Why Diets Fail: 7 Things You Should Know (Part 1)

Through my research and work with clients, I have learned seven essential insights about people who pursue a weight loss goal. In this three-part series, I discuss those insights and begin answering the question no doubt on many of your minds: What to do instead of diet?
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The research is clear -- diet programs don't work! Professor Steven Hawks of Brigham Young University says, "You would be hard-pressed to review the dietary literature and conclude that you can give people a set of dietary guidelines or restrictions that they will be able to follow in the long term and manage their weight successfully." Dr. Glenn A. Gaesser, in his groundbreaking book Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health concluded that 90 percent of dieters regain all the weight they lose. [1]

Similarly, Professor Traci Mann of UCLA, after conducting a comprehensive analysis of 31 diet studies, concluded that most dieters would have been better off never dieting at all since the majority of them gained all their weight back and more. [2]

Through my research and work with clients, I have learned seven essential insights about people who pursue a weight loss goal. In this three-part series, I discuss those insights and begin answering the question no doubt on many of your minds: What to do instead of diet?

#1: People who try to lose weight often suffer from intense inner and outer criticism.

This is crucial because most people diet in order to feel better about themselves, which almost always means relieving themselves from such criticism. However, dieting in order to reduce self-criticism often fails because the root of the criticism is often deeper and independent of a person's body size or eating habits. Even though the criticism they are most aware of is about their bodies, the fundamental critical attitude almost always shows up in different ways and will resurface with a different focus.

For example, many women disavow their power in the world and in their relationships; in essence, they have learned to be fearful of or antagonistic towards expressing the full measure of their capacities. When this happens, they not only end up criticizing themselves for getting hurt too easily or expressing themselves too strongly, but they also tend to be more critical of their bodies as well. The power they don't use in their outer lives turns against them on the inside! As a result, their inner criticism will not go away by trying to lose weight; it will only go away when the power that fuels it gets used as it is meant to -- in their relationships and in service of their deepest ambitions.

What to do instead of diet? Carefully take account of all the things you criticize yourself about each day. How long have you had this critical attitude? Where did it come from? Think of the first time you were ever criticized. Imagine that you really didn't deserve that criticism. How would you have liked to be treated? What would you say to that person if you could have?

#2: People naturally resist shame and self-hatred, and also subconsciously resist and undermine diets that flow from this motivation.

Another reason not to "listen to" or heed inner criticism about our bodies is that it is invariably mean-spirited, ignorant, and void of wisdom or spiritual perspectives. Thus, it is often far healthier to reject such criticism than accept it and act upon it. In fact, taking a stand against this criticism is an act of power and self-love that not only helps relieve the inner-criticism but can also make it easier to lose weight.

However, people are rarely aware of the fact that it is this very self-love that leads them to resist following through with the diet programs they put themselves on. This is so counter-intuitive to the dieter who wants to lose weight that they will likely even resist what I am saying here and think, "I diet because I care about myself and fail to follow through because of my inadequacy."

I worked with a woman recently who suffered long and hard to lose weight. Some months she did better than others; some years she did better than others. One day she said to me, "I just want to like myself regardless of my weight." Those were some of the sweetest words I ever heard her utter. "What do you like about yourself?" I asked. The time ticked by in silence while we waited. (I am sure some part of her had been waiting far longer.) After a bit I decided to help her by beginning, "I like the purity of your words and desire; I like your simplicity. I like your humanity. I like your spirit. I like how I feel being with you when you talk like this." We both smiled, teary-eyed.

What to do instead of diet? Stop criticizing and shaming yourself for not sticking to your diet plan. Have it out with your critic! Make your critic's words explicit -- say them clearly and out loud and then fight back as intelligently, fiercely, and clearly as you can. This exercise will support your self-love by building a more empowered self. Going further, make a list of other plans, activities, and people you would like to say "no" to and begin practicing immediately.

For example, I once worked with a student of mine on her struggles with diet and body image, in front of her classmates in a psychology course. It was a close-knit group and she felt supported by the other women in the class who also struggled with weight loss. Her name was Sandra and she hated her body and had tried to lose weight for years, failing over and over. Like many women she criticized the way she looked. She was embarrassed to go out, wear certain clothes, order certain foods, or approach men to whom she felt attracted. I modeled the inner criticism she had expressed to me earlier, by saying, "You are fat; you should stay at home, ought to be embarrassed of yourself, and certainly shouldn't think you are worthy of having a partner you are attracted to!" At first she looked wounded and deflated, but when I encouraged her to respond, to fight back, she began to stand up straighter and smile. Just thinking about resisting her inner-criticism make her feel better in addition to the other women in the class who felt similar to Sandra. I asked Sandra where else she was going along with a program or person when she really didn't want to? She said it happened at work and sometimes with her children. Her "homework" was to say "no" to these people more often.

Two more insights coming soon in Part 2.


[1] Glenn A. Gaesser, Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health (Carlsbad, CA: Gürze Books, 2002 [1996]), 77.

[2] Traci Mann, A. Janet Tomiyama, Erika Westling, Ann-Marie Lew, Barbra Samuels, and Jason Chatman, "Medicare's search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer," American Psychologist, 62, no. 3 (2007): 220-233.

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