The Five Fatal Flaws of Dieting

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I have argued for some time that I think “dieting” as it is routinely practiced should…die. Dieting tends to be about losing weight more than finding health, and I think that’s a mistake. It tends to be about rapid rather then reliable results. It tends to be a solo endeavor.

Dieting can, of course, refer to a permanent change in dietary habit for the better. Any given diet, however faddish, might be a pivot point on the path of one’s medical destiny—a turn to healthier habits from then on. There is evidence that can happen, but it is so much the exception rather than the rule as to constitute little more than a rounding error.

At the level of our whole population, we have seen an endless and all but continuous parade of diets for decades, and all the while the rates of obesity and related morbidities, such as type 2 diabetes, have only climbed. We shopped for low-fat diets, and got fatter and sicker. We shopped for low-carb diets, and got fatter and sicker. We have gone Paleo, gluten free, GMO free, and maybe now lectin free, and all the while, gotten fatter and sicker. We have eaten only cabbage soup, or grapefruits, or on certain days, and…well, you know what happened.

Observing this sad spectacle over the entire expanse of my career, I am left convinced that “dieting” as it has long been practiced truly does need to die because it has five fatal flaws.

1) The Focus on Willpower Without Attention to Skillpower

Most people take a “go, whether or not ready and set” approach to dieting. It is all about willpower, and not at all about skillpower. That’s a mistake.

Eating well for the sake of remaining lean and healthy in a culture that makes bad choices easy and ubiquitous takes skill. It takes skill to distinguish the good choices from the bad, more skill to learn to favor them, more skill to learn to prepare wholesome meals at home. None of this is any more insurmountable than learning the alphabet or how to ride a bicycle; those were skill-dependent enterprises as well. We invested time and effort in acquiring those skills and have benefited ever since.

A healthful diet can be the same. Don’t lean on your willpower until it collapses out from under you. Identify and acquire the skills for healthy living so that when willpower starts to wane, skillpower takes over.

2) A Short-term Fix for a Permanent Problem

While being a given weight may be the matter of a moment, the tendency to gain weight when tasty food and laborsaving technologies beckon is permanent. It is a mistake to rely on any quick-fix approach to a permanent vulnerability. The only way to manage weight and health over the timelines that truly matter is to master permanent lifestyle changes. If any quick-fix diet offered a valid alternative to that, we would certainly all know about it by now.

3) In Disunity, There Is Lack of Strength

I was the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Childhood Obesity, and particularly learned to dislike dieting during that stint. Invariably, adults go on diets and…leave their children behind. I think this is a mistake in every way imaginable. Children uninvolved in healthy eating are quite good at sabotaging it. Parents tending to their own weight, health, and diets while ignoring those of their children are being—forgive me—irresponsible. And, fundamentally, in unity there is strength. In disunity, there is the opposite, and such go-it-alone diets in a house of dietary divisions virtually never last.

4) Weight Is Not the Prize

Unless you are a jockey or competitive wrestler, the number on the scale, per se, is unimportant. What we all care about is how we look and how we feel. Why do those things matter? Because we are happier when we like how we look and how we feel. Life is better.

So, the prize is never what “diets” tend to imply: reaching a particular weight. The prize is a better life. That’s really what we want.

But what if dieting makes life worse? What if being on a diet is unpleasant and alienating? What if the arbitrary rules imposed by the phases of any given diet make it awkward and unpleasant to interact with family or enjoy a holiday? 

These, to me, are all indications you are on a dubious path, heading toward a dead end.

5) Reliance on the Will Within, Inattention to the Way Without

Dieting generally invites people to alter the choices we make, without attending to the choices we have. That means you will always face temptation and the risk of relapsing. You will last only until the peak of your willpower erodes. Lasting change involves adjustments to our environments—home, work, and other—so that good choices predominate. The choices we make are always subordinate to the choices we have, and dieting neglects this, goading us to make good choices while surrounded by bad.

The Alternative That Works

To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence that cultures that run on Dunkin’; explore the limits of how many different glow-in-the-dark sports drinks people will buy; turn a blind eye to a food supply willfully manipulated to be addictive in the service of corporate profits; and peddle multi-colored marshmallows to 6-year-olds as part of their complete breakfast ever fix any of this by also selling a new diet-of-the-week to the same population. Rather, the cultures that produce lean, healthy, vital people at scale do so because eating real food, not too much, mostly plants and engaging in routine physical activity are the prevailing norms.

But that doesn’t need to leave you lost and sick among the hearts, moons, stars, and French fries. Your home can house a culture of its own. Family values, often related to religion, or politics, or ethics, are important and powerful. There is no reason why health can’t be a family value for you, as it is for me.

Focus on eating well as a household for the long term, not the quick fix. Talk about doing it together for the best of all reasons: You love one another and want to enjoy a bounty of both years in life and life in years. Help and encourage one another, and modify your home environment so only good choices are available. If you need new skills—like food label literacy or cooking—to make those good choices, acquire them. Everything worthwhile takes some effort, and that effort is often invested in the acquisition of “skillpower.” Why should lifelong vitality be any different?

Don’t diet; live it. Learn to love the food that loves you back. Don’t try to lose weight quickly— try to find health that lasts. And don’t do any of it because someone else thinks or says you should. Do it with the people you love, for the sake of love, and because healthy people have more fun.

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