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More Americans on Diets Now Than a Decade Ago, CDC Reports

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Key Takeaways

  • A CDC report shows more people are on diets now compared to a decade ago, but obesity rates have increased by 8 percent in that same time period.
  • One of the major issues with dieting is weight regain, which has been shown in previous research to have significant health effects, particularly for your cardiovascular system.
  • Experts suggest a "diet" shouldn't be a short-term effort, but instead a long-term shift toward healthy eating, and that small steps are easier than radical, restrictive changes.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control, more people now say they are in diets compared to a similar survey done about a decade ago.

The report found that 17% of Americans were on diets during the 2015-2018 survey period, which is up from 14% on the 2007-2008 survey. Given the increase, it would make sense if obesity rates were declining, but the opposite is true. Over the same time period, obesity rates in the U.S. rose to 42%, compared to 34% in the earlier survey.

Key CDC Findings

Before delving into the results and the topic of diet culture more broadly, here is a breakdown of some key findings within the report:

  • 23% of Americans who are obese said they were on diets, compared with 17% of overweight people and 8% of people who were normal weight or underweight
  • More women reported being on a diet than men
  • 18% of non-Hispanic White Americans were on diets, compared to 16% of Hispanic Americans and 15% of Asian and Black Americans
  • A higher percentage of people 40 and older said they were on diets than those ages 20 to 39.
  • Diets described as "weight loss or low calorie" grew in popularity over the decade, and remained the top category of special diet. Low-carbohydrate diets gained in popularity, while low-fat and low-cholesterol saw a decline.

Challenging the Definition of "Diet"

One major factor to consider in parsing these results is what the definition of "diet" really includes. Given the breadth of strategies and the potential goals behind them — including weight loss, but also encompassing other aims like lowering inflammation or preventing chronic disease — that term is more malleable than ever, according to Nicole Avena, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and author of "Why Diets Fail."

Nicole Avena, PhD

It's hard to define what qualifies as a 'diet' anymore. People often adopt behaviors related to food, like not eating after 7 p.m., or not eating gluten, and do these things to varying degrees of strictness.

— Nicole Avena, PhD

"It's hard to define what qualifies as a 'diet' anymore," she says. "People often adopt behaviors related to food, like not eating after 7 p.m., or not eating gluten, and do these things to varying degrees of strictness."

However, she adds, there are also people who have been medically advised to lose weight or follow a specific type of diet for a diagnosed condition, such as type 2 diabetes or hypertension.

For example, is intermittent fasting a diet if you're not changing what you eat, simply modifying the timeframe? And if you've switched what you eat for a condition like congestive heart failure, does that really make it a 'diet' if you're advised to eat that way for the rest of your life?

With that in mind, she says it makes sense that more people would be on diets now than they have in the past, since there doesn't seem to be a standard definition.

The Yo-Yo Effect

No matter how you might define a diet, there's ample evidence that they can be problematic for many people.

Becoming too restrictive or feeling like a failure after several efforts can create an unfortunate cycle of loss and regain when it comes to weight, according to Traci Mann, Ph.D., director of the University of Minnesota's Mann Lab, which focuses on health and eating.

"You can initially lose 5 to 10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back," she says. In the research she's led, weight regain is a common phenomenon, and made worse when participants not only gain back what they lost, but also add more weight on to that.

"Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people," she says. This type of yo-yo effect is not only frustrating, it also represents a potentially significant health risk.

Willow Jarosh, a registered dietitian based in New York City agrees and even takes the concern surrounding diet culture a step further in saying, "the diet industry continues to make copious amounts of money off of making us feel as though we’ve failed, even though studies continue to show that not only do weight loss diets not work but, in many cases, they lead to weight cycling which can bring a host of adverse health consequences. By continuing to equate health with weight, we are being pushed further from the ability to access the tools actually needed for health (and a healthy relationship with food)."

In findings presented at a 2019 American Heart Association meeting, researchers from Columbia University presented evidence that weight cycling has an effect on seven heart disease risk factors: smoking status, weight, diet, physical activity, cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose.

As little as 10 pounds of loss-regain-loss can increase risk, according to lead researcher Brooke Aggarwal, Ed.D., assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia Medical Center.

Willow Jarosh, RDN

Studies continue to show that not only do weight loss diets not work but, in many cases, they lead to weight cycling which can bring a host of adverse health consequences.

— Willow Jarosh, RDN

“We think it’s possible that every time the weight is regained, cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose nudge higher, above the baseline level,” she says. "Mainly, that's because when you lose weight, it's usually a combination of fat and some lean muscle tissue, but weight regained is all fat, particularly in the abdominal region."

That type of fat has been strongly associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease, research suggests.

Changing Your Diet

A better strategy, advises Avena, is to reframe for yourself what a diet includes. Rather than adopting a restrictive, wholesale change designed to revamp how you've been eating, she thinks it's better to think long-term.

"Part of the problem in our diet culture is that diets are viewed as temporary, when they should not be," says Avena. "Your diet should be the way you eat all the time, it shouldn't be about losing weight or boosting energy levels. The truth is, everyone should be on a diet. Try to change your mindset about why you need to eat differently."

When people stop focusing on immediate effects or external results like weight loss and instead emphasize healthy changes that veer away from unhealthy, overly processed foods, it becomes easier, she believes.

"As health professionals, we need to take a hard look at the idea of prescribing weight loss diets—because they literally do the opposite of what they’re intended yet many in the healthcare industry continue to recommend them." says Jarosh.

And there's no need to make major lifestyle changes overnight. Everyone should be given the space to cultivate a healthy relationship with foods that work well for their bodies—unnecessary restrictions only set people up for failure.

What This Means to You

There is ongoing controversy surrounding diet culture and whether or not going on a diet is worthwhile from a wholistic health standpoint. Most experts agree that fad diets are unsustainable, so always be sure to consult your doctor before changing your eating habits. It's important to consume a balanced variety of foods and to listen to your body in the process.

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  1. CDC. Special diets among adults: United States, 2015-2018. Updated November 3, 2020.

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