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Will Tailored Dieting Help You Lose Weight?

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Tailored diet versus human nature in dieting.

A new study hints that adopting a tailored dieting program might do more harm than good for meeting your weight loss goals.

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While health experts recommend a wide range of dieting tactics such as mindful eating, portion control, counting calories, intermittent fasting, increasing your metabolism, avoiding fats, eating fats, more protein, less carbs, etc., etc., etc., the fact remains that finding a solution for preventing obesity and losing weight is not a problem easily solved for the general public.

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As such, there’s a trend in dieting news with talk about how that weight loss might work best if it’s approached from a more individually-tailored approach where the goal is to find the right dieting tactics that work for the individual. It appears to make sense. How often have you seen or heard where one diet program worked with one person, but failed for another…or you?

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But will finding that one diet program or tactic really help you lose weight? If you were provided with individualized instruction, personalized dietary coaching, facts and figures on what you should eat and how you should exercise, the latest health gadgets and exercise equipment, would all of this help you lose weight? Perhaps. But keeping it off is another story.

Plus, the irony here is that in reality, you do have all of the above readily available. There are so many resources available online for personalized instruction on every aspect of weight loss that you could not cover all of them even with several years of COVID-19 isolation in your home.

Losing weight is kind of like self-educating yourself. Why do we have so many public libraries and resources easily available, but fail as a nation to become better educated individuals after our college years?! I posit that successful dieting, like learning, is more dependent upon our behavior than it is on what particular diet program we choose. In other words, you cannot learn or lose weight without the correct attitude and approach.

Case in point: a new study that demonstrates health information which offers specific advice tailored to individuals, actually inadvertently backfires in comparison to when less-specific generalized health info is given.

Study Shows Less Information May Be Better for Dieting

According to a news release from Bath University, health economists recently published a study in the journal European Economic Review, where researchers tested the impact of different public health information on dietary choices across a sample of 300 people from low income backgrounds.

In the study, participants were divided into 3 groups that received either very specific information individualized for them personally; less-personalized generic health information; or, no information at all before given a budget and sent off to food shop.

The news release states that, “…those provided tailored information, they were given easy-to-understand information about their risks of developing diabetes or heart disease, as well as easy-to-follow dietary and health recommendations to minimize risks.”

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What resulted was unexpected. The study revealed that:

• Participants who received generic health information selected food baskets that, on average, contained less total fat and less saturated fat (approximately 20% less) relative to the no information group, and spent 34% less on unhealthy items.

• Those receiving tailored information, on the other hand, showed no difference in the number of unhealthy items chosen, nor in the nutritional content of the basket compared to the no information group.

The authors explain that this difference in shopping behavior could be due to that those who received the tailored information actually got better news about their own health than they might have otherwise imagined. When treated individually, their impression of their selves changed making them feel that their current dietary choices were no so bad after all, and so prevented them from changing their behavior.

The news release quotes Dr. Jonathan James from the Department of Economics at the University of Bath as saying that, “Over recent years and in an effort to nudge us towards healthier behaviors, there has been increased reliance on tailoring health information to make it very specific to individuals. This is premised on a theory that by individualizing advice and guidance it will have more resonance with individuals and be harder to ignore.”

“Yet, as our study shows, tailoring health information in this way is not a silver bullet in tackling obesity; it can actually be less effective at shifting behaviors than generic health information which is relevant to all. As we observed, this can be because the tailored information provided actually gives a better assessment of someone’s health than they may have imagined and therefore inadvertently gives them a free pass to continue to eat unhealthily.”

In other words, the participants followed human nature rather than what their new information had to offer them.

And that is the point of this article: Tailored dieting might prove to be no more effective than any other dieting program you’ve tackled. And, unless dieting is approached and successfully integrated firstly with behavior changes toward eating, as the study hints, the best laid plans of diet programs and dieters oft go awry.

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Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Photo by i yunmai on Unsplash

References:

Generic public health messages work best at shifting dietary behaviours” University of Bath news release. Published on Thursday 20 August 2020.

Facilitating healthy dietary habits: An experiment with a low income population” Michèle Belot, Jonathan James, Jonathan Spiteri, European Economic Review Volume 129, October 2020.

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