Why diets fail


Almost all diets work… at least for a little while. People on diets typically lose 5 to 10 percent of their starting weight in the first six months. However, at least one-third to two-thirds of people on diets regain more weight than they lost within four or five years, and the true number may well be significantly higher.”  So why doesn’t dieting success last?

A recent study by the New England journal of medicine showed no significant difference in weight loss between low fat diets, low carb diets, and high protein diets.  Paleo, Atkins, south beach, vegetarian, Inuit, grapefruit – all have different foods but they all require you to pay attention to what you each. Paying attention leads to decreased calorie intake.

I believe awareness is why nearly all diets work initially. If you can maintain a level of attentiveness to your eating, you make better choices.  When we first adopt a new system we become attentive to everything. The novelty of the system helps create awareness. But as the novelty wears off so does the awareness.  Also as a diet gain popularity the food industry moves in and creates fast food items for the diet.  So where as once you had to careful plan a meal that fit the diet, now you can mindless eat an Atkins or Zone bar.


France is known for its wonderful cuisine, yet its obesity rates are quite low. 150 Parisians were asked, how do you know when you’re through eating dinner? The number one answer was, ‘I know I am through eating dinner when I’m no longer hungry.’ The second answer was ‘I know I’m through eating dinner when the food no longer tastes good.’ Those are both internal cues.  What do you think the number one answer was from Chicagoans?  It was ‘I know I’m through eating dinner when the plate’s empty.’ The second response was, ‘I know I’m through eating dinner when everyone else is through eating dinner.’ The third was, ‘I know I’m through eating dinner when the TV show I’m watching is over.’  Eating in front of the TV is harmful to mindfulness in 2 major ways. First it distracts us from our food and our sensation of fullness. Second TV advertiser use careful psychological research to manipulate us to mindlessly consume more of their products.

I spent 4 years with the US Navy in Okinawa, Japan.  This is one of the world’s Blue Zones where people live the longest healthiest lives.  In Okinawa they say the phrase called “hara hachi bu”. It means, eat until you are 80 percent full.  Most are used to eating until full, which is past satiation and which keeps weight on. How do you tell when you are “80 percent full”?  Once we begin to feel any stomach pressure we are at the “80 percent full” stage.  Your stomach can hold up to 17 cups of volume, but the feeling of satiety is not caused by your stomach being full. Instead, feeling full is a result of your brain reacting to chemicals released when you put food or drink in your stomach. Your brain takes around 20 minutes to register these chemicals.  So if you eat in less than 20 minutes you are blowing through your body’s natural stop signal. Become aware of the reflexive urge to plow through your meal like Cookie Monster. Resist it. Leave the fork on the table. Chew slowly. Another tip from the Okinawans; eating with chopsticks slows you down so you eat less.


My last duty station in the Navy was in Napoli, Italy.  Fast food is hard to find there.  Going out to eat meant spending an hour or two at the restaurant.  There was time to tune in to the texture of the pasta, the flavor of the cheese, the bright color of the sauce in the bowl, the aroma of the rising steam.  Even a dessert can be eaten mindfully. You might enjoy it a lot more. Or you might decide, halfway through, that your body has had enough.

Many cultures start meals with a blessing.  This is a great way to cultivate mindfulness before eating. Try buying from a local farmer. It’s easier to have gratitude for food from our neighbors than a faceless corporation.  Slow Food is a grassroots organization founded by Italian Carlo Petrini. Promoted as an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional cuisine and encourages eating plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem.   Why not visit the Monroe Farmers market and meet the ones who grow your food?






Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink, New York: Bantam Dell (2006).


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2 thoughts on “Why diets fail

  1. I enjoyed how you talked about internal cues on your blog. I think people often miss the importance of that and it’s something we should all learn to sense. Thats for your post and also thanks for linking to my humble little blog.

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