The Fat on Dieting in the New Year

A word to the wise -- resist the urge to "diet." Read the research: Diets don't work, they make matters worse. Modifying how you eat and maintaining the changes is fine and makes sense. That's not dieting.
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A special New Year's "thanks" is in order to Tara Parker-Pope, health writer for the New York Times Magazine, for setting us on the right track as we begin 2012. While the television stations blast us with dieting ads and the magazine covers are plastered with tips for taking off pounds, Tara's lead article in the Jan. 1 magazine focused on how dieting leaves people "feeling far more hungry and preoccupied with food than before they lost the weight," setting up a "sort of 'post-dieting syndrome' directed toward making us put on weight."

Finally a start-to-the year article that does not promote the benefits of dieting but actually tells the raw truth about its impact. "After you've lost weight, your brain has a greater emotional response to food," says Michael Rosenbaum, an obesity researcher at Columbia University. "You want it more, but the areas of the brain involved in restraint are less active." That's exactly what the diet companies are banking on. The more they get people hooked on dieting, the more they assure that the body will slow down its ability to burn calories and will create a "perfect storm for weight regain." These are the conditions necessary for getting people to pledge their dollars toward the next weight loss gimmick and remain stuck in the process of losing and gaining all over again.

Pope astutely concludes that this "explains the high failure rate in obesity treatment." She is adding an important voice to the ongoing controversy over whether dieting helps people maintain any weight loss. Despite ongoing research indicating that dieting not only doesn't produce lasting weight loss but may also lead to weight gain, especially in teens, many of us fall under the spell and argue in favor of dieting, saying that it is healthy and good, even something to be admired and rewarded, a virtue worth pursuing.

The multi-billion dollar diet industry seduces us into believing that cycles of dieting are the best way to achieve the "right" body for each one of us. According to psychologist Deb Burgard, who has been at the forefront of the "Health At Every Size" movement, "They never admit that dieting triggers disordered eating in vulnerable people," or that it increases physical cravings and emotional deprivation thereby setting up an increased likelihood for binge eating, which eventually increases weight. "The problem," says Burgard, "is people just believe dieting is good, like a religion, and you are the atheist in the room when you question it. There is so much more at stake when people try to lose weight than weight."

It's all quite scary, especially with more than one-third of America's kids now being either overweight or obese (triple the rate of thirty years ago). Pediatrician Dr. Robert Pretlow, founder of an interactive website for overweight teens and preteens, identifies "comfort eating," "stress eating" and "boredom eating" as the major culprits for our rising childhood obesity rates. These are the very same triggers for restricting food and for binge-purge cycles. With the pressures on young people rising, there's little reason to think that all forms of turning to emotional eating or controlling food will diminish. That bodes well for the diet industry but not for the rest of us.

So a word to the wise -- resist the urge to "diet." Read the research... diets don't work; they make matters worse. Modifying how you eat and maintaining the changes is fine and makes sense. That's not dieting. In this new year, find ways to reduce stress that are helpful, engage yourself in activities that interest you and search for comfort from friends rather than from food.

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