'Fat isn't the source of our unhappiness'

The average dieter makes four or five attempts each year.

The average dieter makes four or five attempts each year. Photo: Getty

"The definition of insanity" said Albert Einstein, "is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results".

At least that's what the internet told me. So it must be true. I reckon Einstein hit upon this slice of wisdom when he was on the rebound from another disastrous yo-yo diet.

If he were alive today, perhaps Einstein could explain why seemingly sane and rational people continue to diet, despite overwhelming evidence — and years of personal experiences — that shows that diets don't lead to long-term weight loss and in many cases actually cause weight gain.

For the record, when I say "diet" I'm not taking about healthy eating. I'm referring specifically to calorie-restrictive, hunger-inducing deprivation. In other words, "diet" in the sense that most people use the word.

And I know that your great aunt or the guy from work lost weight and managed to keep it off. But these people are the exceptions who prove the rule. And yes, some people, probably most, can go on a diet and shed some kilos. But typically this weight loss is temporary.

If people could lose weight and keep it off long-term then the diet industry wouldn't be worth $60 billion a year. Weight Watchers alone has annual revenue of $1.75 billion, and one of its former managers has even admitted how unsuccessful the company is at helping people maintain their weight loss.

If diets worked, there wouldn't even be a diet industry — people would just do it once and be done with it. Instead, the average dieter makes four or five attempts each year.

Why, then, do we continue to believe that the equation: dieting = weight loss is a Universal Truth, as certain and undisputed as the law of gravity?

One reason is because no matter how frustrating and soul-destroying dieting can be, it gives us hope. Dieting is hard, but it's not nearly as hard as accepting ourselves, and our lives, as we are.

We're fooled into believing that weight loss is a path to redemption, love and happiness. And there is something intoxicating in the belief that we are just one diet away from changing our bodies, and therefore our lives.

An extreme example of this way of thinking can be found in Jaycee Dugard's memoir A Stolen Life.

Jaycee Dugard was 11 when she was kidnapped and imprisoned in the backyard of convicted sex offender Phillip Garrido for 18 years. During that time she bore him two children.

After the birth of the second child Jaycee wrote in her diary, "Sometimes all I can think about is the way I look. I feel ugly because I'm fat and my face is so awful, full of pimples ... It makes me depressed the way I look now ... I hate feeling down. I want to be happy."

That's astounding. Why would a woman who has been tied up in a backyard for most of her life, and just given birth to a child she unwillingly conceived with her captor, care about her appearance?

Who cares about losing your baby weight when you have lost your freedom, your family and your innocence? You'd think she'd have bigger problems to worry about than the rolls of fat on her stomach.

Of course she did have bigger problems. But they were so horrific as to be almost inconceivable. They would also appear to be unsolvable. About the only thing you'd think you could control is your body — including the amount of fat on your body.

You can see how Jaycee Dugard would have loved to believe in the fantasy that one day, when she lost a few kilos and had clear skin, her horrendous life would be better.

It's an extreme and horrific case. Few women have endured the life she led and survived. But, in this respect at least, her story is that of everywoman: when we can't control our external environment, we turn inwards and focus our frustration, fears and anger on ourselves.

We cling to the fantasy of dieting redemption, despite all evidence to the contrary, because if we believe that our biggest problem in life is our weight, then we also can believe that once we lose our weight our problems will be solved.

The problem with this way of thinking — other than the fact that it doesn't work — is that while we are focusing on our bodies we are distracted from what is really upsetting us.

We may not be tied up in a backyard and deprived of our freedom, but many of us are tied up with other things that make us unhappy. But you don't have to be Einstein to work out that we can't solve the real problems in our life if we misdiagnose the cause. It is insane to persist with the delusion that the source of our unhappiness is our fat and that cutting out a food group or drinking diet shakes is the answer.

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of four books; 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child. www.kaseyedwards.com

35 comments

  • "Diets don't fail, people fail."

    A diet is a bad idea, because it promotes the idea that lifestyle changes can be temporary. In order to lose weight and keep it off, a person needs to start to eat healthy in the right amounts, and continue to do so. This is where people fail - not the diets.

    We should only use the word "diet" for what a person actually eats. The weight loss method should be rebranded a diet overhaul, or a dietary review. I don't really care, just so long as people acknowledge that done correctly and with exercise, a diet overhaul WILL make a person lose weight.

    Commenter
    Andrew
    Date and time
    April 24, 2013, 9:00AM
    • I think you've missed the point of the article. Everyone knows that you can lose heaps of weight on a diet - the article said so. Keeping it off is the struggle. And if you've never been in the situation, you'll never know how much of a struggle it is.

      Saying that people fail (ie people who regain lost weight are failures) is just another way of giving overweight people more reasons to feel bad about themselves. I know a lot of people who've given up smoking (I am one of them), often after a few attempts. These people are successes. However the same people have also not managed to maintain weight loss. Instead of branding people as failures, which is what you've essentially done, it would be more helpful all round if critics were mindful of the difficulty of keeping the weight off.

      Commenter
      jools
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 24, 2013, 9:33AM
    • @ jools, actually he's on the money.

      3 years ago I was 100 kg. I changed my diet, ate less, patricianly less cheep calories - fried foods, banana bread with my morning coffee etc. And I picked up my exercise - Two extra classes a week in the gym. Not a big change.

      I'm now 81 kg, and have a six pack which at 42 is pretty good I think. My wife, brother and sister in law have all similarly lost 20 to 30% of their bodyweight and are all much healthier for it.

      We didn't 'died' we changed out diet, sustainably forever. If you want to keep it off it takes self disciplin but you have to change your relationship to food. No starving involved - just a bit of strength of character in not having the creme brulee

      Commenter
      Steve
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 24, 2013, 2:29PM
    • Jools, I'm not saying they're failures - they have failed at a particular goal. Nothing wrong with that - but you try again, instead of saying "diets don't work, therefore I'm not going to bother."
      Same thing as taking a few attempts to quit smoking. Of course it's a struggle, food is an addiction for a lot of people. I'm not trying to diminish that, I'm trying to diminish the myth that all diets are bad. There's no such thing as a diet if you do it properly - it's a lifestyle change.

      Steve - well done. The more people like you that stand up and tell your story, the healthier dieters can become. No more Atkins bullsh*t, just healthy living, exercise and a damn good attitude.

      Commenter
      Andrew
      Date and time
      April 24, 2013, 3:24PM
    • Congratulations, Steve. Unfortunately that doesn't change the fact that, out of 100 people who start a diet, 98 will give up or regain the weight they lost. Maintaining weight loss over five years is virtually unheard of.

      That's OK, though because you are one of the very rare successes. Everyone else, according to Andrew, is a failure.

      Commenter
      jools
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 24, 2013, 3:32PM
    • Congratulations Steve! @jools, I don't think Andrew was saying people are failures, however your sentence certainly appeared to be saying don't try, you will fail anyway: "Unfortunately that doesn't change the fact that, out of 100 people who start a diet, 98 will give up or regain the weight they lost. Maintaining weight loss over five years is virtually unheard of." The approach of not "dieting" as such, however opting for a healthy lifestyle and reaping commensurate long-term benefits is far preferable. Choosing sustainable, slower methods over speed and fads is much better for both the body and I am guessing the mind.

      Commenter
      Sam
      Date and time
      April 25, 2013, 8:03AM
  • They have been adding human growth hormones into the human diet for nearly three decades,right after they made Twiggy the role model.Those hormones cause men to increse in height and skeletal size, but cause females to incresae in weight .Hence a simple diet of vegetables ,fresh fruits and simple basic grains and grasses does work.Course then they think they can treat themselves,you know get seduced into the whole modern thinking programme ,and bang,back the weight comes.They get depressed and revert to childhood bottle sucking comfort techniques , and pile it back on.And that causes their unhappiness, their lack of understanding , and their apparent failures to exert self control for a desired outcome.So they become self destructive, its just like alcoholics or drug addicts or any addiction really,even exercise , to sex.It all stems from childhood,the oral maldevelopment or anal or phallic.

    Commenter
    Lane
    Date and time
    April 24, 2013, 9:42AM
    • If your theory was right, we would ALL be huge, tall & overweight. Look around, it is not the case. Sounds like you're making excuses for yourself.

      I'm in my 40's, have been eating a healthy, omnivorous diet, with average activity and have not varied much from 52ks since my 20's. Many of my friends & acquaintances are the same.

      I think is some cases the yo-yoing weight is emotional/psychological, maybe see a counsellor? In the end it is a matter of education, self-discipline & self knowledge.

      Commenter
      feb-mar
      Date and time
      April 24, 2013, 10:41AM
    • @ferb-mar, not to mention that if this were all true, then adult men wouldn't have anywhere near the percentage falling into the overweight or obese categories that women do, when in fact they have more.

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      April 24, 2013, 11:15AM
    • Never been a sucker for Freudian theories... I think they are complete garbage

      Commenter
      no sigmund
      Date and time
      April 24, 2013, 11:48AM

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