TED talk of the month: Why Dieting Doesn't Work - Indianapolis Fitness And Sports Training
Diet and Nutrition

TED talk of the month: Why Dieting Doesn’t Work

written by Jae Chung


I hate diets. Hate hate hate hate hate them. Why?

Because, simply put, dieting sucks.

  • Dieting often makes people hungry, tired, cranky.
  • It often relies on willpower, which is a bad idea since we live in a food-abundant environment (cheap processed foods, drive-throughs, instant meals that don’t require you to hunt, forage, and cook for 8 hours).
  • Dieting often makes people lose weight — by losing too much muscle mass and not enough fat.
  • Dieting is something that people often do because they are unhappy with their bodies, or worse, ashamed of themselves.
  • And last but not least, dieting simply doesn’t work for most people. As Dr. Aamodt explains in this TED talk, 95% of people gain back all the weight they’ve lost within 5 years of dieting. And 40% of people gain it all back plus some. (I’ve seen these statistics tossed around before, and I’m a little wary of them. Statistics have a funny way of being wrong 87% of the time. But even if these particular statistics are not quite accurate, I think they capture an important idea, which is that many people end up heavier or back at their old weight within a few years of trying a diet.)

Now, a lot of people are going to chime in and say “weight loss is simple. Eat less and move more.” Or “it all comes down to calories. Eat less than you burn, and there you go.” (Or my personal favorite, “my aunt’s boyfriend’s cousin’s dogsitter’s ex-twin lost 327 pounds on the Cookie Diet!”)

But Dr. Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist, explains why this is not as simple as it seems. For example, if you’ve been dieting for a while and you’ve lost a bunch of weight, then your brain might adjust your metabolism downward. In other words, assuming a slim person burns 2,000 calories per day, you might burn just 1,600 calories, even if you are the same size, weight, age, and exercise the same amount.

How are you supposed to “eat less than you burn” when your basal metabolism is so low? It’s very, very hard.

So if dieting doesn’t work, what does?

Well, Dr. Aamodt doesn’t have a magic solution for you for fat loss — she notes that if we knew the answer, everybody would be slim.

But she does suggest “mindful eating.” This means learning to pay attention to your body’s signals, eating when you’re hungry, and stopping when you’re full.

By itself, this probably won’t make you lose weight, she says, unless you eat a lot of food when you’re not hungry. But it will make you healthier, and will it will help you to stop dieting — remember, dieting is really unhealthy, and usually doesn’t even work.

Two comments

1. I really liked this TED talk, but I think the real gem was buried about 5m30s into the talk. Dr. Aamodt offhandedly says something like, “Changing the food environment is [probably] going to be the most effective solution to obesity.”

She’s talking about how willpower is unreliable for dieters, because willpower is limited. If you come home after a hard day at work, and your fridge is empty, it’s a lot harder to buy groceries and cook a fresh meal than it is to pick up the phone and order pizza.

My translation of this offhand comment: it’s much easier to eat well if you don’t have anything unhealthy in the house. No junk food, no instant noodles, nothing. Relying on your willpower to not eat that tub of ice cream in your fridge is like asking an adolescent boy not to gawk at the ladies at a Playboy mansion party. It’s possible, but not likely to succeed for the vast majority of people.

I strongly advocate eating as much real food as possible, avoiding most processed food products, and perhaps most important of all, ONLY keep healthy foods in your house. Your waistline will thank you for your brain’s pre-planning skills, even if your taste buds scream at you that they really want that gallon-sized jar of Nutella RIGHT NOW.

2. I know some people are going to watch the TED talk or read this blog post and think “whatever, I lost 50 pounds by counting my calories and exercising. This fancy neuroscientist lady doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Everybody is different. You are a special snowflake. You may be able to eat Twinkies and count your calories and get to 4% body fat and pose in Vogue on 24 hours’ notice. That doesn’t mean it will work for everybody else.

What Dr. Aamodt is highlighting is an experience that is true for a large number of people: dieting is a frustrating experience that often turns out badly. It is true that some people lose weight easily; this talk isn’t for those people. Okay?

Bonus TED talk

While we’re on the subject of weight loss, I mentioned above that a lot of people feel ashamed of their bodies. Here is one of my favorite TED talks of all time: Brené Brown talks about shame. Let me know if you love it as much as I do!

Jae Chung

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