, two thirds of the participants lost weight and participants who showed the most flexible restraint (instead of rigid restraint like in most dieting strategies), were the most likely to maintain weight loss.
The evidence shows that diets in the short term, definitely can work. However, in order to have sustainable weight loss and weight maintenance through diet, there needs to lifestyle change. When making the decision to change your diet to make steps towards losing weight, the diet needs to be structured and not too restricting. It needs to match with healthy eating principles and be able to improve your nutrition (for e.g. the Mediterranean diet & DASH which I will aim to discuss in later blogs). Ultimately aiming for sustainable weight loss should include improving your overall health. This includes regular exercise and improving your mental well-being.