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Why Diets Fail

Posted By Mark Sisson On October 24, 2013 @ 8:00 am In Diet | 141 Comments

Question 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 [7]. 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 [8] 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 [9] 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 [10] 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 [11] 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 [12] is its simplicity. No fuss, no frustration. The Blueprint [13] 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 [14] 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 [15], your holiday routines [16], your time management [17], your family life [18], your private recreation [19], your shopping sources [20], your kitchen library [21], 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?


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[2] Primal Blueprint 101: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/primal-blueprint-101/?utm_source=mda_wwsgd&utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=mda_wwsgd_pb_101

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[7] fell right back down the same hole again: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/diggin-a-hole-to-install-a-ladder-to-wash-the-basement-windows/

[8] found: http://www.jneurosci.org/content/30/48/16399.abstract

[9] demonstrated: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811912011408

[10] intriguing article in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/22/business/the-mental-strain-of-making-do-with-less.html

[11] suggests: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666309006205

[12] The Primal Blueprint: http://www.primalblueprint.com/products/The-Primal-Blueprint%3A-Updated-and-Expanded-%28Paperback-Edition%29.html

[13] The Blueprint: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/definitive-guide-primal-blueprint/

[14] 21-Day Transformation Challenge: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-primal-blueprint-21-day-challenge-infographic/

[15] your socialization: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/dunbars-number-group-size/#axzz2hJHfj6er

[16] your holiday routines: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/15-primal-ways-to-savor-the-holiday-season/

[17] your time management: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/13-ways-to-spend-less-time-online-and-reclaim-your-real-life/

[18] your family life: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/co-feeding-how-to-get-the-family-involved-with-food/#axzz2icDDHO00

[19] your private recreation: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-restorative-power-of-the-personal-retreat/#axzz2hwrzpIHT

[20] your shopping sources: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/primal-resource-guide/

[21] your kitchen library: http://www.primalblueprint.com/category/Books_and_Media

[22] Learn More: http://www.primalblueprint.com/get-certified?utm_source=mda_footer&utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=mda_footer_cert_text

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