The Diet Tax

July 23, 2015

Are diets on their way out? Surveys done over the past twenty years suggest that’s the case. The NPD Group, which monitors trends in eating, reported in 2012 that only 20 percent of adults surveyed said they were on a diet, down from a peak of 31 percent twenty years earlier.

One hopeful way to explain this trend is that perhaps people are finally accepting the fact that no diet offers a quick and easy solution for weight loss and that a more moderate and sustainable approach to eating works best. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control, however, suggests that’s probably wishful thinking. The report, released in May, shows a continued rise in obesity rates, while the ranks of the moderately overweight remain undiminished. When the top rank keeps growing and the others are stable, it means that each weight class is graduating to the next level.

So why are people giving up on diets? As social beings, we have a hard-wired need for acceptance and we try to comply with the expectations of good citizenship. At the same time, however, we also have a strong instinct for self-determination and freedom from the control of others. These dual needs for belonging and autonomy are both adaptive, but they can conflict with each other. We resolve that conflict by weighing the costs and benefits and arriving at a balanced compromise.

Work, marriage, parenthood, even following the rules of the road when we drive, are all areas of our life that require us to compromise some degree of personal freedom, and we agree to it because we benefit as well. But when we comply with social expectations and find the costs are excessive or the benefits are not forthcoming, we’re likely to feel cheated and stop trying. Apparently, that point has arrived with dieting. Dieters feel they have more requirements for admission than everyone else and they eventually view the pressure to lose weight as a kind of unfair social tax. It’s as if they’re being asked to pay a surcharge on the usual membership dues that everyone pays to be accepted into society and they finally decided that it’s just not worth it.

Why now? One possibility is that while the cultural and social pressure to diet may not have diminished, perhaps the cost of rejecting it has. As the average weight of both men and women increases, there appears to be a parallel shift in attitudes toward attractiveness that may be more accepting of a larger body type. A revealing item in the report of the NPD Group found that over the same period that saw a shift away from dieting, fewer people agreed with the statement that “people who are not overweight look a lot more attractive”—from 55 percent in 1985 to 23 percent in 2012.

That may be a positive indication about our greater acceptance of others, but it doesn’t mean that we’re happier or more accepting of ourselves. Judging from my experience as a psychologist who works with people around issues of self-perception and how it affects the desire to lose weight, we remain very unhappy with our bodies and our eating. As a result, we continue to struggle with ambivalence around feeling pressured to diet and the desire to reject that pressure.

How can we attain a healthy and personally acceptable body weight and shape, without feeling controlled by the diet mentality? The key is to recognize that you are in control—it just doesn’t have to be “control” in a restrictive sense, but in the sense of regulating your behavior, the way a thermostat controls the temperature or a stoplight controls traffic. Your food choices are yours alone and you can learn to trust your decisions.

On a restrictive diet, any question you might have when you’re making a food choice must first pass the test of whether or not it’s allowed. But when your approach to food is self-regulated, everything is on the menu; the only relevant question is whether or not you want it. If the answer is yes, eat it and enjoy it. If not, leave it alone. It will still be available when you really do want it; the world will not run out of chocolate chip cookies.

When your food decisions are guided by personal choice rather than social defiance, you’ll find the weight coming off more easily—and certainly more enjoyably—than dieting.