Why diets fail

Image credit: “Miracle Cure! – Health Fraud Scams” by FDA graphic by Michael J. Ermarth.

An example of how strategy is important that is both very common and very practical: weight loss. In the Western society body weight is a concern to many, with some countries having as much as half or more of the people claiming they wished to lose weight. About one third reports to be seriously trying to lose weight. And yet, most people fail at dieting to such an extent that obesity is only rising all the time at unprecedented speed. Let’s see why.

Obesity facts

There are many possible reasons for wishing to lose weight, and some are a real issue. Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death. This is also a social problem that affects anyone of us. The medical costs of people who are obese are much higher, and the estimated annual medical medical cost of obesity in the U.S. alone was 147 billion dollars in 2008 (source: CDC). Despite the seriousness of the issue and the effort so many make to lose weight, situation has only worsened. According to the World Health Organization, obesity has nearly doubled since 1980. In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults were overweight. Of these over 200 million men and nearly 300 million women were obese. More than 40 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2012. Ironically, in a world where death of starvation is still a ghost many are facing, 65% of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than undernourishment.
So: weight loss and management are really important; people actually understand that and many are willing to do something about it; and a lot of them is actually making serious effort to change the situation, with over 100 millions dieters spending annually in the weight-loss industry over $20 billions in the U.S. alone (for a comparison, the National Cancer Institute averages a budget that is four times smaller). Yet, the numbers are merciless. We aren’t getting nowhere, and actually the situation just worsens all the time.

Why diets fail?

This is a perfect example to discuss from the perspective of the Functional Mindset. We have the motivation, we have the resources and the willingness to use them to solve the problem. Yet, all of this fails completely because we are not applying an actual strategy that has been assessed thinking critically.

The concept of something “being known” is interesting and actually controversial, as we will discuss elsewhere. I know a lot of people “know” something that is wrong, but that’s indeed the point of critical thinking. I realize there is a lot of false knowledge and misleading informations, but the proper information is available too to those capable (and, more importantly, willing) to search for it. Although it is not so “mainstream”. For instance I reckon reading, here in Finland, a special report on a newspaper discussing all the most popular diets. After 6 pages that did nothing but contribute spreading further all kind of non sense, in the end there was a little warning in small character reporting that: “none of those are endorsed by experts in the fields, and may be not effective and dangerous”. Go figure…

So, what all those people trying to lose weight generally do? Start a diet (intended, as usually is, as a drastic and generally extreme change of nutritional (and often exercise) habits). Now, ask any trainer, nutritionist or physician (provided they actually have a clue about what they are talking about and are willing to offer you evidence-based advice instead of just trying to sell you anything – which sadly is often not the case) and they will agree that dieting is not a very good solution for weight loss. This has been known for decades.

For instance: it is well known that most popular diets are highly ineffective, often pointlessly complicated, and sometimes dangerous. It has long been noticed that a too severe caloric restriction can lead, even in previously healthy individuals, to death due to sudden hearth failure (just as many other complications) and that in the long term the effects of the quickest commercial diet is no better than standard, slow paced lifestyle management. It is known that most diet do work, meaning you will lose weight. (We will see elsewhere that myths and pseudoscience are dangerous not because they don’t work – they do – but because they do in a different sense or for a different reason than is believed). Here’s the problem, however: it is also know that most of people will regain the lost weight in the long-term, and some will end up weighting even more (although giving the exact statistics is somehow more complicated that is often stated). Diets may lead to a higher body fat percentage (which is more significant than weight by itself). It is also known that quick diets (a loss of more than about 1 pound – or 0.5kg – per week) will lead to weight loss, but not so much fat reduction. Yes, you will lose some fat, but most of the weight you will lose will be either muscle mass or water (and trust me that you definitely don’t want the first one – even the ladies, who tend to fear we mean the Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body type as soon as they hear the word «muscle» -, and you may not care so much about the second either).
This are all well established facts, that any expert in the field will confirm to you (unless they work in the business of selling you commercial nonsense, which many do), and that indicates clearly how a diet (especially those most people like, buy and follow) are not a very good strategy, especially when compared to proper lifestyle management. Yet, what will virtually anyone do when he or she decides to lose weight? Start a diet. What will those people on reality shows becoming thin and beautiful will do during the show? Start a diet (and exercise like crazy, which isn’t an effective strategy either).

I’m not insensible to the beauty of having someone crying of happiness after they finally achieved a difficult task they are so proud of, such as in the tv shows featuring overweight individuals transforming themselves. Yet, one year later almost all of them are back to the original weight, or more. They don’t show you that on the final episode, do they?

Notice once more that I’m not talking about motivation, hardship, effort. Those who undergo a diet generally face a strenuous challenge! I mean, starvation was one of the greatest threat to any animal survival for billions of year of evolution. Your body does few things as effectively as avoid starvation (hence, losing weight) as much as possible. Eating is one of the most primary and compelling needs and defeating hunger is an impressive task of willpower. Remember to put strenuous exercising into the equation. Having people, especially those who are totally unfit, train so hard they throw up or have their legs so sore they can’t sit on the toilet the next day, will take a real toll on them. There really seems to be few limit to how much people keep trying, enduring hardship, making efforts.

“Hi there, eating too much? Why not ingest us, so we’ll consume part of what you eat? We might cause you a lot of trouble and pain, and we could even kill you. But you won’t mind these details, will you?”

To not mention some really extreme diets. I can’t find a better example than the tapeworm diet: going as far as to ingest this kind of worms, with the rationale that they will consume away some of the calories of the food the person will eat. You probably will not be that surprised to hear this is not the healthiest idea you can come upon, and it has many possible side effects, including pretty painful ones. That’s spontaneous endurance of hardship as its highest expression. And guess what? Does it even work? Well, actually not even well!

Conclusion: is it results we are looking for, or mere hardship?

Here we can see practically what we have discussed in the last time, about the concept of unnecessary hardship. Why we keep telling these people they need to try more, do more, believe more? When I see a person using head butts in the hope of breaking the wall in their path , the first thing that comes to my mind isn’t «try more». I think: «try to look around you and see if there isn’t a window or a door within sight (or slightly beyond)!»
That’s what we need. We need not to do more. We need to do better. We don’t need all the “no pain no gain” motivational non-sense. We need to learn to stop, take a break, and figure out a strategy. To ask ourselves if what we are doing is the best available strategy and, if not, choose an other one. Not keeping to follow the old one because «just be persevering, never give up and believe in yourself, and you will succeed if you try enough». Hell with that!
Please, do quit, if what you’re doing does not make strategical sense. Just for the while you need to think whether you are actually doing the right thing. Don’t do more. Do better. Think strategically. As we’ll see, much better alternatives usually are available, cheap, easily accessible.
That’s what makes the difference between just trying to do something and actually working towards obtaining something.

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