Health & Wellness

Why diets fail you: 5 things to know about weight, willpower and your body

Here's a refreshing idea for the rest of January and the year: quit your diet.

“Losing weight is a particularly unfortunate New Year’s resolution because you’re almost guaranteed to need to do it again the next year and the next year and the next year,” said Traci Mann, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, and founder of the school’s Health and Eating Lab. Mann studies people's behavior around food.

She detailed her findings in the book “Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science Of Weight Loss, The Myth Of Willpower, And Why You Should Never Diet Again.”

“When it comes to weight loss, regardless of why people want to do that, the fact is that it doesn’t tend to work," she said.

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Here are five lessons from her lab:

1. Diets are futile.

Mann advises against going on strict calorie-restricting diets because they don’t work in the long run.

“You’re going through a lot of unpleasantness for a very short-term solution. That’s reason enough not to diet,” she said. “I discourage people to forbid themselves from eating specific foods or categories of foods because all that happens when you do that is you want it more.”

It’s fine to lower your intake of fat or carbs, but don’t banish them from your meals completely, she recommended.

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2. Focus on your health, not weight.

You can be healthy without dieting — no matter what you weigh. Her three main recommendations are:

Get regular exercise: It will improve your health before you see any change in your weight. “And you might never see any change in your weight,” she noted.

Engage in basic sensible eating: She doesn’t mean dieting, but eating in moderation: you can have candy, but not very much. The most important thing is to eat enough vegetables.

Do something to reduce stress: Yoga, meditation, a brisk walk — whatever works for you.

3. Realize willpower doesn’t work.

Many people blame themselves when they can’t stick to a diet, calling themselves weak or unable to exercise self-control.

But for most of us, willpower is very easy to disrupt and not strong enough to work over and over again, Mann said. If you only needed to use it once or twice a day, willpower would matter. But you need to use it dozens of times a day for it to be effective.

Think of the simple act of a coworker bringing donuts to the office: You have to decline when they’re offered, then stay away from the pastry box on the table, avert your glace each time you walk by and so on. Multiply that by all the food decisions you make in a day.

“It’s practically constant and there are too many foods to resist and you have to resist them too often,” Mann said.

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4. Realize willpower gets harder to use when you need it most.

“When you’re dieting and restricting how much food you’re eating, your body notices that. And your body doesn’t care that you want thinner thighs; your body wants to make sure you don’t starve to death,” Mann said.

When not enough calories are coming in, your body makes three key changes, she noted:

• You’ll suddenly be very focused on food. You won’t be able to get your mind off it and will crave it more, making it harder to resist.

• Your hormone levels will change, leaving you more likely to feel hungry, and less likely to feel full.

• Changes in your metabolism mean you’ll stop losing weight. “Your body has done something really clever: it’s figured out a way to survive on fewer calories because it’s going to try to keep you alive longer. The result of that is more calories are left over to store as fat,” she noted.

Bottom line: It’s hard to resist food when you’re thinking about it constantly, are hungrier than normal and gaining weight even though you're not eating more.

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5. Recognize your body has a biologically set weight range.

Your body is set to keep you in a range of weight and unless you’re in it, your body thinks something is wrong, Mann said. If you're a natural size 8, it will be very hard to maintain a size 4.

There’s no scientific formula to figure out your ideal range, but it’s generally the weight you keep coming back to if you’re not on a strict diet, but also not overeating.

Mann’s advice: Aim for the lower end of that range. You can be perfectly healthy there.

“The problem is, for a lot of people that lower end within their set range is still a heavier weight than they daydream about,” she said.

It’s possible to live below your weight range, but it’s going to be a constant fight to stay there. Your body will want to kick you back up into your natural size.

“People cannot just weigh anything they want, for the most part,” Mann said. “We need to try to adjust our goals to more reasonable ones.”

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