Saturday, May 23, 2015

The meta pushback against dieting is all wrong

I'm seeing more and more versions of this argument against dieting: because dieting in the traditional sense of "I'm going on a diet" is restrictive, it's essentially unsustainable. Adding to the high likelihood of failure is the risk of rebound bingeing, which often leaves failed dieters worse off overall. Because of these inherent qualities, people looking to slim down shouldn't 'go on a diet' per se, but instead should strive to 'change' their diet permanently.

That's the strong version of the argument, anyways. Clearly it's a bit tautological (every diet is permanent--until it's not). But there's a weaker version, espoused frequently by Julia Belluz at Vox. According to this theory, because the science of diet and nutrition is so poor and misunderstood, and the risks of failed diets so great, the best weight-loss rule is a meta one: follow whatever diet you can stick to in a sustainable way. This approach feels similar to the strong version of anti-diet weight-loss advice, but for most people, it actually implies the opposite.

Ignoring the strong possibility that some diet strategies are simply more sustainable than others, this logic is correct. But the relaxed anti-diet vibe only works if you actually find a diet that's easy to stick to. If every diet is incredibly unsustainable, then the relaxed 'do what works for you' theory quickly switches into a call for extremism and obsessiveness in dieting strategy. After all, you can't lose weight if you don't change your behavior in some fashion.

Instead of meeting a dieting failure with less extremism and a more casual attitude, perhaps--for a large majority of overweight people--the answer is to double-down and embrace an obsessive commitment to behavioral change. Unfortunately, however, the current structural incentives and behavioral cues (such as health articles telling you to relax and not diet) discourage struggling dieters from amping-up their engagement.

Without better science or policy reforms, weight loss effectiveness for individuals hinges on personal choices and the social environment that influences them. On these grounds I'd like to see a drastic increase in the positive social support made available to folks who are obsessively committed to a dieting or weight-loss strategy.

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