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Why diets fail, and how weight control works

The latest obesity statistics tell us that more than 64 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. It's also still true that 90 percent of dieting attempts fail.

Yet the United States produces more diets and diet products than any other country, an industry that makes billions of dollars each year.

Add it all up and there's only one conclusion: This does not compute.

It's obvious that Americans are unhappy about their weight and are trying hard to do something about it. So why do so few succeed?

As a clinical psychologist, I've spent more than 30 years looking for answers to that question. In the 1970s, I did research on the treatment of obesity. Later, I treated cases of eating disorders at the University of South Florida and in private practice.

Through the years, I treated many courageous people. There were anorexic patients, some of whom felt compelled to exercise frantically at least five hours a day. There were the bulimic patients who consumed countless laxatives per day to control their weight. And there were compulsive overeaters who secretively binged on thousands of calories every night.

These patients recovered from their eating disorders because they were courageous enough to put their recovery before anything else. They also taught me a great deal about my future path.


As time went by, I saw that, just like my patients, society in general was developing a growing preoccupation with food and weight. And yet, the obesity epidemic just got worse.

I had learned from my own patients that the more preoccupied they were with food and weight, the more out of control their weight and eating became.

Now I was seeing an entire culture with the same symptoms that my patients had. I wondered whether the same concepts that helped the individuals I saw might work for more people.

Why are diets that are marketed to Americans not working? Why aren't people able to follow diets? Why is most of the money spent on diets from repeat customers?

My focus on these questions led to a book about why diets don't work, the psychological barriers to weight management, and why weight has nothing to do with willpower and everything to do with how the brain works.

Better consumers

Although the statistics on dieting success are dismal, there is hope. In the same way that Americans have taken it upon themselves to become better consumers of such things as baby car seats, automobiles and long-distance phone plans, it's time to get smarter about diets. When that happens, ineffective products will disappear and people will get the help they deserve.

How many people would go on a diet if they knew they would actually regain more weight than they'd lose? But that's exactly what happens with typical diets.

What do these ineffective diets have in common?

• They are rigid, stipulating black and white rules on what we can and can't eat.

• They eliminate some foods completely (usually our favorite foods).

• They give unrealistic expectations (such as suggesting one will achieve a perfect body).

• They don't put enough focus on exercise.

• They cannot be followed for a lifetime.

Two keys to success

What people are really looking for is a way to lose weight and keep it off forever. The typical diet only adds to America's weight problem by creating more preoccupation with food and, consequently, less control of eating.

I have seen that people who have lost weight and kept it off for years have two things in common:

• They focus on a flexible, nutritious way of eating they can follow for a lifetime.

• They have incorporated regular exercise into their lives.

The key is to treat diets and diet products with the same care you would any major decision in your life. Don't buy into the fantasy; learn the facts from people who are successful at managing their weight.

Becoming a better consumer about dieting information could be your biggest asset in controlling your weight.

Next time in Personal Best: The fun factor — How having fun can lead to weight loss.

first in a series

This is the first of a series of articles on the psychology of dieting by Lavinia Rodriguez, Ph.D., a Tampa clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management. She can be reached at (813) 240-9557 or [email protected] Her book Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management is available online at

Why diets fail, and how weight control works 03/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 3:30am]
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