Being on a diet has little effect on how many calories you actually consume, a new research study in the journal Appetite suggests. The researchers assessed the food attitudes of 1,113 people—for example, how restrictive they were about eating and whether they wanted to eat more healthfully—and tracked their snack intake for a week. (Snacks are often a better gauge of dieting behavior than meals, the scientists say.) Not surprisingly, 63 percent of the women identified as dieters, but their concern with cutting back didn’t seem to translate to eating significantly less food: The restrained eaters did consume slightly more healthy snacks and fewer unhealthy snacks than non-dieters, but the association was only weak.
For some people, simply possessing a diet book had a similar effect (or lack of effect): The study participants who’d bought a diet book in the past year were less likely to reduce their food intake than other people, suggesting that making the purchase was enough to make them feel as if they’d fulfilled their intention to slim down.
What’s going on? Being on a “diet” may actually be more of a mental state—a reflection of a troubled relationship with eating and food—rather than a true intention to consume less. As the scientists say, “The self-proclaimed status as dieter bears few implications for actual consumption. … People may become obsessed with regulating their eating behavior without having the actual intent or the skills to do something about it.”
This supports what we’ve being saying all along: It’s better to focus on establishing a healthy lifestyle for the long haul—one that you can maintain (and enjoy!) day in and day out—rather than vowing to drastically cut calories when you feel fed up because you can’t fit into your jeans. Chances are, you’ll find that your weight fluctuates less—and that you have a healthier relationship with food.