From cottage cheese to cabbage soup, it’s pretty common knowledge that fad diets were built to fail. Can any diets actually keep off the pounds, though?
No, according to a new book from diet expert and psychologist Traci Mann, who runs a lab at the University of Minnesota on the topic.
Throughout her career and inside her fascinating work, Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, Mann hammers home time and again that any sort of restrictive eating eventually leads to a boomerang effect—and potentially even more pounds.
The anti-dieting guru talks with First We Feast about her studies, the worst diet she’s ever encountered, and why having similar eating habits is important for relationships.
What’s your background?
For about 20 years I’ve been studying the self-control of eating and all the things that make people lose control of their eating. In all this, I study why diets don’t work. There’s no “why diets work” side of it.
What sparked your interest in the topic?
Partially, I watched my parents going on these ridiculous diets and losing weight and regaining it. It always looked crazy and unpleasant for me, so that maybe sparked it for me when I was a kid.
What really sparked it for me, though, was in grad school when they test you on all kinds of things and I was convinced I needed to learn about obesity. It turned out I didn’t, but every single thing I read [on obesity] just blew my mind and was the exact opposite of what I had always thought was true. For example, one of the first things I read is that obese people don’t consume more calories per day than thin people. I read that and was like, “Are you kidding me? I’ve been told all they do is eat!” I got really interested in it once I realized nothing was like I’d been told. It was shocking.
Photo: The Great Fitness Experiment
What’s been the reaction when you tell people things like that?
People are shocked like I was, and they’re also initially resistant. If I can get them to read things I’ve written, they come to understand. If I have a little time to talk to them I can convince them. Most of what’s out there right now isn’t really scientific at all. Instead, most of what’s out there right now comes in the form of people trying to sell us diets and food.
If you had to pick the worst diet, which one would it be?
People ask me about the specific diets, and the answer is that it doesn’t really matter. On any diet, you can lose weight in the short term. The problem is that it’s going to come back no matter what diet it was. It doesn’t mater if it’s crazy or not, even crazy diets lead to this short term weight loss. It just doesn’t stick. In about a year, people can lose about 10% of their starting weight on any diet out there. The “cabbage soup diet” sounds ridiculous, but you can lose 10% that way. I feel like my mom was on some sort of ice cream-focused diet one time and lost weight that way. Everything on earth has been a diet.
I did read a few years ago about some doctor who is sewing a sharp thing on to people’s tongues so it made it difficult for them to shut their mouth and eat. That is messed up.
After people gain the weight back, do they gain more weight?
Most things I’ve read don’t really say, because most articles are trying to indicate that specific diets are effective. For those that talked about it, though, we found that about one-third to two-thirds gained back the weight the lost and then some. The other stat that addresses this is that within three years of starting a diet, people on average have regained all but two pounds.
Are diets linked to disordered eating like anorexia and bulimia?
I’m not an expert on eating disorders, but people talk a lot about how dieting can lead to anorexia, for example. That’s a weird kind of statement to make. There is some research that says dieting can lead to binge eating, and I talk about this a lot in the book. This feeling of deprivation, of starvation, it leads to all kinds of biological changes that make you obsess about food more. All these things that make people more likely to want to eat.
Does dieting have a real impact on mood and interpersonal relationships?
When people are on strict diets, the main thing that happens is that they can’t stop thinking about food. It’s serious preoccupation. It can get in the way of other things you might want to think about or focus on. It can cause problems that way.
I don’t have any research that shows what happens in relationships, per se, but this preoccupation is real and can get in the way of memory and problem solving. It can get in the way of things that require full focus.
If you’re cranky from not eating or you’re out to dinner and your husband is eating and you can’t, that strains a relationship and has to suck.
I know some women who have husbands who don’t like dessert, and that’s really unpleasant for the women because it’s no fun to eat dessert alone. I guess both sides aren’t fun. My husband and I are always up for sharing dessert. It’s definitely something you should look into before committing. It’s a major quality of life thing.