Why Diets Fail -- And What It Takes To Succeed


There are two diet types, whatever foods they restrict or specifically call for: responsible diets, which aim to be healthy while you're on them and to help you in the long run -- and irresponsible diets, which seek only to reduce your calories now in any conceivable way, regardless of what it will cost you later. But whether responsible or irresponsible, all diets want you to lose weight, most of it fat. Yet what does that actually mean, practically speaking? If there is a line between eating just too much and eating just under enough so that your body burns fat, how do you ever know where that line is -- for you? Is it that diets fail, or that dieters fail to be disciplined, or is it instead that it's simply too hard to guess what 'too much' for you actually is?

To answer the question literally, it's not diets that 'fail' in their objective, it's the humans that fail: they not only have to eat, but they want certain tastes and can't help liking those particular tastes. Sour cream 'n onion potato chips? I'll eat a small bag and feel it wasn't quite enough. Treacle tart with fresh clotted cream? I'll have a large slice, please, with a nice big pot of tea. We have these tastes because Nature made us to have them. So not only do we have to eat, as all creatures do, but we have to have the taste sensitivities that omnivores in a food-scarcity situation should ideally have. Except that we are not living in food scarcity. We are not even living in the 1970s and 1980s supermarket era, when orange juice came as sweet crystals in a can, and ice cream came in a box labelled 'Neapolitan'. Swanson's TV dinners couldn't be microwaved, in the beginning at least, and they had more in common with airplane food of the time than I really like to remember. There was no such thing as pre-washed salads in a bag, and you couldn't buy whole ready-made meals of exotic and interesting cuisines. No wonder that, by and large, we were thinner in those days.

Appetite is nearly everything. You lose your appetite: you lose weight. You fail to satisfy your appetite: you lose weight. Of course, you are likely to lose some muscle along with the fat, which hurts you subsequently in two ways: 1) muscle is the first and most efficient repository for any calories you've just taken in -- otherwise they'll be shuffling off to your fat cells; and 2) fat begets fat, so that when you lose muscle you have created a more fat-friendly environment in your own body. So, given the importance of appetite and the need to control it, why don't we? 

I think the answer is that something within us actually prevents us from eating just to satiety, never mind stopping before we're really satisfied. If you live in Dire Straits and you don't know when your meal will be, what makes more sense: to eat just until you are full right then, or to pack yourself up with nutrients that the body is free to use later if it must? Exactly. If I have just left a sinking ship and am now on a deserted island, am I going to eat just half the sour cream 'n onion chip bag because I have my waistline to think of? Darn right: I'm going to eat that whole darn bag, whether I really need the calories that moment or not. The fact that there is another island with a Trader Joe's and a Fresh Market and a Waitrose on it, just a short canoe-trip away, is of no interest to my panicky body. It wants what it wants and it wants it now, whatever my rational mind might say. My rational mind has been operating on this level, within the species, for many thousands of years. But the mind that is governing my physical appetite has been operating on the same level pretty much since creature life came into existence.

This may all seem very obvious and indeed, regurgitative (if you'll pardon the association). But this is the nub for any dieter: you have to find the point -- the line, really -- between what you need to survive and thrive and what you want because your primitive cautious greedy food-mind demands it. You have to find the point where your inner Cookie Monster leaves off and your inner Kate Middleton begins. You have to ascertain, as ballet dancers do every day in the dancing season, exactly how much is enough to function -- and what beyond that is gravy. If you are eating the Gravy Beyond, you will find it hard to lose weight. And this is why losing weight is always so hard: we are most of us in love with the gravy.