Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
24 Oct

Why Diets Fail

Why Diets FailQuestion of the day: what does the term “dieting” conjure up for you? Anecdotes, laughs, regrets, frustration, anxiety? I bet there’s quite a collection of stories to be told. When I think of diets, I think it’s common to think deprivation – of calories, of real food, of satisfaction, of enjoyment, of peace of mind. And that’s how it generally goes in our culture, isn’t it? We diet, we end the diet, we go back on the diet because either it didn’t work the first time or it did but then we fell right back down the same hole again. So, we keep playing the same game of deprivation, white-knuckling it until we get to that glorious sham of an “endpoint,” what I would call the “and they lived happily ever after” conclusion delusion. From a maybe more humorous angle, I think of deprivation dieting as an extended version of the mental game, “don’t think of a elephant.” Gee, what’s the first and most predominant thing you’re going to think of? How much determination and energy is it going to take to not think of the elephant 40 times per day? How about just forgoing the game altogether? Just eat the elephant already.

On a more serious note, I think of the way we work ourselves into a love-hate relationship with food (and sometimes ourselves). We tell ourselves erroneously that food makes us fat, but the pull toward it has never been stronger and more loaded with psychological baggage. Food shouldn’t be the reason for our existence, but it should never be the enemy. From an ancestral point of view, the whole framework is insane. Dieting in the modern sense distorts our relationship with food as basic sustenance.

Incidentally, research shows it can also distort our physiology. A team at the University of Pennsylvania found that a restrictive short-term diet not only had higher levels of the stress hormone corticosterone but also showed lasting epigenetic changes in genes influential to stress regulation.

Likewise, dieting even changes our brain activity. A study at the Oregon Research Institute demonstrated that caloric deprivation increases the “reward value” of food as determined by activity in relevant regions of subjects’ brains in the presence of food images and the presentation of food itself.

On this note, I caught an intriguing article in The New York Times a few weeks ago. It offered the provocative premise (research based) that dieting makes us “dumber.” The article cites studies demonstrating the “mental strain” deprivation puts on our brains and the likelihood of failure we face as a result. Of most interesting note is the research on mental “bandwidth.” Dieters apparently do worse than non-dieters on all manner of basic cognitive tests – everything from spatial reasoning to information retention. Does this really surprise anyone?

The reasons behind this cognitive strain are multifold. Dieters are distracted – by the endless calculations, the various and sundry trade-offs, the obsessive regrets and gymnastic style justifications they contort their minds into throughout a day. It’s frankly exhausting just to read about. The author also connects the strain, however, to a larger “scarcity” force in our biology and brain activity. According to research, when we’re preoccupied with not having enough, we literally lose IQ points. From an evolutionary standpoint, that also isn’t surprising.

When we diet, we deliberately choose scarcity. Why? In the end, deprivation is a self-defeating behavior. It will always be self-defeating behavior. Sure, there may be that temporary grit-your-teeth triumph many of us have experienced in the pre-Primal pasts. The fact is, you can scramble, deprive and exhaust your way to a target weight, but chances are you’ll just roll right down the other side of that mountain once you’re there. The better choice is always investment as opposed to deprivation. A better, healthier lifestyle calls you to invest in yourself. It’s not a mental game of mathematical twister or complicated rule book. It’s a lifestyle you create over time.

Related to this concept, as the Times article explains, is other research that suggests the perceived complexity of one’s weight management approach determines the ability to adhere to the plan over time. The more rules and more complex those rules were, the less likely participants were to adhere to the eating program. In short, “cognitively challenging” doesn’t work when it comes to diet.

Ring true? I’ve heard from many people that one of the things they love most about The Primal Blueprint is its simplicity. No fuss, no frustration. The Blueprint is intended to be a straightforward map to healthy, ancestrally sensical eating and living. While we can get as elaborate and impressive as we want in terms of recipes, the nuts and bolts are clear. Plain sailing.

With time and experience, the Blueprint takes on richer nuance, variety and personalization, but that investment yields long-term, consistent benefit in ways a quick-fix will never even approach. In “dieting” you count down the days. In a lifestyle shift, you commit to a learning curve.

The fact is, the trajectory of genuine dietary and lifestyle change is gradual, but it definitely doesn’t have to be slow. Anyone who’s done the 21-Day Transformation Challenge knows you can make substantive change in a short amount of time and experience substantial results. The difference is, you gradually make it your own. When you do a short-term diet, it tends to revolve around restriction and regimen. Choosing a healthy lifestyle, on the other hand, revolves around adaptation and experimentation. You accept the new approach into your life. You allow the philosophy to become a long-term part of your socialization, your holiday routines, your time management, your family life, your private recreation, your shopping sources, your kitchen library, your life’s enjoyment. A good diet should ultimately be about living the good life. It’s a countercultural kind of message, however. The results, I think, are the difference between deprivation dieting and good Primal living.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. What’s your take on dieting? Does the research ring true to you? What’s been the difference between past dieting and Primal living?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I am with Mike W (and I will add that some food choices are banned unfairly, like legumes), but I will go even further – to lose weight on primal, food quantities are limited too. Fasting is a big part of both Paleo and Primal diet. Anyone who thinks that it is natural to hack it till lunch with black coffees kids him or herself.

    Paleo or Primal diet will be natural and result in a weight loss beyond shifting below the obesity line only for an individual who is not locked indoors all day, so can be distracted from the constant hunger and dissatisfaction ANY caloric restriction causes eventually or simply removed from a food source by kilometers of wilderness (sure, I can go for half a day without food too if I was hiking far enough).

    There is no, just no such thing as weight loss without the deficit, and there is no such thing as caloric deficit without hunger.

    leida wrote on October 25th, 2013
    • “There is no, just no such thing as weight loss without the deficit, and there is no such thing as caloric deficit without hunger.”

      Weight loss requires a deficit, but a deficit doesn’t require you to be hungry. Experiment with different nutrient balance. Most people find that adding more fats and reducing carbs makes them much more satisfied/satiated at a much lower calorie level.

      Over time your metabolism may down-regulate itself, so a “simple” calorie deficit is not a great long-term strategy. But whatever your approach, experiment with a bunch of different things before deciding on a life plan, and be prepared to change it up again from time to time.

      Greg C wrote on October 25th, 2013
    • I have to disagree here. Please don’t confuse Paleo or Primal with calorie restriction or specifically low carb. Fasting is not necessarily a big part of it. In general, it doesn’t work well for women, despite men seeming to be fine with it. So, if you’re really hungry why are you trying to go without food? It’s prefectly natural for some of us to not eat until early afternoon, passing up breakfast and morning tea without any desire to eat at all. But it’s not planned starvation; i just don’t feel like eating at all, and have to remember to eat mid afternoon. But if it doesn’t work for you, strop trying to force it. I guess I’ve had it easy though, and I’m sure lots of people will disagree with me … There is absolutely caloric deficit without hunger. you just need to find what works for you. If you’re in a constant mental state of feeling deprived by not being able to eat ‘tasty things’, you won’t suceed on any lifestyle change.

      Emily wrote on October 29th, 2013
  2. this statement is untrue:

    ‘There is no, just no such thing as weight loss without the deficit, and there is no such thing as caloric deficit without hunger’

    completely and utterly wrong.

    If you follow the PB principals you can go hours and hours without food and not feel hungry. You are probably cheating and thats why you feel hungry.

    Most people who practice PB and dont cheat can eat eggs and bacon for breakfast not be hungry until mid afternoon, eat a healthy supper of meat and vegetables, perhaps a glass of wine AND lose weight.

    As far as culture involving ‘cheat’ foods. What? not to be negative, but what kind of society are you living in? You cant live without pizza? I think that sounds like utter nonsense.

    Bronwyn wrote on October 25th, 2013
  3. first time commenter. a year ago i jumped on the paleo bandwagon. i will say i have seen improvements. improved skin, better digestion and better lipid numbers to name three of them. but, like many, i started down this path to lose fat so i look better naked. i am probably 90% compliant. I NEVER buy bad (non-whole) food at the grocery store and rarely eat BAD when out socially. Yet i still carry 20+ extra pounds of fat in my mid-torso. i am a male so i generally look like the other males around me in that my waist to hip ratio is obscene.

    but those other guys are eating junk. i’m eating vegetables smoothies! i don’t feel deprived or restricted. i just feel like paleo isn’t the answer for every body type.

    i reread what i typed and felt compelled to add that i still follow paleo rules even though it isn’t a complete success because i haven’t found anything better for me, which of course means i am still looking.

    john wrote on October 25th, 2013
  4. A couple of weeks into 80% primal I lost the cravings for crap food. Effortlessly. I just yesterday ate a few cookies that I used to overeat. Guess what? Meh! No great dopamine hit of pleasure. No more binges or desire to overeat.
    Just clean protein and veggies some small dairy…my brain stopped obsessing about food too.

    Katie wrote on October 25th, 2013
    • +1

      Bronwyn wrote on October 28th, 2013
  5. I don’t find this way of eating to be too terribly deprived. I used to think to be healthy I needed to eat brown rice, tofu and steamed vegetables. Now I can eat steak and eggs with the yolks and all the salmon I could ever want. It’s awesome. Is it a weight loss miracle? No, not for me. I’m okay with it because I’ve become and continue to become the best me I can be. Healthy, happy, strong and not hungry all the time.

    Diane wrote on October 26th, 2013
  6. I’m not reliably primal {sigh} but I’m working on it. It’s hard because I hate veg — since infancy, I have never eaten them. (I’m still trying to find some that I CAN eat without gagging… but that’s a whine for another blog entry…). However, when I started cutting out the grains, I used to look a bit wistfully at the folks who had immediate bad reactions to them. I thought: Must be nice to have a self-enforcing restriction! *I* always bragged about my ‘cast-iron’ stomach (and yes, in college, I could put away a medium sized pizza by myself {wince} and having spent some 30+ years living mostly on pasta and soy hotdogs, or pasta and (real) hamburger — always with apple cider — I entered my 50s at nearly 300 pounds). I felt it would be easier to not eat pasta (bread and sweets were never a siren song; just pasta!) “if only” I had a time-linked reaction. And mostly, it is.

    Well, now that I almost never have grains, when I do have grain (usually a bit of pizza crust) I get a reaction within an hour — but it’s not GI! My carpal tunnel comes roaring back within the hour and for the next day or so, my arthritis (hips and neck) are rise up painfully. It actually does help to have the ‘help’ in deciding not to eat grain! I know if I have this grain-whatever-thing, I will have a sore wrist (and, of course, it’s my left wrist and I’m left-handed!)

    So, now I have a time-linked reaction. Doe sit make it easier to skip the grains? Mostly, yes. (When I have pizza, I scrap the sauce and toppings off the crust, and have just a sliver of the ‘cooked’ outer edge of the crust. Yes, I pay for it in my wrist, but it’s a ‘party’ I allow myself to have once a month or so.

    Does anyone know of any vegetables that are umami? (But NOT mushrooms! {shudder}) Turns out that’s my fav taste…. I’m thinking maybe if I add MSG to some relatively innocuous-tasting veg, I might find it palatable (well, edible?)…

    Elenor wrote on October 26th, 2013
    • Nononono to the MSG!! Have you ever tried tamari (wheat-free soy sauce)?. Yes, it’s soy, but used in such small amounts its a far better choice than MSG.
      I too struggle w/ vegetables but several factors are at work—
      Raised on very limited veggie selections (canned green beans, carrots, canned spinach, occasional boiled cabbage (gak!!) and iceberg lettuce, so just about everything else has been a new taste for me.
      Possible hypertaster to both sour and bitter–much of any amount of a sour condiment completely overwhelms the other flavor of the food; bitter flavors are just not tolerable (and SO many veggies are bitter).
      I have dieted so much heavily on veggies that sometimes I just can’t stand the thought of any more.
      So, I am going to study up and try some new ones to get me out of my broccoli/carrots/green beans rut. Speaking of green beans, they tend to be mild-flavored so try some of those and branch out from there.
      Good luck

      shrimp4me wrote on November 2nd, 2013
  7. Nice post to get inspire anybody :) Apart this you may have dropped a dress size but gained an extra kilo. Tracking your progress with a blog will help you reach your fitness goals.

    Jenny wrote on October 27th, 2013
  8. I tried to diet many many times before already, and I failed every time. LOL.
    Since I am 35, working out would only bring down my weight to certain level and I still wouldn’t give up the food that I love to eat like Ramen… That is my main problem.

    Tony wrote on October 28th, 2013

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