It’s a familiar trend: You start a diet, you shed a few pounds, then you fall off the wagon and gain it all back again, and then some.
So what if you want to break the trend, lose weight, and keep it off?
Charlotte Markey, a psychology professor at Rutgers University — Camden who has been researching eating and dieting for more than 15 years, recommends a more moderate approach.
“A huge amount of scientific evidence tells us that dieting does not promote lasting weight loss. In fact, many dieters end up gaining back more weight after they quit,” Markey wrote in a recent Scientific American article.
The kind of diets Markey is referring to are ones that involve eating smaller portions, severely limiting calories, or eliminating entire food groups such as carbs or sugary foods. But these diets ultimately fail because they’re too hard to keep up.
Here are some of the reasons diets don’t work, according to Markey:
Diets can actually make you gain weight. A 2013 study of non-obese people found that 15 out of 20 studies showed that dieting actually led to weight gain, not weight loss.
Breaking a diet can lead to binging. Cutting out foods can make you feel deprived, so many of us fall off the wagon. This can lead to the “what the hell effect,” where you binge on foods because you’ve already broken your diet. A 2010 study demonstrated this effect: Dieters who ate a piece of pizza they perceived as larger than others’ tended to eat more cookies afterward than nondieters who ate the same amount of pizza.
Completely eliminating certain foods can make you want to eat more of them. Trying not to eat certain foods may actually cause people to think about them more, and ultimately eat more of them, according to some research. While it sounds counterintuitive, allowing yourself to eat “taboo” foods could actually help you lose more weight over the long term than eliminating them completely.
In a 2012 study of 193 obese people, for example, half ate a low-calorie breakfast and the other half ate a normal-calorie breakfast that included a dessert. After four months, individuals in both groups lost about 30 pounds. But over the following four months, the group that ate a low-calorie breakfast gained back more than 25 pounds, whereas the dessert group lost another 15 pounds.
Dieting can be stressful. Spending a lot of energy thinking about what to eat and what to avoid can sap your mental energy, and studies show dieters have a harder time learning new information, solving problems and exerting self-control, Markey said. And dieting can be stressful: A 2010 study of 121 women who restricted their calories had increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
So if dieting isn’t the best way to lose weight, what is?
The answer is to make small changes that you can stick with.
“A large body of research supports the idea that making simple, gradual changes to your eating patterns is the best way to promote lasting weight loss,” Markey wrote.
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