Study shows why diets fail

Dr. David's advice to people on diets is to enjoy the food that they are eating to decrease the urge of wanting foods, such as cake. Photo credit: Jessica Hubble

A popular New Year’s resolution is to start eating healthier, but chances are you’re starting your diet all wrong and won’t succeed, according to a study done by Baylor and Vanderbilt researchers.

“We are unintentionally setting ourselves up for failure when we tell ourselves we have to cut back on cake and cookies,” said Dr. Meredith David, assistant professor of marketing at Baylor. “This is the natural tendency of the majority of people who set dieting goals for themselves.”

David said that telling yourself you can’t eat cake actually makes you want cake and that shifting the mindset of what you’re thinking about can make all the difference. This is the main finding of the study done by David and Dr. Kelly Haws, associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University, titled, “Saying ‘No’ to Cake or ‘Yes’ to Kale: Approach and Avoidance Strategies in Pursuit of Health Goals,” published in the journal Psychology and Marketing.

The study took a year to conduct and was completed and published in August 2016. David said the global obesity epidemic sparked the idea, and only U.S. participants were studied. David also said she was interested in “the effectiveness of different types of dieting strategies.”

“We found that news and the TV and internet has lists of the healthiest foods you should eat and foods you should never eat,” David said. “After seeing so many of these, we decided to investigate the effectiveness of telling ourselves to eat what’s healthy and avoid what’s unhealthy.”

David also said that marketing plays off of consumer psychology by getting into the minds of the consumers. All marketing is trying to figure out why do consumers do what they do and how can they be influenced to make healthier decisions. David said this study looked at consumer well-being which fall into the domain of marketing.

“I just set a goal and stick to it,” Spicewood sophomore, Rachel Ormsby said. “I realize that I have to have the will to say no, and I don’t have to eat anything I don’t want to. Also, know that you can will yourself to not binge on sweets or fast food. If it’s not in your pantry, you won’t eat it.”

According to the study, the focus was to find what is most effective when trying to lose weight.

“If I could give one piece of advice, I would say the next time you try to go on a diet, focus on eating what you enjoy because you’ll find that soon you’ll no longer want the chocolate cake,” David said.

Haws said that focusing one’s thoughts on foods that are healthy and appetizing should create a more sustainable dietary pattern, based on this study. Focusing on healthy and enjoyable foods sets a person up for more success rather than focusing on the treats that can’t be eaten.

“I find it most interesting that people who struggle to have good self-control tend to naturally set themselves on a more difficult path,” Haws wrote in an email to the Lariat. “They do so by focusing too much attention on having to give up the pleasures of life that could provide motivation to keep going if consumed in moderation, while also focusing on less appealing healthy options that they should eat.”

Courtney De La Rosa, registered dietitian with Baylor Dining Services, encourages anyone looking to adopt or maintain healthier lifestyle habits to seek the advice of a dietitian so personal needs can be met. This allows for tailored and individualized guidance.

“I believe (and teach) that a healthy lifestyle and diet are maintained through balance and moderation,” De La Rosa wrote in an email to the Lariat. “I help my clients understand what a balanced diet looks like and how they can apply such concepts in their personal lives. I also encourage the legalizing of all foods: any food can fit into a healthy, balanced diet, as long as moderation is kept in mind.”

David said that across three studies, they found that focusing on cutting out desserts is an unmotivating strategy. The study found that people who are overweight and struggle with diets are those who naturally tend to tell themselves to avoid healthy foods. The studies found that thinking about healthy foods that people like eating means that motivating oneself to eat heathier and exercise is easier.

“If people have set New Year’s resolutions and have not been successful, they should stop and look at this research here which says that, chances are, that you said you would cut out unhealthy things you love. That’s probably why you were unsuccessful,” David said. “That’s not the proper way. You should shift your focus rather than restricting yourself.”