Diata, not Diets: Cognitive and Physiological Failures of Dieting

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Diaita, or diet, in Ancient Greek, was defined as “a way of life.” By today's standards, “diet” is a hotly contested concept in both medical and consumer spheres. In fact, today's definition of “diet” is radically opposed to that of its original. Dieting makes a change in one's way of life. It suggests that a dieter's life trajectory thus far has been unhealthy or has made them unhappy. Yet dieting has seen its own contradiction come to light: in studies from the past fifty years, the medical field has concluded that dieting, in its ideological and physiological sense is seriously detrimental to health and does not produce desirable results in a majority of cases.

Most dieters find that the weight lost from a diet is not sustainable, usually resulting in more weight being gained after the diet has ended, as demonstrated in a 1995 study of eighteen subjects, men and women, conducted by Rudolph L. Leibel, Michael Rosenbaum, and Jules Hirsch. Many studies following the work by Liebel, Rosenbaum, and Hirsh have reached similar conclusions. Sawer and Wadden (1999) have shown that most people who lose weight by altering their lifestyle end up putting that weight back on over several years. The reasons for this are not just biological, but psychological as well.

Many studies conducted within recent years underline the detrimental effects of dieting and even indicate that dieting does not make a statistically significant claim to weight loss any more than a non-dieter (Sawer & Wadden, 1999). Although the percentage of obese Americans is close to thirty percent in adults, rates continue to rise (Kit, Ogden and Flegal, 2014) despite the efforts of the multi-billion dollar diet industry and the work of medical professionals, suggesting that losing weight is much harder to do than it seems. Lowe (1995) and Lowe, Whitlow and Bellowar (1991) asked the question “Are you currently dieting to lose weight?” in a study on calorie-restricting diets conducted with freshman college students, directing the results to include a synthesis of psychological determinants as well as physiological observations. Subjects who scored above the median on the Restraint Scale showed divergent patterns of eating regulation than those who were eating restrictively but not with the intent to lose weight. The study ultimately concludes that calorie-restricting diets are counterproductive over the long term. Pietilainen, Saarni, Kapiro, and Rissanen (2011) reason that “restrictive dieting may lead to preoccupation with food and trigger overeating.” Furthermore, the “suppression of metabolic rate and loss of lean mass by negative energy balance may facilitate post-dieting weight rebound.” Both of these reactions are psychological and physiological in nature and support the so-called “obesity paradox” which contradicts the causality between dieting and weight gain.

Far from being an entirely conscious matter, the desire to eat, and how much, and of what is regulated by the brain. Energy expenditure is also part of the brain's system in parsing the relationship between intake and output. The preoccupation with food after its restriction was first exhibited in the Minnesota Starvation Study of 1945 in which 36 normal-weight men were given with only half of their caloric requirements for six months. This semi-starvation led the men to become severely preoccupied with food (Keys, 1950). Not only does the dieter show a propensity towards desiring more food, but they may also subject themselves to unhealthy habits in order to achieve a lower caloric intake.

In a 5-year follow-up study of dieting adolescents, Neumark-Sztainer, et al., (2006) found harmful behavioral habits develop out of dieting. For example, less physical activity was seen due to feelings of lower energy, fewer fruits and vegetables were consumed, and breakfasts were often skipped, all moving the dieters towards weight gain, and not weight loss. Changes in diet produce mirrored changes in physiology as the body attempts to regain balance. Metabolic rates slow when met with reduced calorie consumption in order to conserve energy. Eating less does not equate to losing weight.

People who are dieting have already established unhealthy habits, and habits are notoriously difficult to break because responses are grooved deeply into neural impulses so that what it habitual is routine, and doesn't require much thought. Typically, post-dieters will eat “automatically ('for no reason') but also for pleasure or control of tension (Pietilainen, Saarni, Kapiro, Rissanen, 2011). A previously established habit of repetitive eating will only make dieting harder, which, as the aforementioned study has shown, can lead to binging or punctuated starvation—a fact that sustains the “weight loss-regain cycle.” The behavioral mechanisms underlying binge eating is in the realm of cognitive study, not physiology. Dieting straddles two disciplines, and in order to bring about long-lasting solutions for “dieters,” these disciplines need to intersect.

Many of the cognitive issues for dieting would be solved if a return to the etymological root of “diet” took hold of the population's mass consciousness. To change one's lifestyle, not simply to undergo a restrictive, psychologically incompatible diet, would mean a rethinking of terms. Diet's wouldn't be something that one had to undergo for a period of time in order to produce a result. If the radical shift came from an underlying framework of the terms of the world, then the actions required for the exercise and healthful intake wouldn't cause psychological conflict. Indeed, most of the studies call for more attention spent on prevention, rather than fixing the philological and psychological problems inherent in dieting ( Pietilainen, Saarni, Kapiro, Rissanen, 2011; Neumark-Sztainer, et al., (2006); Libel, Rosenbaum, Hirsch, 1995). The underlying conflict certainly arises from the diet industry, which espouses quick results with minimal focus on building a solid psychological framework that can support long-lasting change.

Health care institutions are increasingly advocating prevention methods, and dieting is one of the largest contenders to undergo a public-wide image over-haul. Persuasive technologies have provided strongly supported evidence in favor of reworking the dietary framework as a more successful dieting method (Chatterjee, Price, 2009). An effort must be made to subvert the components that prompt obesity, but just as important is the effort made to denounce the popular definition of the “diet,” in favor of a more flexible, individualized program that can simply become a way of life.


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