It appears that we Americans love to diet. At any given time, 40% of us are trying. And this is often a repeat performance…something that has been tried multiple times.
Dieting has an upside. Studies show that it gives dieters a temporary feeling of taking control, doing something positive, and then recording the win when some weight is lost. This kind of thing can feel good.
Unfortunately, as we all know, almost all dieting efforts fail. The weight starts to plateau, willpower starts to wane, and old habits return, as does the weight.
And yet, it’s try, try again for many.
The question is…why do people continue to use the same strategy to lose weight time and again, even though the effort repeatedly fails?
The Diet Mentality
For an answer, we have to turn to what the research tells us about the “diet mentality.” There are several factors at work here:
Dieters often feel that failure means they did not try hard enough. This is based on the assumption that changing food intake involves inhibiting behaviors and not giving in to temptation. Understandable. This can easily happen since eating in itself is extremely rewarding. The logical conclusion is that one must be highly motivated and exert a great deal of willpower in order to succeed.
Another part of the mentality can be described as “false hope.” One way of looking at this is that dieters are persistently convinced that their next diet attempt will work, in spite of evidence to the contrary. One underlying assumption here is that the diet is to blame. Somehow it is just not up to the task. This gives dieters hope that the next, newer, diet, will lead to success.
False hope also gives the illusion of control. We can cling to unrealistic scenarios and think that a big change is going to happen. In fact, diet researchers have broken this thinking into 4 categories:
- Overestimating how much weight will be lost
- Underestimating how quickly the weight will be lost
- The ease with which this will happen
- An unrealistic expectation of positive effects on the rest of their lives
Then we have media and marketing. They are great at perpetuating false hope and unrealistic expectations. Marketing for diets is often couched in terms of being easy or even effortless. In fact, the diet industry thrives by making promises and then getting repeat customers.
Because of this, we have:
- A diet mentality that blames the diet for the failure, in addition to creating feelings in the dieter that they may not have tried hard enough. This is actually two sides of the same coin. The assumption is that dieting is the way to overcome being overweight. This keeps dieters trying again and again, rather than reflecting on their own habits and behaviors.
- A situation where reflecting on how to change habits and behaviors can be discouraging, depressing, or even overwhelming. Often dieters are likely to stick with the limited options of either being on a diet or not being on a diet. Choosing false hope within these options can seem much more attractive.
- We also have media and marketing making dieting look easy. This can reinforce thinking that losing weight is just a matter of finding the right diet.
The fact is that losing weight and keeping if off, is difficult. The evidence for this is overwhelming. Very few people manage to succeed at this, particularly when using dieting as the model.
It is possible to come up with a more realistic and scaled down effort that actually works. But two major mental shifts are needed.
- Realize that losing weight and keeping it off is a long-term project. This may feel daunting. But setting up a series of small changes in habits and behaviors can lead to progress that can be celebrated along the way as specific strategies that have stayed with you. This is in contrast to strategies and programs coming from others that didn’t work.
- Shift from seeing each effort as a personal failure to seeing it as a chance to evaluate and learn. This would include taking a look at the diet strategy as one that has not worked in the past and being open to exploring one’s own habits, behaviors, assumptions, and attitudes that may be keeping one in false hopes. This includes letting go of the expectation for achieving fast, easy, weight loss and seeing that as “false hope.” Then it is possible to start exploring how to make a series of small changes, an approach that has been proven to be effective time and again.
“It is not weight loss that is impossible; it is unrealistic weight loss.”
All the best,
© 2021 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Kristen’s original article, False Hope Syndrome Unlocks a Big Problem with Dieting, was published in Psychology Today on March 16, 2021. It has been revised for this blog.