CHAPTER 2: WHY MOST DIETS FAIL FOR MOST PEOPLE MOST OF THE TIME

  • Hunger has very little to do with how much we eat.
  • Diets make us even more obsessed with food.
  • When you’re feeling deprived, it’s impossible to eat enough.
  • Dieting is another word for unhappy eating.

Diets work because your body needs a certain amount of energy to function. If it isn’t getting enough from food, it will start to burn fat. When there’s no fat left, it will burn muscle. These are scientific facts. People who don’t get enough to eat are never overweight as we can see from horrifying pictures of people in a famine-stricken country or victims of a concentration camp.

On this basis, dieting is the perfect way to lose weight. You don’t even have to worry about feeling hungry as just about any diet you find will guarantee that you won’t. And that’s probably right. Follow most ‘sensible’ diets to the letter and you should only start to feel hungry when it’s time to eat again.

So, given that dieting works and you don’t feel hungry on most diets, why aren’t we all slim, healthy and happy? Unfortunately, there are a few aspects to losing weight that ordinary diets simply don’t address.

1. We don’t eat too much because we’re hungry

When you’re trying not to eat, it’s only natural to dread feeling hungry. However, unless you’ve put yourself on an extreme ‘lose 10 kilos in 5 days’ kind of regime, hunger is unlikely to be a real problem.

  • If you’re wondering why you don’t find this particularly reassuring, try asking yourself these questions.When was the last time you ate chocolate or ice cream (or, for that matter, a fifth slice of pizza) because you were hungry?
  • When have you ever eaten so much dinner that you couldn’t eat your favourite dessert?
  • When have you ever had a healthy afternoon snack that obliterated your 4pm sugar craving?
  • When did you ever finish off a packet of chocolate biscuits because you were hungry?

If you’re like me and answer ‘never’ to all of these questions, it obviously isn’t hunger that’s coming between you and losing weight.

In the developed world, hunger has very little to do with how much we eat. In fact, a major problem for many of us is that we don’t recognise hunger. We’re so afraid of it that we never allow ourselves to become hungry at all.

2. Diets don’t take account of why you overeat

If it isn’t hunger, what keeps making us want to eat? Once the need for basic energy has been taken care of, you probably find you’re eating because you feel:

  • bored
  • miserable
  • depressed
  • anxious
  • lonely
  • inadequate
  • guilty
  • unappreciated
  • unattractive
  • frustrated
  • helpless
  • etc. etc. etc.

3. A diet makes you think about food for your entire waking day

One of the most profound differences I’ve found between being a happy eater and an unhappy eater is that, now, I go for quite long periods of time without thinking about food at all.

If this is what happy eaters do, dieting could have been specifically designed to thwart your every attempt to eat normally.

Does this day sound familiar?

You wake up starving, consult your diet sheet and make yourself a small bowl of diet cereal with skim milk, or a small slice of toast scraped with artificially-sweetened fruit spread. You’re not really satisfied, but your diet says you’re not allowed to eat again until 11am.

Whatever else you’re supposed to be doing, you have one eye on the clock, willing the hands to move faster. At last, it’s time to eat. You rip the paper off your diet snack bar and struggle to eat it slowly as instructed. It doesn’t seem to touch the sides. At 11.10am you’re back to watching the clock till lunch at 1.00pm.

Lunch is a little better – a tuna salad sandwich without dressing. You don’t exactly feel hungry afterwards, but you really feel like something else. In fact, you’re tempted to eat your 3pm snack now – but you don’t. Instead, you watch the clock until the pre-ordained time, eat a tub of low-fat cottage cheese with fruit even though you hate it, because it’s protein and it will stop you from feeling hungry till dinner.

At last it’s time for dinner – the meal you’ve been waiting for all day. You grill your chicken breast fillet, prepare the salad, dress it with lemon juice and herbs, eat it in a flash and follow it with an apple.  

It’s 7pm and that’s it for the day. You now have around 4 hours to think about food, wonder if you’re going to eat anything else, toy with the idea of just a cracker, worry about whether you’ll be too hungry to sleep…and so on.

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of diet nutritionally – but it’s succeeded in making food the focus of your day. This is not a good way to eat less of it.

4. Diets toy with your emotions

We have seen that overeating has little to do with hunger but a lot to do with our emotions. It clearly isn’t going to help matters if dieting throws a few more negative ones into the mix.

Has something like this ever happened to you?

Someone you love goes away for a while and you’re missing him so much you’re literally counting the hours till he (or she, of course) gets back. When he finally arrives home he’s tired, possibly jetlagged and just not in the mood to listen to your news, or even discuss his trip.

You feel disappointed and angry. Within minutes of his return, you find yourself snapping at him. In no time, the snapping escalates into a huge fight. He storms off to bed, and you feel lonelier than you ever did while he was away.

Unlikely as it sounds, the diet dinner you finish by 7pm has a lot in common with that returning loved one.

Both set up a similar pattern of over-anticipation followed by inevitable disappointment. That’s because neither your loved one nor your dinner can possibly do as much as you want them to.

When I was firmly established at the extreme edge of unhappy eating, I would commit myself to immense and immediate change with monotonous regularity.

This behaviour was often associated with some perceived new beginning. New Year, obviously, but also birthdays, moving to a new flat, even the start of a new month. I would promise myself that, from that moment:

  • I would never eat ‘bad’ foods again
  • I would never drink alcohol again.
  • I would never binge again.
  • I would stop smoking.
  • I would be just like the girls I saw all the time who had the willpower not to overeat and who, as a result, were slim and happy.

I always started out incredibly motivated. I may even have kept my pledge, at least for a couple of hours. Then, inevitably, I’d find myself with a cigarette in one hand, a gin and tonic in the other, a pile of empty chocolate wrappers hidden in the bin and feeling worse than ever. This was, of course, because I had once again reinforced my belief that I didn’t have the willpower to be the person I wanted to be.

I would have been better off doing nothing. At least I wouldn’t have been repeatedly proving to myself that I was a failure, and totally out of control.

In fact, in both cases, what you want is pretty much the same – to feel satisfied and nurtured and content. But both have become invested with too much emotion. You’ve waited too long and you want too much.

When you’ve been focusing on dinner all day knowing that, when it’s over, all you have to look forward to is the long wait until breakfast, it can be hard to enjoy your meal.

Because there’s a limit on what and how much you can eat, you end the meal feeling anxious and deprived rather than satisfied and content. And anxious and deprived are exactly the sorts of emotions that lead to breaking a diet, overeating and even bingeing.

Unfortunately, as far as that diet is concerned, things aren’t likely to get any better the next day.  Your loved one may be a bit more receptive to your needs after a good sleep, but your dinner isn’t going to be.

5. Diets set you up for failure

A typical pattern for someone determined to lose weight might be:

  • find a diet – any diet
  • promise yourself you’ll stick to it until you reach your target weight
  • buy some new clothes that are the size you want to be
  • follow the diet for a few weeks, a few days or even a few hours
  • eat something ‘bad’
  • feel anything from angry and disappointed with yourself to helpless, weak, worthless and out of control
  • catch sight of those new clothes mocking you from the wardrobe
  • feel there’s no point in trying, and so miserable that you eat to console yourself
  • find you’re heavier than before you started the diet.

Statistics show that the majority of women who diet regain any weight they lose, and many of them actually gain a little more.

That means many women who diet repeatedly actually grow heavier over time. Demanding so much of yourself that you are repeatedly doomed to fail is another powerful way of feeding the negative emotions associated with overeating.

6. Diets drive a wedge between you and happy eating

The happy eater maintains a weight she’s comfortable with, and that is realistic for her, without feeling deprived. She enjoys eating. Food is her friend.

The unhappy eater can be fat or thin but either way, she believes she is facing a lifetime of struggling to stay in control. Even if she has achieved the weight she wants to be, she can never relax. She must be constantly vigilant, using every scrap of willpower to stop herself from overeating again. She rarely enjoys anything she eats. Food is her enemy.

If you’re an unhappy eater, dieting is a sure-fire way to make yourself feel even worse. This is because the more you use willpower to control what you eat, the more different you become from a happy eater.

The following table spells out why, when you’re on a diet, you’re just about as far from being a happy eater as it’s possible to be. Which is why dieting (including any so-called ‘maintenance diet’) and unhappy eating are one and the same thing.

A happy eater Someone on a diet
Goes for long periods of time without thinking about food. Worries constantly about food.
Has no fear of hunger. She probably feels hungry several times each day and sees it as a cue for the pleasurable experience of eating. Is terrified of being hungry. And why shouldn’t she be when most diets promise she won’t feel hungry, reinforcing the idea that hunger is an enemy to be avoided.
Eats food she enjoys when she’s hungry and stops when she’s had enough. Has lost touch with what she really enjoys. She eats what she’s told in the quantities specified, with little reference to her own appetite or tastes.
A happy eater Someone on a diet
Sometimes puts off eating even when she’s hungry because she’s too busy, or enjoying what she’s doing too much to want to stop. Never misses a meal or snack. Daily allowances, and that promise that she would never feel hungry, encourage her to eat before she really needs or wants to.
Sometimes has a sandwich or a can of soup for dinner. Feels she should eat a ‘proper’ meal every night. Diets often suggest that every meal should be ‘balanced’ and carefully-prepared.
Eats a wide range of regular foods. Searches out ‘lite’, ‘low kilojoule’, ‘low calorie’ and special ‘diet’ foods.
Is often spontaneous about when and what she eats. Tries to stick to a plan or regime. Diets are all about knowing exactly what you’re going to eat and exactly when you’re going to eat it.
Sometimes eats while watching TV, reading a book or even walking down the street without feeling guilty. Feels incredibly guilty if she’s not eating at a table set with china and glassware because, if she’s not eating ‘properly’ she must be eating badly.
A happy eater Someone on a diet
Sometimes she’ll really go to town with food she loves. It’s no big deal to overeat occasionally. As soon as she eats ‘too much’ of anything she feels guilty, weak and out of control. This could be the start of a binge, or a longer period of overeating, which makes her feel even worse.
Food is a pleasurable part of her life, just one more thing to enjoy. Food totally dominates her life. Appetite is something to fight and control.


Click here to read what Associate Professor Tim Crowe says in his foreword.



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