Why Dieting Doesn't Work

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My first experience of “dieting” occurred when I was twelve years old.  And since then, I have tried countless diets or food restrictions over the years. I was sure that if I could find that one special diet, I would never have to worry about weight again. Well, of course, that never happened and with each new approach, I became more and more frustrated, causing me to give up. It is now clear to me why I had that experience. You know the saying, “if only I had known then, what I know now”. That is, that my failure at dieting didn’t have anything do with what or how much I ate or any particular diet, but how and what I thought about my eating.

Today, research would have predicted my lack of success in dieting. For example, research shows that food restriction can lead to increased food preoccupation, binge eating, and weight cycling (Barraclough et al. 2019). Dieting has also been shown to predict five-year weight gain and increased activation of brain regions associated with attention and reward in response to food (Stice et al., 2013).

A 2019 study by Buchanan et al., found that:

  • Individuals who are motivated to start a diet program for appearance-related reasons were more likely to start diets that were restrictive than those who approached a weight management program for health-related reasons.

  • The more dissatisfied people are with their body and appearance, the more likely they are to pursue extreme measures to deal with their discontent.

  • Food restriction requires thought suppression which leads to binge eating and a focus on what we can’t have.

  • Dieting appears to lead to “on/off” thinking or thinking in terms of “black and white”. For example, having the attitude of “I have blown my diet today so I may as well pig out.”

  • Overall, dissatisfaction with one’s body as a motivation to lose weight seems to lead to maladaptive thinking and behaviors which lead to failure and loss of self-esteem and self-efficacy.

So, what’s the solution?

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These findings and others like them have led experts in weight management and well-being to recommend a non-dieting approach that is often called intuitive eating or mindful eating. Mindful eating encourages eating based on hunger or satiety cues vs. emotional or externally triggered events (Barraclough et al., 2019). This approach shifts the emphasis from dissatisfaction with one’s body weight and appearance, to an emphasis on health and well-being. You may be wondering how does a shift to mindful eating happen? Our mindfulness practice can help us have a healthy relationship to food and our overall well-being by:

  • Increasing our self-awareness and self-reflection, which may result in us establishing a positive intention for making changes in our eating habits.

  • Reducing automatic unhealthy eating behavior to help us establish new habits to support our goals.

  • Practicing self-acceptance and self-compassion as we attempt to change our behavior.

  • Learning to recognize when our unhealthy eating behavior stems from an emotional reaction instead of physical hunger.

  • Developing the ability to forgive ourselves for our setbacks.

  • Appreciating all the good things in our lives and moving the focus off what’s wrong to what we are grateful for.

As you can see from the list above, your daily mindfulness practice may actually be just what you have been looking for in creating a healthy and sustainable way to manage your weight.  Attached is a short exercise you might like to try to give you a jump start on your journey. 


Barraclough, E. L., Hay-Smith, E. J. C., Boucher, S. E., Tylka, T. L., & Horwath, C. C. (2019). Learning to eat intuitively: A qualitative exploration of the experience of mid-age women. Health Psychology Open, 6(1), 2055102918824064

Buchanan, K., Sheffield, J., & Tan, W. H. (2019). Predictors of diet failure: A multifactorial cognitive and behavioural model. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(7), 857-869.

Busch, S. (2017). Do low-calorie diets slow down metabolism? Retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/244490-do-low-calorie-diets-slow-down-metabolism/.

Freedhoff, Y. (2014). No, 95 percent of people don't fail their diets. Retrieved from https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2014/11/17/no-95-percent-of-people-dont-fail-their-diets

Institute for the Psychology of Eating. (2014). 3 reasons why diets don't work. Retrieved from http://psychologyofeating.com/3-reasons-diets-dont-work/

Nelson, C. and Harris, K. (June 2019). The Dieting Dilemma. Food and Nutrition, Utah State University

Stice, E., Burger, K. and Yokum, S. (2013) Caloric deprivation increases responsivity of attention and reward brain regions to intake, anticipated intake, and images of palatable foods. Neuroimage 67, 322–330.