Maybe you’ve been trying to lose the same 10 pounds for a long time, finding no long term weight loss success. Sound familiar?
Martha McCully, a 30-something Internet consultant, is a self-confessed recovered dieter. "I've been there and back," she says. "I tried about 15 different diets in the same number of years -- Weight Watchers, the Diet Workshop, the Cambridge Diet, nutritional plans from dietitians -- always trying to lose the same 10-15 pounds."
Some worked spectacularly and she found weight loss success -- for a while. "Sometimes I'd lose 20 pounds and feel great," McCully says. "But when I strayed and regained the weight, the low would be equally extreme."
In the throes of her diet-mania, McCully was a prime example of one of the most compelling mysteries of dieting: the question of what keeps people trying to lose weight, diet after diet, in the face of near-consistent failure.
Remaining on the diet cycle without long term weight loss success defies the most basic behavioral principles – yet, it happens.
Psychologists have pointed out that the persistence of dieting defies the most basic of all behavioral principles: the rule that actions that do not bring a positive result are eventually abandoned.
It's the old positive/negative-reinforcement thing: How many times does a child burn her hand on the stovetop before she learns not to touch it?
How many times does a dieter have to fail before she learns that dieting (a period of severe calorie deprivation, followed by inevitable bingeing, then more deprivation) doesn't work?
[header = Motivation for weight loss: diets give us false hope for weight loss success.]
Motivation for Weight Loss
Diets give us false hope for weight loss success.
Researchers are moving closer to the answer. University of Toronto psychologist C. Peter Herman, Ph.D., and his research partner Janet Polivy, Ph.D., describe a phenomenon they call the False Hope Syndrome.
It outlines the typical course of a diet roller coaster:
- the resolution for self-improvement / motivation for weight loss
- initial weight loss success (pounds lost)
- ultimate failure
- eventually a renewed commitment / motivation for weight loss (i.e., a new diet)
The positive reinforcement for dieting, Herman and Polivy have found, is not in the result but in two key elements of the process: the decision to diet and the initial weight loss success.
"Every diet works for a little while," says Herman, "and the dieter goes into a honeymoon phase where weight loss is easy and rapid, and she feels euphoric. But we've found that the good feelings start even sooner. Simply making the commitment to go on a diet produces positive sensations. They feel thinner already just planning it, and they feel a sense of empowerment, that they're taking charge. They're full of hope."
One Shape reader shares her previous weight loss success stories.
Cathy Cavender, 43, who has intermittently battled 25 extra pounds over the last 20 years, describes the process from experience. "Each time, you're super hopeful," she says. "You think, this time I'll really do it. You immediately project ahead and start thinking, I'll lose 2 pounds the first week, 2 pounds the next, and in a month I'll have lost 8 pounds!"
McCully recalls the expectations with which she began each new regimen: "Every time, this diet was going to be the one that was going to change my life. Being able to wear those size-6 stretchy pants was going to somehow make me more loved, more accepted."
What happens when you experience temporary weight loss success?
Psychologically, Herman says, "the poisonous element is that the first weight loss success is such a powerful reinforcement. It's crucial for maintaining the false hope that dieting will eventually work." And, of course, anecdotally dieting offers room for ambiguity: Some people do succeed at losing weight and keeping it off. So chronic dieters convince themselves that the next time will be the charm for them too.
Then it stops working, as most rigid, proscriptive weight-loss diets do. "The interesting question here," says Herman, "is what happens when people fail." Most, he says, blame themselves or the diet, both factors that can presumably be manipulated next time, rather than accepting the reality that rapid, easy weight loss is a myth. So they look for the next miracle diet. Or they flagellate themselves for not being strong enough, and eventually recommit to self-deprivation, starting the process all over again.
[header = Diet motivation for your healthy weight loss success. Is this diet different?]
Diet Motivation: Is this Diet Different?
"But this diet is different..." Will this diet finally lead to healthy weight loss success?
Self-blame is inherent in this process, says Karin Kratina, M.A., R.D., a consultant at the Renfrew Center of South Florida who specializes in eating disorders and body image. But what women need to realize, Kratina says, is that it's many times "the diet and fashion industries that make us feel that we're not OK unless we're thin."
So while the hapless dieter does a number on herself ("I didn't try hard enough," "I picked the wrong diet"), the world at large is reinforcing those assumptions. "The level of desperation about weight loss is so high that people suspend good judgment, logic and insight despite information that diets don't work," says David Garner, director of the River Centre Clinic Eating Disorders Program in Sylvania, Ohio, and professor of psychology at Bowling Green University. "The prejudice against large people in our society is striking, and it's a powerful incentive to try to change."
Questions to ask yourself about healthy weight loss success:
Herman hopes that more women start asking themselves, "How am I going to spend the rest of my life? Am I going to keep beating my head against this wall, trying to become something I'm not?"
It ends up working, not coincidentally, a lot like the old daters' adage, which holds that the minute you stop looking for a good romance is the minute it enters your life. When you stop searching for the "right" crash diet, you find the right way to eat for life, for a healthy weight, for pleasure and for fun.
6 traits that promote healthy weight loss success:
- Allowing "forbidden" foods
- Doing it for yourself, not for others in your life
- Eating a low-fat diet
- Addressing and dealing with any relapses or weight regain immediately
- Exercising regularly
- Regarding these changes as a lifelong strategy (the most important trait)