Popular Diets Don’t Work in the Long Term

The US weight loss market is booming at $60+ billion a year. But, even though Americans seem pretty willing to open their wallets to pay for the latest supplement, diet book, of gym membership deal, the question is always: “is it effective?” Empty-plate-diet-pic

That was the question researchers asked in a recent study, which analyzed existing randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of four popular weight loss diets: Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, and the Zone diet. Short-term weight loss is common on many diets, though studies on this tend to last only about a year. Efficacy beyond the one-year mark is still a major question mark, as individuals often slowly regain weight over time.

Researchers studied 26 existing RCTs of how Atkins, South Beach, Zone and Weight Watchers fair in promoting weight loss and improving cardiovascular risk factors over at least a 4-week period in adults. They were also particularly interested in what happens after 12 months on one of the four diets. (Another popular diet, the Ornish diet, was considered for the study, but later excluded because of its classification as Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation.)

Here’s what they found:

  • Atkins, Weight Watchers and Zone all achieved similar short-term weight loss results.
  • Two long-term head-to-head RCTs showed no marked differences among Atkins, Weight Watchers, and Zone at improving cardiovascular risk factor levels.
  • Much of the weight loss seen in the first 6 months, was regained over time regardless of which of the four diets a person was on.
  • At the 12 month mark, dieters achieved similar weight loss to non-dieters. Researchers found the trend to be particularly prominent with the Atkins diet.

So, what’s the take away?

“Diet” isn’t like a light switch. It’s not something you turn on sometimes and off others. One short bout of “dieting” isn’t going to make up for the previous 15 years of eating junk food, drinking soda and not exercising. Your diet is apart of your lifestyle. It shouldn’t be a burden or a chore. It should just be the foods you choose to habitually eat.

Many people would probably call my own diet restrictive, or that I’m obsessive about it (like my insistence of having a salad on a daily basis). But, I’ve found particular foods and food combinations that work for me, that make me feel good, that optimize my athletic performance, and are healthy. I’ve developed habits around when, where and how I prepare them. So for me, eating the foods I eat now are more about executing a habit rather then consciously thinking about calories, portion sizes, etc, etc. And, most importantly, it’s these habits that are the keys to any sustainable diet or nutrition protocol. Will is a finite resource, and when we’ve hit the decision-making wall, habits help automate things.

Long-term adherence to any diet (whether one filled with junk food or a healthier alternative) is all about how we consciously or unconsciously create feedback loops within our daily lives that reward and reenforce our own desires for the food included in said diet.


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