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Why Diets Make You Fat: Why Diets Fail

by Erika Nicole Kendall

A while back, I saw this article on Alternet… and thought it might be appropriate to quote a few pieces of it for discussion, here.

The entire article is very long and I think the information included within is hard to digest all at once, so I figured that digesting it in pieces – no pun intended… okay, maybe a little – might make it easier to discuss.

The first part I want to talk about is the part that discusses the failure of diets:

The most immediate reason that diets don’t work over the long term is that they promote a loss of the internal signals for hunger and fullness that are necessary for normal eating. This was the finding of a classic study conducted by Janet Polivy and Peter Herman at the University of Toronto, published in 1999. In this experiment, a group of dieters and a group of nondieters were given the task of comparing ice cream flavors. Participants in each group were divided into three subgroups. Before getting the ice cream, the first subgroup was asked to drink two milkshakes, the second subgroup was asked to drink one milkshake, and the third subgroup wasn’t given any milkshakes. Next, the researchers offered the groups three flavors of ice cream and asked the participants to rate the flavors, eating as much ice cream as they desired.

The results revealed that the nondieters ate as you might expect: those who hadn’t consumed any milkshakes ate the most ice cream, those who’d consumed one milkshake ate less ice cream, and those who’d consumed two milkshakes ate the least. The dieters, by contrast, reacted in the opposite way. Those who were offered no milkshakes before the taste test ate small amounts of ice cream, those who drank one shake ate more ice cream, and those who’d consumed two milkshakes ate the most ice cream!

The researchers termed what had happened to the dieters “disinhibition,” which occurs as a result of a “diet-mentality.” The milkshake preload had a different effect on dieters than on nondieters. Nondieters, eating in an unrestrained and normal manner, tend to regulate their food consumption according to internal physical cues of hunger and satiety. Therefore, in the experiment, nondieters regulated the amount of ice cream they ate based on perceived fullness. What could be more obvious and natural?

The dieters, however, reacted in the opposite way — the more milkshakes they consumed, the more ice cream they ate. Why did they lose the capacity to regulate their intake? According to the researchers, this “counterregulation” occurs because a milkshake preload disinhibits a dieter’s usually inhibited or restrained eating, almost like a switch: “I’ve blown it anyway, so I might as well keep eating before I go back on my diet.” This is an almost irresistible incentive to go on eating well past physical fullness.

This passage made me think of the blog post I’d most recently written about deprivation:

If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s this: the more I try to deny myself access to something, the more desirable that something becomes. Be it cupcakes, cookies, ice cream, brussel sprouts… whatever. If I deny myself access to it for long enough, the more desirable it becomes.I’m willing to bet I’m not the only person wired that way.

Depriving myself of something, in a sense, means that even though I “reeeeeeeeeally want” something, I’m still saying “no.” This isn’t just a simple “I’d like to have it.” This is an “OMG I WANT IT AND THIS ISNT FAIR DAMN IT!” craving. That kind of compulsion is strange and it means that something else may very well be behind the craving – like a sugar addiction, perhaps? – that needs to be addressed.

Isn’t this part of what makes dieting so silly, though? Not only do you not address the real issue (why the craving exists), and not only do you deprive yourself of something you want, in most cases you’re depriving yourself of lots of the things you need. Like, well, food. C’mon – grapefruit is awesome and all… but I couldn’t imagine eating only grapefruit for breakfast and lunch and then having “a sensible dinner.” Substitute grapefruit for an [insert brand name] shake and, well… the same thing applies.

Excerpted from A Few Thoughts on Cravings, Deprivation and Indulging | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

Does this study surprise you? Does it confuse you? Do you share these experiences? Thoughts?

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Kathryn March 22, 2011 - 1:07 PM

Two weeks ago, I got tired of the diet roller coaster, the “Imma start my diet on Monday” life and got serious. I hired a personal trainer and started eating the very clean, very sensible meal plan he gave me. At first, I felt a sense of guilt because even though I followed the diet to a “T” and was physically satisfied. Emotionally…..totally different story. I nearly cried because the headache I had was so bad the first few days and I craved (to the point of murder) something…anything! In that moment I realized what the years of dieting and eating badly had done to me. I wasn’t physically hungry at all – it was about more than the deprivation and I believe I have a sugar addiction like the one you mention above. Hard to break. But…I believe I am doing it. No sugars except from fruit these last couple weeks. My skin is clearer, my energy better and my deep “gotta have it” craving is less and less each day. Thank you for this site. It’s simply….beautiful, loving, accepting, positive and fun.

Erika Nicole Kendall March 22, 2011 - 1:39 PM

*big hug*

Khyla July 1, 2011 - 10:33 PM

Please excuse me in advanced because I am new to your postings and the concepts are new to me. However, this study does not surprise me at all! Mainly because today I had the same experience as the dieters. I’ve been dieting all week (prior to reading any of yours post). I don’t know if I was doing the “cold turkey” to sugar and starchy carbs diet or the “clean eating” diet. Then today I blew it all.

My job had a pizza party and instead of having one piece of the pizza I had 5(yes I said 5 pieces of pizza). I had been in the dieting (for all the wrong reasons) mind set all week so when I ate one piece of pizza I could not resist the urge to eat more and more. I figured that since I had messed up that it really didn’t matter how much I consumed.

Jennifer March 22, 2011 - 2:22 PM

In January I began a crusade to improve my health. I made a lot of big changes, including hitting the gym on a much more regular schedule and cooking the majority of my own food from scratch. I’ve been successful so far, with a weight loss of 27 pounds…which baffles my friends because I don’t deny myself anything I want. When I want a doughnut, for example, I have one and proceed to monitor what I eat much more carefully throughout the rest of the day to compensate. This is, of course, an improvement over having three doughnuts AND a double cheeseburger AND a Chinese buffet run later. I have learned that being healthy is not so much about denial as it is about control. Occasionally having things that aren’t wonderful is okay as long as it is tempered by having lots more things that are.

That being said I’ve also noticed a direct correlation with how much sugar, in particular, I’ve had and how much I want. It’s the same with caffeine. If I have a bad week and give in to my sweet tooth I’ve noticed that I want the sugar more frequently and with greater conviction than when I’ve abstained. I then have to go through the process of weening myself off again. All in all, trying to ease that craving with a piece of fruit is a better choice. However, sometimes the only thing that’ll fix a chocolate cake fixation is chocolate cake.

thirteenlbs March 22, 2011 - 10:09 PM

I am learning this…slowly.

Monica August 5, 2012 - 1:56 PM

completely agree I lost 11 pounds and when I do if I call a cheat I do I keep the changing it every weekend but I switch up to date 1 week on friday next week I do a saturday next week I’ll do a sunday but what I do is I control it at the same time I will have my fried chicken and donuts on those days but it would be in moderation.

Janine January 11, 2013 - 9:20 AM

Omg, completely agree about the sugar! I go through cycles of eating no sweets at all (and not missing them) to cycles of really wanting sweets twice a day. It’s strange and SUPER annoying, but you can get out of it! The more you say ‘no’ to your ‘craving’ the less it controls you and the smaller it becomes!

Eva March 23, 2011 - 12:25 PM

I’m discovering that if I want a piece of chocolate cake, I’ll have some. I just don’t want the WHOLE piece now. Half of a piece of cake is fine.

Daphne March 24, 2011 - 11:17 AM

The study doesn’t surprise me, as most “diets” appeared to have a foundation of deprivation, whether it’s a particular type of food, calorie reduction, size of the meals, etc. That’s not to say that the methods don’t work – they do in the short term. Of course, the question becomes – can one sustain this long-term without side effects?

Anyway, before going the path of clean eating, I tried a couple of diets: Atkins, and a medically monitored liquid diet (Optifast, I think, it’s been a few years). Thinking back on it, I recall having to start over multiple times, as when I got off-track, I REALLY got off track. Ultimately, I would give up and go back to my convenient, processed/fried food way of eating. The liquid diet program I was on had a weekly support group meeting, and I noticed several people, who had lost a ton of weight, were constantly returning to the program because they gained weight after ceasing the liquid diet. Shocking, I know.

As an aside, the Optifast shakes were so very, very gross. I can look back on this and laugh now, but it’s kind of sad: there were “recipes,” in which you could add various ingredients (I don’t recall specifics) to try and make the shakes more tasty. Some people really got into it. I think I lasted about three months, and that was me cheating on the weekends.

starrynight September 19, 2012 - 9:33 PM

I’m so glad I have this website to come back to, time and time again. I lost 10kgs (22lbs) through eating better and beginning to exercise – all of which were inspired by reading articles and reader posts on this site and deciding that I was worth the effort. Added to that, I got a health wake up call and, eventually, it woke me up.

But, recently, I caved in and started the Cambridge Diet because I was so desperate to just lose the d*mn weight that I was carrying. I just wanted it all gone. I’m four days in and I feel ill – nausea etc. No, I’m not really all that surprised either.

It took me coming back to this site, lying awake at night (its 2.31am here in London) to realise that all that weight was put on for a reason – so many reasons – and those reasons don’t just *pooft* disappear into thin air. Similarly, the weight isn’t going to do that either. It takes a really sea-change in how you view yourself and how much you value yourself to give yourself the blessing of a healthy life and a healthy body.

I’ve decided to jack in the diet and go back to my slow journey to health.

Thank you so much for this site. It makes *such* a difference to my life.

Shani Nicole October 5, 2012 - 4:03 PM

It does not surprise me at all because I have been there. I finally realized that if I truly want something I have it but first I analyze why I want it. If I find myself wanting it for more than a day I say to myself, “when you have time go get it” I dont go scouring the city until I find what I am craving. I have control over what once controlled me. I too have an addiction to sugar Ive known this for quite some time. Its a matter of me taking control over that craving and not allowing my impulses to take over desires to be healthy. It is hard but I take it one day at a time and just keep focusing on my health and not just a diet. If I think “I want to be healthy” the thought “just one wont hurt my diet” doesnt come into play because now it is “thats just not healthy Shani”.

kami November 7, 2012 - 8:59 AM

As of now my doctor me on a rigid diet with her I felt so constrained on food to eat. Sometimes I feel as if I had to lie or erase my food journal. The lady was always making nasty comments about me and my weight. It is so hard for me. During this month I have not been eating processed food but I am still having a hard time giving up juice or candy especially since Halloween just passes. Now I am down to 1 cup a juice a day but I want to not drink it anymore. Now when I do boxing I feel like I would like to eat extra calories ( snacks) but doing hot yoga or swimming helps regulates my eating habits. My goal is to lose 20 pounds but I do not know if it is possible. I need some guidance even though I finally switched doctors.

Toni July 8, 2013 - 12:27 AM

I have a major sweet tooth. I’m sucking on butterscotch morsels as we speak. Knowing that, I try sweet alternatives such as smoothies, fruit and cream cheese or I make my own desserts. I find that I like making pies, puddings and cupcakes myself because I can control the amount of sugar in them. The homemade variety always tastes better than the processed ones anyway and the amount of work that goes into making them makes me consider whether or not I REALLY want that cupcake. If I’m eating too much refined sugar, I phase them out by drinking more smoothies so that I get the sweets that I crave but I’m balanced as well. Think I’ll go have an orange now that I’ve finished my morsels!

Kami November 11, 2013 - 10:26 AM

Hey Erika,

A person keeps on telling me to do a detox diet because it helps you get a new diet jump started. Do you think detox diet are a waste of money ?Another question is about the paleo diet and giving up grains. Would the paleo diet be another fad diet? Please answer or respond to my email.

Erika Nicole Kendall November 11, 2013 - 10:30 AM

On detoxing.

Is paleo a fad? Not as much, but I’m curious about the content of your comments – why are so many people giving you advice about weight loss? Are you confident in the path you’ve taken for your journey? Have you considered drawing boundaries and discouraging people from giving you so much advice?

Kami November 11, 2013 - 12:06 PM

Yeah I will begin drawing boundaries and discouraging people from giving me advice about my body. i need to practice these things. Since not taking any advice my immune system is normal focusing on clean eating.

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