Fredric Neuman M.D.

Fighting Fear

Why Diets Fail

Different problems interfere at different points in dieting.

Posted Oct 02, 2013

Diets can fail in the beginning, in the middle, and at the end, and not uncommonly, after the end.  Most diets falter even before the beginning. People put off dieting. Even people who diet on and off for years put off dieting during those times when they are not dieting. They say things like, “I’ll diet after the holidays” or “I’ll start my diet after the cruise.” The implication of this is clear enough, “If I diet, I will not be able to enjoy Thanksgiving. Or the cruise.” It is eating, even eating excessively, that defines these experiences. Why? Thanksgiving is a feast, certainly, but it is first of all a family occasion, a time for family to gather together. A cruise is fundamentally a voyage—to be somewhere away from home, and see new things. At least for most people. Put simply, why can’t someone diet at these times?

The answer, of course, is that dieting—for some—is unpleasant, and so unpleasant that it promises to ruin an otherwise enjoyable experience. To feel this way seems sort of reasonable; but, the fact is, most people can eat moderately on Thanksgiving without feeling deprived. And most people have no trouble passing up the endless supplies of free food on a cruise. Obvious though it may be, it is worth underlining that for people who diet off and on repeatedly, dieting is unpleasant. Dieting is unpleasant in ways that go beyond simply having to eat less of certain favorite foods. The dieter has to wrestle with clothes that don’t fit right, and cope with a scale that needs to be jiggled all the time to report a satisfactory weight. Then there is the secret scrutiny of family members who are observing the dieter’s progress, or lack of progress.

Some people are leery of Thanksgiving because they feel they cannot resist food if it is in front of them. This is a fact that must be dealt with in order to diet successfully.

By the way, if someone says she will begin something after a certain date, such as after New Year’s Eve, she generally will not do it. If doing something really seemed worthwhile to her, she would do it immediately. Similarly, if a couple tells me they plan on travelling once they retire, I know they will not do it. If they really wanted to travel, they would do it now. The restraints of time and money that they give as explanation for not travelling are not enough to deter other couples in similar circumstances who do travel. Any activity which is put off in the future, even if it seems at first glance to be pleasurable, is put off because it is for some possibly obscure reason upsetting, frightening, or just plain unpleasant.

The people who don’t want to diet until after Thanksgiving do not want to diet, otherwise they would diet before Thanksgiving and, maybe, go off the diet briefly during Thanksgiving. Something that is really worth doing is worth doing now. If it is too hard to do right away, it is worth starting to do right now. So, the issue becomes, why don’t people wish to start a diet? The answers are not all obvious:

  1. Sure, dieting involves giving up something pleasurable. That is easy to see. Everyone understands that. But, really, what the dieter has to give up is only the difference between eating one or two cookies and eating the whole box. On Thanksgiving it is the difference between eating a normal meal and eating a lot, not infrequently to the point of feeling stuffed, sometimes to the point of feeling ill. It is not clear why eating normally, rather than overeating, involves a sacrifice.
  2. Dieting means dwelling on the fact of being overweight. Even thinking of dieting spoils eating to some extent. Something similar happens when someone tries to give up smoking. In preparation for their stopping I ask smokers to keep a record of every cigarette they smoke; But if they start to keep records, they stop almost at once. Simply taking note of each cigarette spoils the enjoyment of it.
  3. Getting ready to diet, for some people, is like going on a voyage. You can’t just start today; you have to get ready first. You have to see the nutritionist, re-join the weight-loss group, make sure the right foods are in the right place and the wrong foods have been removed. This special effort is required to maximize the chance that, once and for all, this time, the diet will work. Often the ordinary business of life—picking up the kids, an extra assignment at work, a visit from the in-laws, interfere and subvert this process. Life being what it is, there is always something going on that gets in the way. If dieting is a voyage, it looks to the dieter like a long voyage.
  4. In order to start a diet, the overweight person has to feel there is a reasonable chance of success; and many dieters have good reason to think they will not succeed. Typically, they have failed a number of times before. They tell themselves—and, of course, it is true—that this time might be different; but they have trouble convincing themselves. Which is too bad. Most smokers who finally do stop smoking have failed on an average of eight previous attempts. It is possible to learn something from failure that may make success possible. In order for success to become more likely, however, it is important to proceed in ways that are different than what went before. Most people’s inclination is to do the same thing over and over, but try harder this time. Trying the same diet in the same way over and over is a waste of time. Changing the diet by limiting the foods in some new way—only ice cream, only nuts and so on— is not really changing it at all.

The problem: In short, most people fail at dieting before they ever start. They are defeated by the idea that dieting is too difficult and too prolonged, and too unpleasant. And, in the end, unlikely to work. I think dieting is inherently difficult, but only in the way that changing any habit is difficult.  (To follow: Diets failing within the first few weeks, failing in the middle of the diet, and failing at the end—and after the end.) 

© Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog or advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/

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