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To Diet Or Not Diet: Science Weighs In


Let’s play a game: imagine that you were going to join a research study, and were allowed to join one of two groups:

Group #1 was going to go on a conventional diet. Group #2 was going to learn how to trust themselves around food and like their bodies.

Which one would you choose? And what would you expect your outcome to be two years from now?

Lucky for us, this study was actually conducted, and its results were published in the Journal of the American Dietary Association.

Seventy-eight women, who were at a size 16 or more, were assigned randomly to either the conventional dieting or the non-dieting group.

The dieting group received education about nutrition and learned “how to count fat grams, understand food labels, and shop for food.” They were encouraged to moderately restrict their intake, keep a food diary, and lose weight slowly. They were also encouraged to exercise.

The non-dieting group learned what was called the Health At Every Size (HAES) curriculum, in which they were encouraged to befriend their bodies, to move their bodies because it feels good, and to eat for health and for pleasure, without worrying about weight loss. Dr. Linda Bacon writes more about the HAES in her book, which is worth the read.

And what happened?

Weight Loss. At the end of the study, the women in the dieting group lost weight, while the women in the non-dieting group did not—or at least not enough to be significant. However, two years after the study had ended, the women in the dieting group had gained all of the weight back, while the women in the non-dieting group had maintained their weight.

If this upsets you (“how can it be that neither group lost weight? I just want to lose weight!“), I hear you. Stay tuned.

Health. The non-dieters lowered their ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and blood pressure. They also significantly increased their activity level. At the end of year two, the dieting group's bad LDL cholesterol and blood pressure stayed the same or worsened.

Happiness. Women in the non-dieting group had significant decreases in depression and increases in self-esteem, while the opposite was true in the dieting group. Showing Up. It’s also worth noting that almost half of the dieters dropped out of the study, compared to only 8% of the non-dieting group. Which makes sense—I mean, how long do you want to stay on a diet?

Let’s just summarize here:

  • The non-dieters had better health (as measured by cholesterol and blood pressure). The dieters didn’t.

  • The non-dieters felt happier and better about their bodies and their lives. The dieters didn’t.

  • The non-dieters kept going. More than half of the dieters just stopped showing up - and based on my own life experience, I’d guess that they were at home having some ice cream and wanting to scream at themselves because they “messed up” some part of the diet and couldn’t do it anymore.

  • The non-dieters got to eat what they liked and didn’t need to obsess. The dieters got to keep conventional “food diaries” to count their calories and fat grams.

  • Oh, and no one really lost weight in the long term. (which is consistent with other research suggesting that no diet really works in the long term).

And yes, if the only thing you are thinking is: “what? NONE of the groups lost weight?” I hear you.

But here’s the thing: for most people, conventional dieting just does not work in the long run. In fact, for many people dieting can lead to weight gain as your body over-reacts to what it perceives as starvation.

It’s okay if you don’t like this reality. Most people don’t, so they just figure that they’ll go on another diet — because for them, this time, it will work. And yet: most of my clients have been on many of them, and come to me once they are completely exhausted and frustrated. They’ve spent the last few months or few decades alternating being on diets and eating way too much.

So, if you may or may not lose weight anyway, how would you like to spend the next two years?

Obviously, everyone needs to choose their own path. Though I have found setting aside dieting “rules” to be useful, I don’t think that it is a requirement for a happy life.

Here’s the question I have for you, no matter what path you are considering going down in terms of eating, weight, and happiness: Where do you want to be, two years from now? And what is going to help you get there?

Katie, the original author of this article (click HERE to read the original), spent years “planning” her eating and being frustrated with herself when she ruined her plans by eating too much. She eventually discovered how to trust herself around food.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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