Fat and Happy: Why Most People Don't Diet

By now most people's New Years resolutions are as stale as any leftover Superbowl potato chips or Christmas fruitcake. The resolve to quit smoking, or lose weight and get fit, fades quickly. They are great ideas, but the self-improvement fever lasts only a few weeks, and by March gyms across the country are cashing in on unused memberships.

Why is this? America is often described as a nation of chronic dieters. In a Jan. 16, 2006, cover article in U.S. News & World Report, Amanda Spake suggested that Americans should 'Stop dieting. Stop obsessing about every morsel you put in your mouth, stop weighing yourself twice a day, stop letting your quest to be thin control your life." Good advice—if it were true.

The idea that Americans are obsessed with weight loss is a myth.

Journalists cite misleading statistics such as that Americans spend $33 billion each year on weight loss—everything from fad diets to books to exercise equipment. As impressive as the number sounds, it is not a true measure of commitment to losing weight. Books, diet plans, and Stairmasters don't make people lose weight. People make people lose weight. Spending money is easy; the problem is the follow-through.

The surprising reality is that most Americans are not dieting, and are not really trying to lose weight. If Americans were truly committed to getting fit and losing weight, they would eat less and exercise more. Yet most people steadfastly refuse to do it.

In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control reported that Americans are eating more than ever, and women in particular are eating over 300 more calories a day than they did in 1971. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, yet fewer than one-third get regular exercise.

The simple fact is that losing weight just isn't that important to people.

A 1993 Yankelovich survey found that over half of Americans said they weren't at all concerned with watching their weight, and studies show that fewer than one-quarter of Americans are dieting. In 2002 Glamour magazine asked more than 11,000 readers what they would give up to slim down permanently. Three-quarters would not give up eating dessert, and only 41 percent would pay $3,000 to be thin forever. Almost a quarter said they would not give up anything to lose weight.

Many of us would like to lose weight in the same way we'd like to get rich by winning the lottery: We'll do it if it doesn't take too much effort. Americans don't want to take the figurative and literal steps to achieve our goals. We want to eat more and weigh less. Diet and exercise—the only proven method for effective, sustained weight loss—sounds good but takes too much willpower for most of us.

The myth that most diets fail has it exactly backward: Instead, most people fail diets. Just about any sensible diet will help a person lose weight. Blaming the diet because the dieter quit is like blaming the unused treadmill for not doing its job. The real solution isn't in fad diets or workout DVDs; the solution is in the mirror.

Benjamin Radford, Managing Editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, wrote about popular myths in his book "Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us."

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.