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Dieting Must Die

Dieting is a short-term, get-on-then-get-back-off approach to the permanent challenge of losing weight and finding health. It has been tested rather generously, and it does not work. Perpetuating a method proven so robustly to be a massive failure is, at best, foolish.
10/27/2014 12:16pm ET | Updated December 27, 2014
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I am in New Zealand to speak this week at the inaugural NZ Nutrition Foundation Symposium, "Food not Nutrients," a rubric I endorse with enthusiasm. I am here to preach the gospel of wholesome foods in sensible combinations.

Getting here, for my wife and me, was the quintessential long night's journey into a brand new day. The long journey spanned more then 20 hours from our starting point in Connecticut to Auckland. We arrived into a literal brand new day (nicely illustrated by my shot of the welcoming sunrise over Auckland from the top of Maungawhau, an extinct volcano we climbed), having skipped one entirely on our way over the international dateline. We'll get one back later, but for now, a brand new day suits me just fine.

Dieting must die. We need a new day.

I was in conversation over a lovely lunch yesterday with my host, Professor Elaine Rush, MNZM, looking out at the Pacific from her home on Waiheke Island, discussing our respective efforts to help people eat better and enjoy better health (and lives) as a result. While talking over her impressive efforts to propagate nutrition education here in NZ schools, I asked for her estimate of the percentage of those children's parents who are "on a diet" in any given year. Her rough approximation was "something like all of them." Much the same, of course, is true back at home.

This is foolish, fatalistic, and in a sense downright fatal. I will explain.

Dieting is foolish for the most obvious of reasons: It represents the perennial triumph of misguided hope over the genuine illumination of experience. If every quick-fix diet to come down the pike before now left you in need of the new one, what is the probability that the new one won't just take it's place on the long, lamentable list? No formal training in statistics is needed to know it is just about zero. Diets represent a willful suspension of common sense, in fact. The very same, sensible souls among us who know to step away from our credit cards when confronted with pitches for get-rich-quick schemes, reach for them instead when the equally specious "get-thin-quick" pitch comes along.

Dieting is a short-term, get-on-then-get-back-off approach to the permanent challenge of losing weight and finding health. It has been tested rather generously, and it does not work. Perpetuating a method proven so robustly to be a massive failure is, at best, foolish.

It is fatalistic as well. Dieting shifts control from us to someone else offering to direct the destiny of our health and weight with their particular contention or theory. Given the cacophony of such competing theories, the likelihood that any one of them is the "right" one for any one of us, let alone for all of us, is rather remote. Surrendering a thoughtful, proven approach to the promotion of health and control of weight to the vagaries of this pop-culture proselytism is a dubious leap of faith. We are jumping into the din, hoping the particular peddler of our particular salvation du jour will catch us this time. Alas, we will just fall -- because they are on their way to the bank to cash our check.

And finally, this never-ending nonsense is something approximating fatal. Returning to the context of the conversation that prompted these musings, what is the likelihood that a sound nutrition education program for children will have any meaningful impact on family behavior when Mom, or Dad (or both) -- is, at any given moment, on a diet? Just about none, of course -- and so it is that hope dies.

The distraction of quick-fix diets kills the opportunity to leverage effective programming in schools to influence a family -- which is the fundamental unit of culture. When individuals try to change and their families don't come along, change is generally unsustainable. When families change, it is the entry-level expression of culture change -- and that lasts. In unity, there is strength. Dieting kills unity -- because we tend to diet alone. Few dieters bring along their spouses, let alone their children.

And then, in the most literal sense, dieting is "fatal." Not immediately, of course, with rare exception. Rather, the failure to adopt and apply what is clearly true about eating and living well for lasting health and weight control siphons years from life, and life from years. We generally refer to things that take years from our lives as... fatal. Some are immediately so, others a bit slower, and others slower still. A lifestyle at odds with health is generally a slow killer, but that is cold comfort -- because long before it kills us prematurely, such a lifestyle encumbers us with chronic maladies that take life out of our years.

Dieting, as we have traditionally done it, is fatal to a better hope for the future of our children. It is fatal to the promise of lifestyle as universal medicine; to the eradication of chronic disease eight times in 10; to the addition of years to life and life to years. It is fatal to the better medical destiny we might bequeath our children if weight control and health were approached with a blend of science and sense, rather than fatalism and folly.

They do not "diet" in the Blue Zones; they live well.

We diet alone; we should, instead, live it together. The fundamentals of healthful living and weight control are far less mysterious and far more accessible than we allow ourselves to think; there is just a mountain of marketing and malarkey between here and there. There is the suspension of sense, the denial of science, and profit-driven predation. There is fatalism, and there is folly.

But the power to say "enough!" resides with us. We could move on, and dieting could die. We could live it together, and tap the sustainable strength of unity, and share the prize of vitality. And that, it seems to me, would usher in -- a brand new day.

-fin

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP is President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine- and rather horribly jet-lagged. He blames any grammatical lapses on the latter.

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