The Scientific Reason Diets Don't Work

New research sheds light on why diets fail for so many


Anyone who’s ever tried to follow a regimented diet plan knows that it can be a frustrating and tedious process.

Maybe the first few days, when you’re motivation and determination are still high, go by breezily, but as time goes on sticking to “the plan” becomes more and more difficult and you start to feel discouraged.

No doubt, many people can relate to this disheartening situation, but a recent study from the University at Buffalo may be able to help those with weight loss goals avoid a similar fate by shedding light on exactly why this approach tends to fail so frequently.

The study found that dieting plans fall through because the factors that guide our planning are different from those that guide our behaviors.

The study’s authors put it this way: making or choosing a plan that will change your behavior is a function of your thoughts, but when it comes to actually implementing those behavior changes it’s more likely that your feelings will guide your actions.

“If you’re sitting back conceiving a plan you may think rationally about the benefits of eating healthier foods, but when you’re in the moment, making a decision, engaging in a behavior, it’s the feelings associated with that behavior that may lead you to make different decisions from those you planned to make,” Marc Kiviniemi, a public health researcher at the University at Buffalo and one of the study’s lead authors, said in a news release about the findings.

Kiviniemi and his team say that these results help to explain why strictly regimented diets and diets that are based on specific food choices without regard to a person’s preferences are ineffective.

“First of all, the deprivation experience is miserable. If you didn’t associate negative feelings with it to start, you will after a few days,” Kiviniemi said . “The other thing that’s important is the distinction between things that require effort and things that are automatic.”

Kiviniemi explained that planning takes effort, which demands mental energy, while on the other hand, our feelings happen automatically. Self-control is a cognitive process and if you’re constantly using that energy, it will eventually burn out.

“In the dietary domain, eating more fruits and vegetables is fabulous advice. But if you have negative feelings about those food choices, they might not represent elements of a good plan,” Kiviniemi said. “It’s not just about eating healthy foods. It’s about eating the healthy foods you like the most.”

And for those who aim to change their eating behaviors, Kiviniemi also suggested not only considering the emotional component, but also coming up with a plan that will help you overcome any negative feelings that might arise during your journey.

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