Why Dieting is Not Easy and How You Can Become Better at It

June 28, 2016

The current political situation in the UK might be heated. Unfortunately, the same doesn’t apply to the British weather! Regardless, Summer is officially here and that means that holidays, weddings and festivals are all in full swing. Understandably, looking and feeling good in fewer clothes is one of the top priorities for many of us right now. So what is the last port of call for those of us who procrastinated this spring and are quickly trying to undo all the damage done to our waistlines during the colder seasons? You’ve probably guessed it right – dieting.

Research shows that almost half of all males and 75% of females have attempted dieting at least once during their lifetime (1). However, only one in six of dieters managed to retain weight loss in years to follow (2). Therefore, the aim of this post is to provide you with an explanation to why dieting fails even when we try and do our best for it to work. Please note, that by dieting I mean balanced, calorie-restricted eating and not crash or fad diets.

Weight regulation is a self-control dilemma between two goals, the goal of eating enjoyment and the goal of weight control

According to the Goal Conflict Model by Stroebe et al, 2008 (3), the eating behaviour of dieters is dominated by a conflict between two incompatible goals, namely the goals of eating enjoyment and weight control. In simpler terms, this model suggests that dieters have mixed feelings about palatable food: they like it for good taste, but at the same time they fear it due to high number of calories. Dieters are also more responsive towards tasty food triggers (i.e. the presence or the smell of a favourite food). The anticipation of food enjoyment can override the need to control eating and leads dieters to overeat. Furthermore, for normal eaters, feelings of fullness decreases the reward value of tasty food. However, it appears to do the opposite for dieters. Having a tasty preload (i.e. one cookie or an ice-cream) increases the appetite for more tasty food. A subsequent feeling of guilt or thoughts that the diet is ruined anyway (a.k.a.  perceived dietary violation) can cause further overeating or even a binge episode.

So why does it happen? Well, unlike in normal eaters (i.e. non-dieters), the eating behaviour of dieters is less regulated by internal cues of hunger and fullness, but rather a self-imposed “diet boundary,” which consists of specific dieting rules created to achieve weight loss or prevent weight gain. Therefore, dieters have to constantly control and check their food intake against these dieting rules. As a result, the eating behaviour of dieters is at greater risk of being thrown off (e.g. when experiencing stress) and they become less sensitive to bodily signals of hunger and fullness. This means that if you suddenly become unmotivated or have a really stressful day, your cognitive ability to control your eating decreases and it is more difficult to recognise how much you should eat to feel comfortably full.

Not all of us fail at dieting though. You have probably seen some amazing transformations online or on TV programs. Maybe you know someone who has lost a lot of weight and managed to keep it off. So what is it that distinguishes successful dieters from unsuccessful ones?

Notably, successful dieters consider themselves to be successful because they have managed to resist food temptations and stay focused on their weight-management goals. Once they have resisted the urge to do something that conflicts with their dieting goals, they view dieting as a positive experience and find it much easier to do the same in the future. What makes dieters successful in the first place (i.e. sets off the initial positive change) is less clear. One possible explanation is that these individuals have a stronger working memory capacity that allows them to keep focused on their weight goal even when strong temptations were present (2).

So here are some scientifically tested tools that can help you from falling off the wagon next time someone tempts you with a piece of cake or a slice of pizza:

  1. Distract yourself: think about your holiday or how amazing you will feel on that beach – anything that contributes to your weight management goals and inhibits the anticipation of eating enjoyment.
  2. Think how you will feel if your diet fails. Are twenty minutes of pleasure worth hours or days of regret and self-loathing?
  3. Place dieting cues in strategic places where food thoughts often occur (i.e. picture of yourself or someone you find fit in a bikini or a picture of your wedding dress). These cues will reinforce your self-control by bringing the focus back to your goal. Because dieting requires a lot of self-control, a depletable resource, these reminders can help keep you on track.
  4. Learn to use “implementation intentions.” Create an “if-then” plan of action that you will use when you face a critical situation that poses a risk to your weight goal.

For example, what exactly are you going to do next time your friend/colleague asks you to go to the local pub after stressful day at work?

Plan A. You are going to give in and enjoy few pints of lager/glasses of wine with a “naughty” takeaway afterwards. There is nothing wrong with occasional indulgence, however, as you understand, this sort of scenario directly conflicts your weight loss goal.

Plan B. You are going to persuade your friend/colleague to go to a fun gym class instead and release steam that way, perhaps followed by a healthy homemade dinner.

Hence, the secret of successful dieters is – the more often you manage to stick to your version of Plan B, the more likely you are to resist temptations in the future and achieve your dietary/weight goals.

5. Prepare your own healthy meals. Interestingly, researchers have found that participants who ate a healthy homemade meal experienced more positive emotions than those who had a low calorie meal outside of the home setting (4). Perhaps, these findings can be explained by a poor hedonic value of low calorie restaurant meals and associated negative emotions, as it can be quite disappointing to pay for a meal and not enjoy it. Therefore, scientists suggested that preparing and enjoying healthy meals at home can work as a positive emotional reinforcer and further motivate individuals to eat healthier food (4).

6. Record all of your dieting successes. Once you have managed to resist the food/drink temptation successfully, write it down! Come back to this next time you feel like giving up. Equally, it might be a good idea to keep a diary of your dietary failures in order to help identify negative eating patterns (e.g. like when you are most likely to be affected by temptations). This can help you create a more effective strategy of coping when critical situations arise.

Still, we all have those “sod it!” days, when we don’t feel like working out or eating healthy. It is completely normal. Achieving your goal is not about having a smooth journey, but rather allowing backslides and coping with them effectively. My next blog post will explore how to get back on that healthy-eating wagon when you feel as if you have failed.

What dieting strategies did you find successful? Which of them failed? Please share your story in comments!

More about Anna

Hi, I’m Anna. Originally from Ukraine, I moved to the UK in 2011 to start a degree in Nutrition and Psychology at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, South-West London. This relatively unusual course choice has been influenced by my past experiences of unsuccessful dieting. I was determined to answer the question: if we want to lose weight, why can’t we just eat less and exercise more? A few years on, I now have a BSc Nutrition with Psychological studies. I hope that my articles will bring clarity in the ever-changing and often confusing areas of diet and health.

1 Comment
    1. Hi Anna, great blog! Looking forward to the next one. I’m typical working mother with excuses on not enough time blah blah blah….. who was slim, now not so slim, but desperate to be slim again! 🙂

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