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Why Diets Make You Fatter -- And What to Do About It

The $60-billion-per-year diet industry keeps offering new programs and plans, but it doesn't work 95% of the time because the problem is more than calories.
 
 
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It's that time of the year again. Every January, the weight-loss frenzy begins anew as the overeating of the holiday season subsides and millions of us resolve that this will be the year that we will lose weight and keep it off. Dieting has become one of the great American pastimes, and no matter what our size, none of us is immune from the messages that we're too fat -- or that we'd better start worrying about becoming too fat.

We read about the latest diet craze, enter weight-loss contests, and talk about our dieting struggles. We celebrate the shedding of pounds, and commiserate about their eventual return. As we stand in line at the grocery store, surreptitiously scanning The National Enquirer, we're filled in about the fat-thin-fat-thin roller-coaster ride of Oprah, Russell Crowe, Kirstie Alley, Jessica Simpson, John Travolta, and any other celebrity who puts on or takes off the pounds. As we unload our shopping cart, magazine covers promise that we can lose weight and keep it off, that we can have firm abs and thin thighs, and that we can accomplish all of this before the spring fashion season rolls in. It's hard to miss the irony that the same magazines feature recipes for delectable five-cheese lasagna and melt-in-your- mouth double-chocolate fudge cake.

The $60-billion-per-year diet industry keeps offering new programs and plans. Low-fat, low-carbohydrate, and low-calorie diets get recycled with new names, claiming that they aren't a diet (since, as we all know by now, diets don't work!), but a way of life. Fitness clubs ready themselves for the onslaught of new members, counting on the fact that these exercise enthusiasts will work out religiously for a month or two and then drop out, fleeing the tedium of Stairmasters and treadmills.

The common cultural notion that anyone can successfully lose weight and keep it off with enough hard work and commitment mirrors the values embedded in the American Dream. Yet despite this collective belief -- and the short-term weight loss that occurs with just about any type of weight-reduction plan -- the most frequently cited statistic is that 95 percent of dieters will regain the lost pounds. Given that a few percent will maintain the weight loss, we all know someone who can claim "success," yet the vast majority will regain the weight. Although the blame -- and shame -- for the failure is usually placed at the dieter's doorstep, strong physiological, psychological, social, and even economic forces make dieting a losing battle.

As the New Year's resolution to diet and lose weight for good gives way to the almost inevitable cycle of overeating and weight regain, my phone begins to ring with queries from people weary of this dance. Clients struggling with compulsive or binge eating often seek therapy because they're aware that their overeating may have an emotional component. But the idea that people overeat to soothe or avoid painful emotions, while often true, is only part of the story. If we focus only on the emotional reasons for overeating, we neglect factors that cause the diet/binge cycle to take on a life of its own. In fact, the empirically demonstrated truth behind the pop truthiness of "diets don't work" is that dieting -- intentional self-deprivation -- sets in motion automatic physiological and psychological factors that actually trigger overeating. In fact, there's growing evidence that diets make us fat!

Why Diets Fail

The most immediate reason that diets don't work over the long term is that they promote a loss of the internal signals for hunger and fullness that are necessary for normal eating. This was the finding of a classic study conducted by Janet Polivy and Peter Herman at the University of Toronto, published in 1999. In this experiment, a group of dieters and a group of nondieters were given the task of comparing ice cream flavors. Participants in each group were divided into three subgroups. Before getting the ice cream, the first subgroup was asked to drink two milkshakes, the second subgroup was asked to drink one milkshake, and the third subgroup wasn't given any milkshakes. Next, the researchers offered the groups three flavors of ice cream and asked the participants to rate the flavors, eating as much ice cream as they desired.

 
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