diets don't work

“How did I let this happen again?” – Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey is amazing. Billionaire, media mogul, bestseller, bad-ass. But despite all of her accomplishments, her weight is always a topic of discussion.

Here’s the tip of the iceberg on her achievements:

  • Had a law named after her
  • Founded a school
  • Honored at the Kennedy Center
  • Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • Tony Award Winner, Honorary Oscar Winner, about 700 Emmy Awards

Standing in line at CVS a few months ago I caught sight of the above magazine cover subtitled “Faith, Weight, The White House & more…”

Are you kidding me? After 30+ years of hitting nothing but net, she’s still having to address this issue?

She has had to live out a lifetime of weight struggles in front of the eyes of the world. I can’t imagine what that’s like. It’s challenging enough to deal with weight issues in private, but under the harsh view of hundreds of millions of spectators it’s an unimaginable burden.

Nevertheless, that has been her path. Her weight goes up and down and it goes up and down and the trolls wring their hands in delight, lick their lips and crawl out of their holes to ridicule her for it.

“She’s a billionaire. If I was a billionaire…” and all of that bullshit.

Money can’t buy behavior, money can’t buy biology. But people seem to revel in the chance to blow out her candle even though they, themselves, are surrounded by stones and glass.

Oprah suffered the fate of so many of us. She tumbled into the diet pit. She fell prey to the diet myth, the belief that by going on a calorie-restrictive diet she’d be able to lose weight and keep it off. Then, after a few loss-gain cycles, her body said,

“Hold it. I can see what you’re trying to do. We’re not doing this again. I’m done.”

And her diets stopped working.

Because, well, diets don’t work.

why diets don't work

The Big Lie

How many times have you “dieted?” Once, twice? Numerous times? If you’ve done so more than once, why do you think that is? If “dieting” (aka serious calorie restriction and/or banning certain foods or food types from your daily nutrition regimen) is a good strategy for long-term weight loss management, why did you have to do it more than once?

Shouldn’t something built upon sound principles work not only in the short-term but in the long-term? Or are you just interested in slimming down long enough to fit into that dress/suit/bikini for that wedding/reunion/vacation without concern for the fact that you’re going to rebound to your previous weight, PLUS a few pounds, after the event? If you fall in the latter category, that’s on you. But if you genuinely believed dieting to be the road to success, you were duped.

Every dieting story is just like a trip to Vegas. I know of ONE GUY who actually comes out ahead in Vegas and he’s a professional card player. Everyone else, with the very rare exception, has a Vegas story that goes like this:

“Dude, I was up $1,900!”

Uh, huh. And then?

“And then I lost it all. Plus another grand.”

Right. Because Vegas is designed to keep your money. You’re not supposed to win, you’re just supposed to think you can win. And then, you lose.

Dieting is the exact same narrative in reverse.

“I lost 63 pounds on the [FILL IN THE BLANK] diet!”

And then.

“And then I gained it all back. Plus 11 pounds.”

Right. Because diets don’t work, long-term. They’re not designed to work long-term, you’re just supposed to think they are. So, you take the bait, lose some weight, and gain it all back, plus a bonus.

You’ve been lied to. Repeatedly. For years.

Weight loss is a $66,000,000,000 industry. That’s 9 zeros. 66 BILLION dollars.

Studies show that the failure rate for dieters is astronomical.

This isn’t a closely held secret. Researchers know this. Hell, YOU probably know this! But you hold tightly to the same hope for a miracle as the one that fills you as you’re sliding a $20 bill across the counter at 7-11 because the MegaMillions jackpot is up to $363 million.

Here, in a few sharply crafted sentences, is the cold, hard truth about weight loss:

If you’re serious about controlling your weight you need the discipline to follow these three rules:
#1 – Never go on a diet
#2 – Never vow to give up chocolate or any other food
#3 – Whether you’re judging yourself or judging others, never equate being overweight with having weak willpower

Read that again.

If you’re serious about controlling your weight you need the discipline to follow these three rules:
#1 – Never go on a diet
#2 – Never vow to give up chocolate or any other food
#3 – Whether you’re judging yourself or judging others, never equate being overweight with having weak willpower

“Willpower,” Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

And there it is.

So, let’s take on point #1 first: Never go on a diet.


Dieting vs. Biology

Dieting, dropping a lot of weight rapidly by significantly reducing calorie intake, sends up a red flag to the brain. It taps out a clear and urgent morse code:

F – A – M – I – N – E

F – A – M – I – N – E

F – A – M – I – N – E

Our brains are amazing. In many ways, however, they are currently residing tens of thousands of years in the past. This was a time long before the advent of agriculture (around 10,000 years ago) when we learned at last how to harness the forces of nature to produce food at will and therefore create greater access to calories. Finally there was a partial solution to scarcity, storage, spoilage, starvation. Once agriculture came around we were much better prepared to ride out periods of famine.

Prior to that, survival in a calorie-scarce environment was our primary mandate. As hunter-gatherers, we had to forage on a daily basis to collect calories for the survival of the tribe and competition for resources was stiff. Life was a daily struggle under even the best of circumstances, but when famine hit and calories became so scarce that animals and humans alike starved to death, we were pretty much screwed.

So, our biology is wary of any circumstance in which our calorie intake declines significantly in a short period of time, causing available energy and body fat stores to wane. After all, living on an insufficient number of calories when a sufficient number of calories are available is not consistent with human biology. We don’t, when left alone in a natural environment, choose to starve.

Here’s what studies show about dieting:

Severe calorie restriction and subsequent weight loss lowers your resting metabolism (the amount of energy, aka calories, your body burns at rest). Then, it stays down. So, you’re burning fewer calories at rest than you were before you lost weight. If you revert back to a healthy number of calories per day your body isn’t metabolizing them at the rate it was before, so you end up storing excess calories as fat. That’s a problem. 

In studies done with rats, when calories are restricted, they lose weight. Then, when they revert to their previous behavior, when they go “off the diet” and start eating normal quantities again, they gain weight. Makes sense. When they’re put on the diet again it will take them longer to lose weight the second time and they’ll gain the weight back more quickly when they go off the diet!

By the third or fourth time of going on and off the diet, they cease to lose weight even when they cut calories.

“Evolution favored people who could survive famines, so once a body has gone through the experience of not getting enough to eat, it reacts by fighting to keep all the pounds it has. When you diet, your body assumes there’s a famine and hangs on to every fat cell it can.”

Roy F. Baumeister; John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (p. 219).

If you have tried dieting repeatedly, have been unsuccessful at keeping it off, and are finding it increasingly difficult to lose weight as time passes, you’re not imagining things. It’s happening.

These are the facts.

Diets. Don’t. Work.

diets don't work

Change is possible.

The herd is running in the same direction. It is thundering across the plains with the terror stricken eye of a horse fleeing a brushfire. Gobbling up diets. Failing. Trying it again. Failing. Thinking, “Maybe if I just run faster I’ll get there,” slashing desperately and more deeply into the calorie bank, setting off biological alarms, depleting will, damaging metabolism, enforcing defeat, destroying hope.

But once in a while one of the herd peels away and stops running. He calls after the others but the collective noise of the hooves on the ground drown him out. He is left alone on the churned earth, saying softly,

“Maybe we’re running the wrong way.”

We are designed, we humans, to run in herds, to live in tribes. And, while there’s safety in numbers, there’s also the very real risk of getting caught up in a wrong-way movement charging confidently toward a cliff. Sure, our tribe is a protective measure against predators. But, when prevailing social norms are incorrect and unhealthy, the tribe becomes the predator.

Dieting is the cliff. Your first step is to stop running blindly toward it.

The next step doesn’t much matter until you do.


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Jonathan Aluzas is co-owner of Arena Fitness, a fitness center that offers group training in Encino as well as personal training in Northridge.