The truth about dieting

As many American waistlines grow wider and wider, it is no wonder that people — especially women — continue to go on diets. Most people are aware of several popular diet programs (Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, South Beach), and it’s difficult to avoid seeing food advertisements promoting calorie- and carb-free products. With all the positive publicity surrounding diets and the testimonials both in print and on television, it’s difficult to know which diet will actually be successful.

According to a recent UCLA study, the answer may be that none of the programs available result in long-term weight loss. For the study, researchers tracked a group of dieters over a long period to monitor the long-term results of dieting. The study found that dieters generally lost weight in the first five to six months, but gained back even more than what they lost within four to five years.

Carnegie Mellon’s dietician, Paula Martin, agreed with the study’s conclusion, adding that only a very small percentage of dieters are able to successfully maintain their post-diet weight loss. In addition, Martin criticized the popular belief that weight is the best indicator of health.

“Health comes in many sizes and a bigger concern is when we see college students that are already at healthy body weights trying to reduce [their] weight through unhealthy means,” Martin stated in an e-mail.

An April 3 article released by UCLA stated that dieting is, in fact, a predictor of future weight gain. Dieters, both male and female, gained more weight within a two-year period than non-dieters. Traci Mann, one of the authors of the study, reported in the article that dieting is not a cure for obesity, and that insurance companies should not consider the costs of dieting as a medical expense.

Without dieting, obese individuals can undergo significant health changes, according to a 2002 study published in the International Journal of Obesity. The study split participants into two groups, dieters and non-dieters, and followed their progress in the program. The end results were that the dieting group lost weight, which helped to eliminate some of the health risks they would have been suffering; although the non-diet group did not lose weight, they showed similar health improvements as well. Participants of the non-diet group reported feeling better about themselves, which is an indicator that both self-image and health can be improved without weight loss.

“The next questions to be answered in the great diet debate are not which types of diets work, but are people better off never having dieted at all,” Martin wrote. “Studies consistently show a positive association between frequent dieters having a higher Body Mass Index than non-dieters or those who have never dieted.”

She added, “College women who are intuitive eaters have less food preoccupation, reduced anxiety about body image, and healthier BMIs.”

The evidence that dieting is an unsuccessful method of losing weight presents a challenge to overweight people who want to get in shape. Without diets, other methods of weight loss must be considered, such as exercise and lifestyle changes. However, many argue that these are things everyone should do to maintain a healthy lifestyle, something more important than a number on a scale. For those truly interested in losing weight and keeping it off, Martin suggests an alternative to dieting.

“I use an intuitive eating approach to weight management by improving the quality of the diet, encouraging people to listen to their bodies, and nourishing without restricting,” Martin wrote. She also encourages students to pay more attention to portion sizes and to realize when they are being served too much.