Is Dieting Making America Fat?


Wherever we go, we hear about dieting: diet pills that help us keep off the weight or keep from getting hungry, diet programs that deliver only the food you can eat, diet tricks like cutting out fat or carbs or sugar, or new fad diets like the corset diet. But where is all these dieting getting us?

In a country where 14 percent of the population diets each year, according to Boston Medical Center, spending $33 billion on weight loss products to this end, 35.7 percent are obese. And some experts claim that this is no coincidence: our obsession with dieting may be the reason so many of us struggle with our weight.

Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt ascribes to “set point” theory, contending that our body weight tends to settle into a 10 to 15 pound range that the brain maintains, no matter how much we diet. Sounds a bit discouraging, no?

It doesn’t have to be — it just means that we have to change our goals a bit. Instead of beating our bodies into submission, we have to confront our brains and coax them into resetting this set point: less dieting, and more convincing.

To do this, there are several real steps we can take.

1. Stop Stressing Out About Dieting

Dieting leads to weight gain because it is stressful, according to Aamodt, who has written a book about the subject entitled “Why Diets Make Us Fat.” Research such as one 1994 study in Obesity Research and Clinical Practice shows that stress hormones can increase abdominal fat, particularly in women. Stress also leads to binge eating according to several studies, including one 2013 paper in Minerva Endocrinologica.

“Until I resolved to stop dieting,” writes Aamodt in her book, “I hadn’t realized how much routine stress I was feeling during every meal, how badly the belief that I needed to be slender was damaging my self-image, or how much mental energy I was wasting on trying to control my eating.”

Traci Mann, who runs an eating lab at the University of Minnesota, agrees. In her book, “Secrets from the Eating Lab,” she details the ways in which people must look past the cycle of attempting to put mind over matter or take an entirely “will powered” approach to dieting, something that Mann says “is in many ways a mythical quality and certainly not something that can be relied upon for weight loss.” We should, instead, attempt to make healthy behaviors second-nature.

“The focus of my work, from the beginning, was the self-control of eating,” Mann told The Salt. “I was looking for ways to keep dieters from overeating. Slowly, over the years, I came to realize that nearly everything I studied (e.g., stress, distraction and others) caused dieters to lose control of their eating, and it began to make sense to me why diets were so likely to fail.”

Removing the stress from dieting — the parts where we unrealistically restrict our eating or tell ourselves we’re failures for not succeeding — is a key, then, to successfully adopting a healthy lifestyle.

2. Stop Dieting; Eat Mindfully Instead

Of course, removing stress is only part of the picture. Some changes must be made to eating in order to actually lose weight, and one of the best ways to do so according to both experts is in resolving to eat mindfully and healthfully. Sounds easy enough, but for many, a lifelong unhealthy relationship with food can be difficult to redefine.

“I define it as eating with attention and joy, without judgment,” Aamodt says. “That includes attention to hunger and fullness, to the experience of eating and to its effects on our bodies.”

Mann also ascribes to mindful eating, but she gives people a few more tools to adapt to this new strategy, many of which involve tapping into behaviors that humans naturally express, rather than attempting to create new ones.

For example, she recommends trading larger plates in for smaller ones, so that you don’t have to think about reducing portion sizes. She also suggests setting physical obstacles between yourself and foods to take advantage of a natural penchant towards laziness; buying only whole foods that need to be prepared could be another option. Mann also suggests eating vegetables first at every meal, when you’re most hungry, so that you will fill up on healthier foods and be less inclined to eat fats and starches afterwards.

3. Don’t Focus on the Number

Set point theory has been around since 1982, when it was developed by William Bennett and Joel Gurin. However, we don’t hear about it quite as often as we should, and many people reject it for one simple reason: set point theory removes our sense of control when it comes to our weight. The theory states that changing the set point of one’s body is near impossible, and more often than not, it goes up rather than down.

“Genes,” writes Mann, “play an indisputable role in regulating an individual’s weight: Most of us have a genetically set weight range. When we try to live above or below that range, our body struggles mightily to adapt.”

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t lose weight. It does, however, mean that obsessing over a number on the scale will only lead to disappointment. Aamodt told NPR that the most important goal should not be losing weight, but rather improving general health with diet and exercise and developing a good relationship with food, possibly by adopting a no-diet diet. She claims that when she concentrated her efforts on these strategies, she lost 10 pounds without even thinking about it; isn’t that a better way to go about weight loss?

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Dieting image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.