A Diet by Any Other Name…

…would still have a 95% failure rate.

Ok Shakespeare I’m not, but in fairness he was a poet and I’m talking science.

I was having a conversation with someone recently and we started talking about the show “Heavy”.  I mentioned that my issue with the show is that I wish they would focus on increasing health through healthy habits rather than weight loss because the success rate of intentional weight loss is less than 5%.  One person at the table said “that’s why diets don’t work – you have to make a lifestyle change.”

No.  No No No No No NO NO NO NO.

First, to be clear, I am totally cool with people who want to diet and lose weight.  I’m not trying to tell anyone how to live.  However, since in their multi-billion dollar a year marketing campaign the diet industry works hard to cover the fact that they have a less than 5% success rate, I think that many people might not know that.  And since it stands to reason that a big part of the why the diet industry keeps making so much money is that 95% of people fail and a lot of those people blame themselves and turn around and start another diet, the industry has a vested interest in making us believe that the blame lies in the 95% of people who aren’t able to change their size over the long-term.  And so a lot of people don’t realize that the diet they are embarking upon is an endeavor that:

  • has a greater than 95% chance of failing
  • hasn’t been proven to make them any healthier
  • has serious health risks.

So I thought I’d just put it out there.

For the record this isn’t just a fat girl thing.  I would be just as angry if 95% of people who took antiobiotics still had strep throat and they were being told that it was their fault.  Or if Viagara only worked 5% of the time and doctors were blaming the other 95% of guys for not trying hard enough.

Bottom line, if you attempt to make your body smaller on a long-term basis, then you have a less than 5% chance of success. You could call it a diet, an eating plan, a lifestyle change, a health plan, or a whizzywoo, you are still trying to decrease the size of your body over the long term and therefore you still have a greater than 95% chance of failure based on the best science available.

Again, I’m not trying to tell people whether to diet or not, I absolutely respect anyone’s choice, but I do think that dieting deserves a disclaimer.

13 thoughts on “A Diet by Any Other Name…

  1. Ugh, I had this EXACT conversation the other day, in a place I was NOT expecting it. And then I had the SAME conversation again, with my MOTHER of all people! “Lifestyle change” seems to be the buzzword du jour.

  2. Ok, I should be in bed after the day I had, but before I say goodnight moon, I just have to say that “wizzywoo” is probably my new favorite word. Thank you for not only being a voice of reason, but also someone to make me giggle right before I make a vain attempt to pass out on the sofa.

    1. Hi Karen,

      Glad that I could make you smile. After coming up with the “wizzywoo” thing I was actually tempted to write a Dr. Suess-esque diet poem (A 5% chance if a weight watcher I’d be, a 5% chance on a fat farm cruise at sea…”) I hope that you got some sleep!


  3. The other thing people should be aware of is that weight cycling has been correlated with cardiovascular disease. It’s hard to prove, because you can’t in an experiment make people gain weight, then lose it, then gain it etc, so you have to rely on people’s memories. But there is enough data to suggest that people should be very cautious about attempting to lose dramatic amounts of weight.

    By the way, does anybody know where the 5% success/95% fail rate comes from? I hear this all the time, but I would be interested to know the research.

    1. Hi Alexie,

      Here’s a study that reviews the predominant literature. http://www.nutritionj.com/content/9/1/30 (I meant to put it in the post, not sure what happened with that! One of the things to know is that you often have to dig deeper to get true success rate because diet studies have a habit of saying that 100% of people on a study “lost weight” and not telling us things like that 78% of people dropped out of a study and another 23% lost 2 pounds in the first 8 weeks of the study but gained it back in the second 8 weeks, and the remainder of people lost an average of 1.5 pounds over 16 weeks.

      I agree with you about the weight cycling – there more and more studies that suggest that it’s got some pretty steep consequences.


  4. I’m calling it my “extreme body modification project”. Compared to getting tattoos and piercings all over, it’s probably just as doubtful health-wise, but easier to get back from. 😉

  5. I’m going on a whizzywoo! That sounds like fun!

    This is one that just doesn’t seem to get through. That any other thing with a 95% recidivism rate would be outlawed, let alone encouraged. But diets, lifestyle changes or whatever other name you want to give a weight loss regime fall into this, and fat loathing is so deeply entrenched, it’s just glossed over.

    1. As a society, we are deeply tied up in the mythology that thin = healthy. It’s scary, and frustrating. But there are powerful economic forces (diet & gym industry) and powerful biases (recent articles about weight bias being conveyed in med school) that keep this myth afloat.

  6. Yes, many people shy away from the word “diet”, but they are talking about the same thing… and still worshipping at the alter of Dieting as Empowerment. Thanks for a brief but right-on piece.

  7. WARNING: Content may triggering due to diet talk, weight talk, and a conflation of individual experience with the likely experience of others.

    I respect your blog, you are very articulate and are dead on for many points. That being said, I have read that the 95% stat is a myth and is as little based on science as many of our obesity stats.
    I really don’t believe that almost everyone will fail at a diet.
    This blog, particularly this post, has really motivated me to make some additional changes:
    [link removed]

    I think you are doing a great thing, but by constantly bring up the 95% percent quote (which isn’t even accurate) and bringing up over and over that dieters are doomed to fail, I just feel worse after reading. After dropping 20 lbs, I find it so much easier to be active, running at 200 pounds was tough on my joints, particularly my knees. 20 lbs. lighter and I feel so much faster and efficient. I truly don’t think I could be a runner at 200+ pounds. I just feel like telling people that they are going to fail over and over isn’t really helpful.

    1. Hi EAS,

      First, thank you for your respectfully stated disagreement. I would first ask where you got your information about the 95% failure rate. I have not seen a single statistically significant study that shows a greater than 5% success rate after 5 years. If you have seen such a study, definitely pass it along. It is never my goal to pass along misinformation. My goal is simply to pass along the research that I have seen so that people understand what they are getting into. Even in the link you provided (I removed the link because I do not provide traffic to diet-positive sites from my site as a personal choice), the person has not successfully maintained her weight loss for a year.

      I appreciate that you used “I” statements when you talked about your experience with running. I run lots sprints at 284 pounds (my sport doesn’t require distance running) and I know a lot of 200+ runners, triathletes, marathoners etc. For many of us, building muscle has been successful where weight loss attempts were not. It sounds like you understand that your experience isn’t everyone’s experience but I definitely wanted to make that clear.

      For the record, I’m not telling people that they are likely to fail, the research that I’ve seen is telling us that. My goal isn’t to make people feel bad about dieting or good about not dieting – I want to present the facts as I’ve found them because the diet industry makes a lot of money telling us that their methods succeed when the evidence that I’ve seen doesn’t back that up. I want to present another option, I’m not for or against dieting, I’m for people having the facts and making their choices.

      It sounds like you’ve done your research to a level with which you are comfortable, come to a conclusion that is different than mine, and and made a choice that is different from my choice. That is completely fine, I don’t think your choice is any more or less valid than mine, and I wish you the absolute best of luck. Thanks again for the comment.


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