“If Diets Worked, We’d All Be Thin!”

Posted on January 4, 2021


From Sandra Aamodt’s TED talk, “Why Dieting Doesn’t Usually Work

In the US, 80% of girls have been on a diet by the time they’re 10 years old. In this honest, raw talk, neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt uses her personal story to frame an important lesson about how our brains manage our bodies, as she explores the science behind why dieting not only doesn’t work, but is likely to do more harm than good. She suggests ideas for how to live a less diet-obsessed life.

Let’s face it: If diets worked, we’d all be thin already. Why do we keep doing the same thing and expecting different results? Diets may seem harmless, but they actually do a lot of collateral damage. At worst, they ruin lives: Weight obsession leads to eating disorders, especially in young kids. In the U.S., we have 80 percent of 10-year-old girls say they’ve been on a diet. Our daughters have learned to measure their worth by the wrong scale. Even at its best, dieting is a waste of time and energy. It takes willpower which you could be using to help your kids with their homework or to finish that important work project, and because willpower is limited, any strategy that relies on its consistent application is pretty much guaranteed to eventually fail you when your attention moves on to something else. 

Several people I know are putting themselves through the hell known as “dieting.” My heart goes out to them; I know how I’ve struggled with weight gain, ever since I had my first child in 1983. In one year, I went from top fitness to topping the scale, with 50 pounds of weight that came and went with the dieting/work-outs I alternately maintained during good times and abandoned when the shit hit the fan.

In August, 2018, I wrote, “I do NOT diet. I’ve never seen a diet work. It may help a person lose weight, but we all know that if one isn’t eating in a way that can be sustained over a lifetime, the weight will be regained. Even without dieting, I’ve gained and lost the same 30 pounds ever since I had my first child at 19. I know how to lose weight, and I know how I regain it. I know there’s no magic diet.

When summer came this year, I was ready to get serious about losing weight and exercising. I approached the task with a researcher’s mindset. What are my eating patterns? When do I make the best and worst choices? How can I increase my activity?

When I looked at my eating patterns and thought about ways to cut down on sugar, I thought that an easy way to limit my food intake would be to simply limit the time I allow myself to eat. We all know that we shouldn’t eat before bed, so I decided to make 7 pm my cut-off mark. I made a rule for myself: No eating after 7 p.m.

Then I decided to stop eating breakfast upon waking–to find out when I actually FEEL hungry in the morning. I discovered that I can comfortably wait until 11 or 12 to eat. That leaves me a 7-8 hour window to eat–and a lot less time to make bad choices. Since I’ve based this schedule out of mindfulness of my own body’s patterns, I do not feel like I’m depriving myself. In fact, one surprising discovery is that I do NOT feel hungry in the morning. I have ZERO cravings, AND I have a lot of energy. I can walk, bike, or garden vigorously for 2-3 hours without difficulty, and if I want to study or write, my mind is clear. I have to admit, these discoveries were surprising. I believed that I needed breakfast to be productive, but it turns out that I don’t….( from”Mindful Eating“)

As 2021 begins, I have maintained my weight loss; I eat what I want, when I want; I wear the smallest jeans I own from my thin times; I exercise 30 minutes-2 hours per day; and I feel good. With the holidays and personal tragedy last month, I ate some cookies and other sweets, but when they had become an extra 5 pounds, I returned to a sugar-free diet, extended my fast until 1-2 p.m. for a few days, and 3 of those pounds are already gone. I’m fifteen pounds heavier than I was as an 18-year-old varsity high school athlete, and I’m happy with my body: I have a good level of strength, endurance, and flexibility.

If you are trying yet another diet, and hitting the wall, I suggest you try a more mindful, intuitive approach. Get yourself a notebook and investigate your own eating habits, food choices, reasons for eating. Ask yourself all about your foodways, and evaluate behaviors for their usefulness toward maintaining a healthy weight and healthy relationship with food–for your lifetime–not just from now until you lose the weight. Develop plans in advance to fighting cravings. Decide how much weight you’d like to lose, and set realistic goals, like losing 1-3 pounds per week.

Regarding exercise: again, you must look at your own interests, ability, time, and desire to do an activity. If you’re only doing it to lose weight, forget about it. Create a list of indoor and outdoor activities not that you CAN do, but that you WILL do, and choose one that’s right for each day. The physical activity I do most is walking: in the neighborhood, in the woods, or, in the case of a couple of days last week, in the basement, with a Walk At Home video, because we’d had an ice storm, and I didn’t want to risk a fall. I bicycle, garden, hula hoop, and dance, too. I’ve tried joining gyms or signing up for classes, but my reality is that I want to move when I want to move, so my gym memberships and class fees were a waste of money, because I’d end up not wanting to go. Those are not sustainable activities for me. I like to be outside too much; I like to be free.

But that’s how I found out what works for me. I knew I had to lose at least 40 pounds and increase my fitness level. Armed with a clean notebook and knowledge about the brain, about sugar, and about myself, I lost the weight I wanted to lose, and I’ve been able to maintain a healthy weight and feel good for 2.5 years now.

For 2021, I’ve turned over a new leaf. Now that I’ve maintained a healthy weight for a significant period, I’m leaving my old wellness notebook . I’ve started a new notebook, because I know that I’ve put my unhealthy and self-defeating food habits behind me for good.

In my new notebook, I’ve written the Lovingkindness meditation inside the front cover, created a Table of Contents, labeled 12 pages for recording daily exercise and weight for each month, written my 2021 wellness plan, my 2021 wellness goals (including one crucial one: get COVID vaccine!), and my 2021 health concerns. I decorated the covers with images and words I cut from magazines that inspire me: “recipe for success,” “New Year. New Plan,” and “Dream. Grow. Thrive.” I will use this notebook to hold myself accountable, like I did with the last one. I’ll continue to enjoy eating foods I love, maintaining a healthy weight AND getting regular exercise–and refusing all diets. AND (if you want to) YOU CAN, TOO.

Be well, friends. Thanks for reading.

Related Posts

Mindful Eating Pt. 2

Mindful Eating Pt. 3: Six-Months Later

Mindful Eating #4: One Year Later

Mindful Eating Day Tool Kit – The Center for Mindful Eating

8 steps to mindful eating from Harvard Health

Slow Food, Good Food, NO DIETS

Don’t Cave to Cravings

Citizen Eater

lisa eddy is a writer and editor for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy

On email: lisagay.eddy1@gmail.com