What thin people don’t understand about dieting

Stock image | Photo by AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

FEATURE (THE CONVERSATION) — Diets do not work.

The scientific evidence is clear as can be that cutting calories simply doesn’t lead to long-term weight loss or health gains.

We suspect most dieters have realized this by now too. And yet, here they are again, setting the same weight loss goal this year that they set last year.

The only people who don’t seem to appreciate this are people who have never dieted. It’s particularly hard for them to believe because it doesn’t square with their own eating experiences.

Take Nicky, for instance. She eats sensibly much of the time, with some junk food here and there, but it doesn’t really seem to affect her weight. She’s not a dieter. She is Naturally Thin Nicky, and it’s not surprising that she believes what she sees with her own eyes and feels in her own body. Nevertheless, Nicky has it wrong.

Stock image, St. George News

We are researchers who have been studying why diets fail for a long time. We have seen that diet failure is the norm. We have also studied the stigma that heavy people face and witnessed the blame game that happens when dieters can’t keep the weight off.

From a scientific perspective, we understand that dieting sets up an unfair fight. But many Nickys we’ve encountered – on the street, in the audience when we give talks and even fellow scientists – get confused when we say dieting doesn’t work, because it doesn’t square with their own observations.

An unfair fight

Nicky thinks she’s thin because of the way she eats, but actually, genetics play a huge role in making her thin. Nicky gets all the credit though, because people see the way she eats and they can’t see her genes.

Many heavy people wouldn’t be lean like Nicky even if they ate the same foods in the same quantities. Their bodies are able to run on fewer calories than Nicky’s, which sounds like a good thing (and would be great if you found yourself in a famine).

Stock image, St. George News

However, it actually means that after eating the same foods and using that energy to run the systems of their body, they have more calories left over to store as fat than Nicky does. So to actually lose weight, they have to eat less food than Nicky. And then, once they’ve been dieting a while, their metabolism changes so that they need to eat even less than that to keep losing weight.

It’s not just Nicky’s genetically given metabolism that makes her think dieting must work. Nicky, as a non-dieter, finds it really easy to ignore that bowl of Hershey’s Kisses on her co-worker’s desk. But for dieters, it’s like those Kisses are jumping up and down saying “Eat me!” Dieting causes neurological changes that make you more likely to notice food than before dieting, and once you notice it, these changes make it hard to stop thinking about it. Nicky might forget those chocolates are there, but dieters won’t.

In fact, dieters like them even more than before. This is because other diet-induced neurological changes make food not only taste better but also cause food to give a bigger rush of the reward hormone dopamine. That’s the same hormone that is released when addicts use their drug of choice. Nicky doesn’t get that kind of rush from food.

And besides, Nicky is full from lunch. Here again, dieters face an uphill battle because dieting has also changed their hormones. Their levels of the so-called satiety hormone leptin go down, which means that now it takes even more food than before to make them feel full. They felt hungry on their diets all along but now feel even hungrier than before. Even Nicky’s regular non-diet lunch wouldn’t make dieters full at this point.

Where’s your willpower?

People see Nicky and are impressed with her great self-control, or willpower. But should it really be considered self-control to avoid eating a food when you aren’t hungry? Is it self-control when you avoid eating a food because you don’t notice it, like it or receive a rush of reward from it?

Anyone could resist the food under those circumstances. And even though Nicky doesn’t really need willpower in this situation, if she did need it, it would function quite well because she’s not dieting. On top of everything else, dieting disrupts cognition, especially executive function, which is the process that helps with self-control. So dieters have less willpower right when they need more willpower. And non-dieters have plenty, even though they don’t need any.

Stock image, St. George News

And of course, even if Nicky were to eat those tempting foods, her metabolism would burn up more of those calories than a dieter’s metabolism.

So Nicky is mistakenly being given credit for succeeding at a job that is not only easy for her but easier than the job dieters face.

The cruel irony is that after someone has been dieting for some time, changes happen that make it hard to succeed at dieting in the long run. It is physically possible, and a small minority of dieters do manage to keep weight off for several years. But not without a demoralizing and all-encompassing battle with their physiology the entire time.

It’s easy to see why dieters usually regain the weight they lose on their New Year’s resolution diet, and we have the following suggestions for when that happens:

  • If you are a Nicky, remember the self-denial these dieters have subjected themselves to and how little they were eating while you treated yourself to decadent desserts. Be impressed with their efforts and grateful that you don’t have to attempt it.
  • If you are a dieter, remind yourself that you aren’t weak, but that you were in an unfair fight that very few win. Change your focus to improving your health with exercise (which doesn’t require weight loss), and resolve to choose a different New Year’s resolution next year.

Written by TRACI MANNUniversity of Minnesota and A. JANET TOMIYAMAUniversity of California, Los Angeles. Traci Mann is the author of “Secrets from the Eating Lab.”

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. The Conversation

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2018 The Conversation. All rights reserved. This material may only be published, broadcast or redistributed under The Conversation’s republishing guidelines.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!


  • Comment January 14, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    I read an article about fasting vs caloric restriction. For those obese or very overweight it’s something to consider. Yes, I agree, caloric restriction is unlikely to succeed.

  • AnnieMated January 14, 2019 at 12:54 pm

    I agree that genetics play role, but I doubt they play that big a role. Dieting by itself rarely works. That said, dieting when combined with a little thing called EXERCISE works wonders when it comes to losing weight.

  • Redbud January 14, 2019 at 6:26 pm

    So if your girlfriend or wife says “Honey! Do I look fat in this dress?” You know what to answer back, and not end up sleeping on the couch.

  • Red2Blue310 January 14, 2019 at 8:47 pm

    Something is going on when young people are so fat they waddle into Walmart with their 2 ton parents.

  • pinetree January 15, 2019 at 9:41 am

    There’s one thing that bothers me about this article: it’s the implication that because a person is thin and may have never been overweight, that he/she can — and does! — eat “decadent desserts” and whatever he/she wants, at any time, on a whim. And genetics does all the “real” work.

    I’m naturally thin, but I’m also extremely active, getting moderate to high-intensity exercise for at least an hour every single day. I don’t eat “decadent desserts,” I eat lots of leafy greens and make healthy choices. I cook at home almost 100% of the time. Most of my friends & family are active, and we do active outdoorsy things together. This is how I was raised, and I’ve been this way for several decades now.

    I’ve also noticed all the people who either don’t have a car or choose not to drive it — those in my neighborhood who walk or ride their bikes everywhere, to get to work, school, the grocery store, etc. Regardless of what they’re eating, they’re not overweight! They’re active every day, for a good portion of the day, while many who choose to drive everywhere are not.

    There are lot of factors at play when it comes to weight and health, but the idea that “skinny people” chow down on candy all day while sitting on the couch, and never face consequences, is absurd. Maybe some thin people have just made daily activity/exercise an integral part of their lives for so long, they find it second nature.

    • Comment January 15, 2019 at 11:46 am

      True. Companies also put many artificial ingredients into processed foods that make them addictive(‘Merica!). If an obese person can make of habit of satiating their lust for calories with healthier foods I believe they’d begin to lose weight. Big bags of potato/corn chips and boxes of keebler cookies just aint gonna cut it. And soda pop: soda has to go.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.