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The Problem with Dieting

Diets don't work. What works are changes in lifestyle.

About two-thirds of American adults are trying to control their weight, but at the same time, they claim they are not "on a diet." It's more than just a matter of semantics. Americans' dislike of the word "diet" reflects the country's habitually negative, restrictive approach to food. But, as evidenced by the survey answers, the tide is turning.

Registered dietitians, the authorities on nutrition, see the move away from strict dieting as encouraging. Kathleen Zelman, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA) explains: "Diets don't work. What works are changes in lifestyle."

Americans, it seems, are beginning to drop the idea of a diet as a temporary change in eating habits in order to shed pounds, and are moving toward developing lifelong nutritional strategies that focus on better health.

What's wrong with dieting?

Weight-loss diets that focus only on calorie restriction usually backfire. That's because following a low-calorie diet sends a message to your body to conserve energy by burning calories more slowly. "Your body thinks it's in a semi-starvation state, so it goes into a low gear," explains Zelman. "It doesn't want to use up all the gas so it compromises itself."

Other types of diets outlaw one or more food groups, which can cause nutritional deficiencies and throw your body out of whack. These diets don't work for long because, as anyone who's ever tried to stick to an all-fruit program knows, they start — quite naturally — to crave other foods, and eventually abandon the diet.

"You've got to look at the bottom line," says Zelman. "What are the long-term success rates?" Many of these diets, she explains, are designed to produce fast results, but those results don't last. "Dietitians see clients after they've been on these diets and couldn't stand them for whatever reason — they were eating too much meat and getting nauseous, or they lost some weight on a low-calorie diet and then reached a plateau. They've usually gained back the weight and then some, and find themselves back at square one."

Look at eating in a whole new way

To get off the weight-loss roller coaster and to avoid jumping from diet to diet, you need look at the big picture, says Ronda Gates, a health-promotion educator. She's the author of The Scale Companion: How to Find Your Ideal Weight, and co-author of Smart Eating: Choosing Wisely, Living Lean. Short-term weight-loss strategies (in other words, diets) she says, will set you up for failure; long-term strategies will help you achieve permanent success. Gates points out differences to consider.

Short-term weight-loss management strategies tend to:

  • Focus on what you can't eat and ban certain foods
  • Dictate a specific, rigid way of eating
  • Promise immediate results
  • Allow no room for lapses or cravings
  • Put the spotlight on food and eating
Long-term weight-management strategies are more likely to:

  • Focus on what you can eat
  • Prescribe eating strategies based on good nutrition
  • Promise gradual success
  • Allow room for occasional treats
  • Encourage healthy variety in your diet
  • Emphasize exercise and good habits as weight-control tools

Simple lessons from successful losers

When it comes to weight loss, the members of the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) may be good role models. The ongoing NWCR study includes 2,000 men and women to date, who have each lost at least 30 pounds and maintained that weight loss for at least one year. The study offers two very powerful lessons.

  • Take the focus off food. Nearly every member (89%) lost weight by changing both their eating and exercise habits.
  • Don't hesitate to ask for help. Slightly more than half (55%) of members used a formal weight-loss program (such as Weight Watchers).
Gates, who has had her own struggles with weight, suggests that instead of learning how to lose pounds, people should learn how to prevent weight gain in the first place. Zelman offers additional common sense advice. "When people go on diets, they think about cutting back," she says. "Instead, think about what you can add to your diet — more fruits, more vegetables, more whole grains."

Regarding these simple approaches, the Federal Trade Commission's Partnership for Healthy Weight Management says, they "may not produce headlines — but they can reduce waistlines."

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