Friday, May 14, 2010

Diets Don’t Work? …Really?

Have you ever noticed how an idea gains popularity but the idea may not be true? Drinking eight cups of water a day is one such concept. It seems like a good idea, but there are many people who do fine drinking less and many people who need more. Another such idea is that diets don’t work. This is a common idea circulating within the nutrition community and one that I’m sure many “dieters” have also heard. The purpose of this idea is to move people away from the “dieting” mentality to encourage them to engage in healthy eating and lifestyle habits, and to become more aware of their bodily need for food. It also, unwittingly lays blame with the “diet promoting” community for the failure of dieting efforts.

As a practicing dietitian for 20 years I have to say that diets DO work! I’ve been witness to many people achieving their goals by following a specific dietary plan. The problem is that people can be limited by their ability to follow recommendations consistently. There are all sorts of reasons for this, too numerous to describe, but here are a few: emotional eating related to the need for comfort, lack of time to prepare meals due to social pressures, and medical problems (and medications) that change the body’s response to food.

Perhaps the first myth to dispel is that "diet" is a four letter word. It depends on how you look at it. The word “diet” as a noun describes a way of eating. All living creatures have a diet, ranging from the worms and bugs that birds eat to the broad variety of items my dogs eat – dog food supplemented with small rocks, twigs, shoes, undergarments and broccoli. Change diet into “dieting” and viola—it becomes a verb. This is how many of us are most familiar with the word. Dieting implies that we are doing something to change our eating regimen—not necessarily a bad idea. But when one “goes on a diet” they inevitable must “go off a diet” abandoning all the good changes that they previously made. It seems best to focus on the word diet as a noun to grasp the long term nature of what our commitment should be to a healthy diet. As long as we are living and eating, our commitment shouldn’t end.

Research conducted by the National Weight Control Registry showed that people can lose weight on ANY diet plan. So weight loss doesn’t seem to be the problem as much as weight maintenance. And weight is not maintained when the permanence of an eating regimen is not considered. As is the case with weight loss, there are many diets that are successful in improving other aspects of health. The Mediterranean diet is heart-healthy. The DASH diet lowers blood pressure, and has recently been shown to help prevent kidney stones. And there are many different diet manipulations that can improve intestinal function, reduce the risk of cancer, lower cholesterol levels and control blood sugar. Diets do work!

I agree with my colleagues who espouse the non-dieting approach, but don’t say that diets don’t work. Let’s go back to looking at the word “diet” as a noun and encourage each individual to choose the best diet to achieve and maintain their health.


  1. I LOVE the National Weight Control Registry, and I believe that if the media gave it some press, it would change the way American's think, in terms of weight loss and diets. Great post, Carol!


  2. I agree, diets do work! The question is are they healthy diets? There are so many wacko programs out there that people cannot stay on forever and that makes them not work. My family is currently doing Weight Watchers. I have a husband and daughter who need to lose about 25 pounds. I'm doing it too, mostly to test it out and see if I can get down to the 110 pounds I once was in my teens (I'm only 5 feet tall and start weight was 119). Guess what? It's not that hard! The weight is coming off really with not much sacrifice or hunger. Even dietitians need reminders about portion sizes and food choices. WW is one program that can be sustained forever if you so choose, since no food is forbidden. It's all about accountability. I do like Mindful Eating/Intuitive Eating practices too because they get us in touch with our natural body signals, which we tend to ignore.

  3. Great food for thought. Perhaps the phrase should be changed to, "DietING doesn't work... (a healthy diet/lifestyle maintained for life does!)"

  4. Good blog post. I used to tell my class on day 1: "Never use the word diet because it typically refers to a short term change in which people restrictively eat until the attain a reasonable amount of success, at which time they chuck the diet out the door." I would then go on to teach them all of these wonderful diets that exist like the DASH diet, TLC diet, Gluten Free Diet, Diabetic Diet etc. and totally contradict myself. Now I tell them "Never start a diet you can't follow for a lifetime." Thanks for some added discussion on the topic!

  5. I guess I would say "Diets do work...temporarily". If 98% of people regain the weight that is lost within 5 years, it is the diet that fails them, not the other way around. To put someone on a plan that you know virtually no one has long term success with seems unethical to me. The casual mention of the emotional eating component is brushing by a huge issue with eating. If people are not given the skills to cope without using food, you can write all the plans you want and they won't work over time. Diets are the number one predictor of both Binge Eating and all other types of eating disorders. They not only don't work long term, they set people up for even higher weight gain or other dangerous behaviors.

  6. Saying that the diet fails the person is still looking at the word "diet" as a verb. That is part of the problem. A diet is simply a way of eating. If you eat, you must have a diet.

    Dr. Blackburn reports in an article published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2005 that 25% of Americans who have achieved successful weight loss have maintained it for 5 years or more. Significantly better than the 2% 5-year success rate mentioned above.

    As a dietitian, I am constantly looking for evidence-based recommendations to help my clients with their weight loss goals. Writing a meal plan serves as an example to help them model their meals after. This is a place to start, not end. There is so much more work and support that is needed to change eating behavior. It was not intended to give short shrift to the emotional component of eating, but that is not what this article was about.

    I work to convince my clients to look at the word diet as meaning only a way of eating. By starting here, I can help them get past some of the emotional barriers that prevent them from achieving their goals.

  7. interesting perspective on the word 'diet'