A psychological examination of weight loss: Only one out of three dieting types is successful
Get a bikini body in four weeks! Finally losing weight with the new veggie diet! Lose excess weight and keep it off! Spring is coming and media are luring their consumers once again with supposedly new methods for aesthetic corrections that said consumers seem to deem necessary. Announcing a diet has become almost ritual-like: transforming the nutrition regime more or less profoundly has become such an integral part of everyday life that somewhere along the way most of us have stopped questioning the psychological mechanisms behind it. But a study conducted by market research institute concept m (Cologne/Berlin) has shown that it is worthwhile taking a closer look at the motivation behind dieting, as they provide us with surprising insights.
The study concludes that the weight loss people are striving for is in most cases only the superficial layer of what really moves them. Infantile food supply experiences decisively determine the way we relate to “being full” and “feeling hungry”. Deep down, we hope for our body to self-regulate our eating behaviour; which would spare us the thought about consequences each time we give in to our cravings.
The cycle of hunger and food intake seems natural. This idealised image of a self-regulating organism however is confronted with numerous disruptive factors in modern life to which people react – concerning nutrition this may mean they consciously choose a healthy or unhealthy diet, they take dietary supplements or eat luxury food, or vary the amount of food they consume. Our language is rich in terms and expressions that hint at the connection between disruptions and diet: we talk about “emotional eating”, “comfort food”, something makes us “sick to the stomach”, we “cry over spilt milk”, or “grow a thick skin”.
If our life comes apart at the seams, this can soon also apply to our favourite pair of jeans. This visible result – a couple of pounds too many – is at the same time the first (and easiest) problem to tackle in order to get back to the idealised original state. Every decision to lose weight without medical indication is preceded by the realisation that an idealised physical balance has been disturbed and that the healthy balance needs to be restored.
The question of how sustainable a change of diet will be and whether the pursued goal can be attained in the long run ultimately depends on the inner attitude of the person trying to lose weight regarding the underlying problems. The study has identified three different dieting types. Only one of them leads to long-term success. In most cases, dieting is only cosmetics for the soul.
Type 1: The diet itself is the (temporary) life change
Many people who voluntarily decide to go on a diet think the new nutrition regime itself is the life transformation they are striving for. What is typical for this group is that they often just stick to the changes to their diet for a brief period before they fall back into old patterns. They often establish their own set of rules (e.g. “tuna diet”) which they cannot only amend but also give up completely anytime.
They start new diets over and over again – and keep up the status quo marked by repeatedly oscillating between an “unhealthy” and a “healthy” mode. This life of yo-yo effects can become an end in itself and even provide stability through the constant change of states. The underlying problems however remain untouched; the dieters do not go through the (potentially) exhausting process of exploring the reasons that caused the weight gain in the first place.
Type 2: The diet triggers life change
Those who regard abstention only as the first step of a general make-over of their habits have higher chances of sustainable weight loss. For Type-2 dieters, a change in nutrition often comes along with a new lifestyle (like veganism). Their new diet symbolises this transformation and entails far-reaching change.
For them, being overweight “triggers” an adjustment to their nutritional behaviour which is in turn intended to facilitate more profound life changes. The change to their diet emblematises their new way of life and they often use any opportunity to communicate it to their environment: “How do you know someone is a vegan?” – “Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”
The physical progress that soon becomes visible boosts their motivation. At the same time, setbacks can bring the entire make-over process to a standstill.
Type 3: The focus is on life change, the diet is just one part of it
The feeling of great humiliation in particular – physical limitations, devastating social feedback – makes people realise that changing their diet alone will not do the trick but that they instead have to reorganise their whole life. In these cases, the new diet is only part of the general new life orientation; or is just an automatic by-product of an altered daily routine in a new relationship, of engaging in new leisure time activities or starting a new job. The same effects can sometimes be observed when people remain in the same environment but shift their focus onto the new topics. Radical changes in the social environment however are more characteristic.
If someone regards their diet only as a symptom of a general aberration and wants to tackle the roots of their problems, they are most likely to be successful regarding long-term weight loss because the holistic reorientation safely embeds the nutritional changes into a cultural context.
What all dieters have in common is their desire to regain control over their bodies. Where mind and body were perceived as diverging forces before, they are now striving for healthy unity. It is essential that the whole process does not take place without putting in hard work. Effortless “miracle diets” are rather seen as “self-deception”. A fundamental life change only seems “deserved” after struggle and toil.
The diet they choose tells a lot about how people perceive themselves: if someone chooses simply to eat less (restricting calories), they confidently trust themselves to regulate their own lifestyle. Opting for dieting products however helps those who need a “coach” for their weight loss project. The genre of magazine diets on the other hand is marked by a relatively low degree of seriousness, glossed over with ritual repetitions.
Overall, time limitations are a crucial factor helping people to accepting diets. A periodic change of habits is easier on the ego than turning one’s entire life upside down – but also significantly reduces the chance of success. Due to their unforeseeable character, goal weights alone are generally less convenient than diets that have a fixed timeframe (“14-days fat loss plan”).
Throughout the diet, it is important for people to remember that they are actively breaking their routines, for example by counting calories, sticking to a meal plan and to fixed meal times (ideally splitting meals into many small ones).
Another typical process that precedes the start of a diet is the accumulated experience of psychological strain, built up over a longer period, until the distress becomes so severe that it can no longer be ignored. At first, however, people have a strong tendency to deny their excessive eating habits and the resulting overweight. The joy of indulgence (that definitely exists) can also be a contributing factor for why people put diets off; in the end, turning to food is a counter-reaction to stress and has a positive connotation because it lifts the mood.
The moment when everything changes, when people finally admit that they cannot go on like this, usually comes after they have been hit by a bitter realisation – if they see themselves in another light looking at recent pictures, or, very trivial, if they no longer fit into their favourite clothes. Typical triggers are also painful experiences of humiliation when friends or family make negative remarks, when physical shortcomings can no longer be concealed or if their weight keeps them from taking part in their preferred (social) events, causing the feeling of a major loss.
This moment of realization, the moment of truth, does not always inevitably lead to a diet. The change can also happen by adjusting to the new circumstances. Overweight people can define their own standards (“fat is beautiful”), change their wardrobe (and therefore their style) or “grow a thick skin”. But when does the suffering become too much? Potential or actual loss is a very effective trigger to begin a diet. Areas where people may experience a potential or actual loss can be relationships, work, or leisure time activities.
When it comes to accepting a diet, the images people can build up about their future looks (after the weight loss) play a decisive role. Weight goals are just temporary – real motivation lies in the images people have of themselves, the fantasies about being beautiful and slim, or the old motives reminding them of the original state they want to return to (however, these images can produce an ambivalent effect because this state is no longer attainable under different life circumstances). In case of a general lack of positive imagery, negative examples (“Not like that!”) can serve as a substitute.