The Psychology Behind Why Fad Diets Fail

June 8, 2021

Countless studies have demonstrated that dieting takes a toll on our mental health and our relationship with food. Researchers have known this for decades. One revealing study, first published in 1988 in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology, found that just two weeks of calorie-restricted dieting led participants to adopt negative feelings about eating. This same result has been replicated time and time again. There is a simple reason that restrictive dieting leads to negative thoughts.

When you ask someone not to think of a cheeseburger, thoughts of melty cheese on a juicy patty sandwiched between two warm buns will inevitably start swimming around in their mind. I bet you are thinking about a cheeseburger right now too. This is exactly what happened to participants in the study (who were all of “normal weight,” by the way). When asked to restrict their calorie intake, subjects became preoccupied with thoughts about food, unable to think about much else. They also felt intense urges to eat more frequently. In short, dieting actually caused participants to feel more out of control of their eating.

The false promise of fad diets.

Fad diets are carefully marketed to you, the consumer, just like any other product. All fad diets claim to be fast and effective. This is an excellent sales pitch, because everyone prefers instant gratification rather than waiting for results. And it is usually true, fad diets often work well for a little while, but only as long as you can maintain them.

But beyond just fast and effective results, every fad diet relies on a simple yet false promise: the dieter will finally have control. Yet the clinical research shows that the opposite is much more accurate. The reason fad diets work quickly is because they require the dieter to make extreme restrictions, often by cutting out one food group entirely. This restriction mentality is equally as unsustainable as it is harmful. The participants in the 1988 clinical study felt out of control and preoccupied by thoughts of food after only two weeks of restrictive dieting.

The damaging restrictive mentality of fad diets is what causes them to fail. Restrictive dieting leads to constant thoughts about food, which only makes it more difficult to follow the “rules.” When the rules inevitably become too difficult to follow, dieters feel as if they themselves have failed. This sense of failure causes guilt, anxiety, and feeling out of control. Therefore, when the next fad diet comes along, we are desperate to regain control and ready to get hurt all over again. Fad dieting is a brutal cycle, but we aren’t the ones failing, the diets fail us.

Break free from the fad diet cycle.

Stop dieting and make small incremental healthy changes to your habits instead. Try to make one healthy change each week. Swap soda for water. Incorporate one fresh vegetable into dinner each day. Choose more nutritional snacks. It might take longer to see physical results, but these changes will be easier to maintain over time and eventually become part of your healthy lifestyle. Instead of adopting a negative restricting mentality, think of the changes you make as positive steps toward a healthier you.

Find more on forming healthy habits to accomplish your long term goals, here.

For guidance on healthy eating, check out Healbright’s Healthy Eating content from Dr. Cheri King on Zeamo Live.

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