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Simple Diet Rules, Not Willpower Help Weight Loss


If you have blamed a lack of willpower on your inability to lose weight or keep it off, something else may be making weight loss difficult: the diet you are trying may have too many rules. New research suggests that while willpower is a factor, the complexity of a diet’s requirements can cause people to fail in their weight loss efforts.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about two-thirds of American adults at any given time are on a diet to either lose weight or prevent weight gain. Approximately 44 percent are women and 29 percent are men. Despite their best efforts, only 5 percent of people who attempt to lose weight through dieting will successfully keep the weight off once they lose it.

Americans are spending a lot of money in their dieting attempts. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that each day Americans spend about $109 million on dieting or diet-related products, including books, foods, medications, supplements, and tapes. That amounts to more than $34 billion per year.

Yet the rate of obesity and overweight in the United States is and remains an epidemic, with nearly two-thirds of Americans either overweight or obese. The only things Americans seem to be losing is money and their health—even their lives--when it comes to weight loss efforts. The US Surgeon General reports that obesity and overweight is the second leading cause of preventable death and results in about 300,000 deaths per year.

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Cognitive scientists from Indiana University and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin studied the dieting behaviors of women who were trying two very different diet plans. They discovered that the more complicated people believed their diet plan was, the sooner they were likely to quit.

More specifically, the scientists examined both the objective and subjective complexity of two diet plans. Weight Watchers involves a point system, in which every food has a certain point value. The plan requires participants to consume only a certain number of points per day. Brigitte, a popular German diet, provides shopping lists for dieters and requires that they simply follow the provided meal plan.

A total of 390 women who were already involved in one of the two diet plans were recruited into the study from Internet chat rooms. All of them answered questionnaires at the beginning, middle, and end of an eight-week period. “For people on a more complex diet that involves keeping track of quantities and items eaten, their subjective impression of the difficulty of the diet can lead them to give up on it,” according to one of the study’s authors, Peter Todd, professor at Indiana University’s department of psychological and brain sciences.

Although the authors acknowledge that a person’s physical environment is important, such as keeping snack foods out of sight, the cognitive environment must also be properly arranged, by choosing diet rules that people find easy to remember and to follow. Jutta Mata, who is now a professor of psychology at Stanford University, noted that people who want to follow a diet plan should evaluate several and consider how many rules they have and how many things they will need to keep in mind while on the diet.

Mata explained that if people find a diet is difficult to follow, “the likelihood that they will prematurely give up the diet is higher and they should try to find a different plan.” Therefore while willpower can be a factor, finding a diet that has simple rules can make it more likely that dieters will stick with the plan, lose weight, and keep it off.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Federal Trade Commission
Indiana University press release, Jan. 12, 2010