Sandra Aamodt talks about why diets don’t work

There’s an interesting TED talk on why dieting doesn’t work that’s getting a lot of attention these days. Well, more than just attention; it’s generating a lot of strong feelings from viewers, both positive and negative.  The presenter is Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist and science writer who talks about her decision to give up on diets and learn to eat mindfully.

It’s a very short piece for such a big topic—I mean the main topic of why dieting doesn’t work.  It’s only twelve minutes; see what you think: Why dieting doesn’t usually work.

The science is good, and though there’s not much new information in this talk, Aamodt does a really nice job of presenting it so it’s easy to understand—not a simple thing to do.  She uses the analogy of a thermostat to describe the brain’s tendency to regulate body weight within a fairly narrow range of about 10 or 15 pounds.

In short, her message is that we each have a weight setpoint, and our brains hold us to that setpoint, and while the setpoint can go up, it won’t go down.  If you want to fight that setpoint, you will be dieting forever, and you will be hungry forever, and you can’t win, since dieters typically end up weighing more, not less.  She says, “Five years after a diet, most people have regained the weight. Forty percent of them have gained even more.”

The one new piece of information for me was this nice bit of news: “You can take control of your health by taking control of your lifestyle, even if you can’t lose weight and keep it off.”  This is based on a 14-year study looking at 4 healthy habits, eating fruits and vegetables, exercise three times a week, not smoking, and drinking in moderation.  Turns out that no matter what you weigh, if you embrace these four healthy habits, your risk of death is the same as any normal-weight person.

The viewers’ responses ranged from applauding her statement that she was able to change from a “controlled” eater to an “intuitive” eater by learning to eat mindfully—and she lost 10 pounds—to condemnation from those concerned that obese people need more than simple urging to learn to eat mindfully.

I was a bit disappointed that she didn’t talk at all about how she made the transition to mindfulness with food—it’s an interesting topic for me.  I am also skeptical about categorical statements about what the brain is doing in enforcing a weight setpoint, and the impossibility of changing an existing setpoint.

For one thing, nutrition and neuroscience are pretty recent members of the science family.  I don’t believe that we currently have anything close to the last word on the brain and its relationships with our bodies and our food.  If anything, the most recent developments in neuroscience suggest the possibility of more plasticity, more flexibility, and therefore more possibility of change. That, and my own experience, suggests to me that it is possible to change that setpoint, even though it’s true that many people now struggle—and most fail—to do it.

I appreciate that she is talking about a difficult topic for many; I literally can’t think of anyone who is unaffected, either directly or indirectly, by problems associated with metabolic disorders related to weight. And I really appreciate her underlining the vulnerability of young girls to inappropriate comments about weight and body image.

As I mentioned, I’d like to hear more about her transition to mindful eating—what did that look and feel like, in her day to day experience?  And I’d love to hear from others who have been able to change their relationship with food.  What have they done differently? What about the people who make one small change at a time, and end up with big changes overall?  What is the relationship between this setpoint and the pesky plateau that many of us get discouraged with?

Could the function of the plateau be to accommodate a slow shift to another, lower setpoint?

And maybe that’s what I love most about science . . . thinking about all these questions worth asking.

2 thoughts on “Sandra Aamodt talks about why diets don’t work

  1. Jeanette

    I just watched that video myself… I couldn’t understand how I could gain 7 lbs on 5000 kcal, but it takes much more effort to lose. I stayed thin for years by eating less, but now I can’t cut back anymore.

    Basically, she’s saying you cannot reverse the damage! You’re screwed! So participate in healthy habits and stay chunky.

  2. Leigh Post author

    Jeanette,
    It’s really depressing, isn’t it? Because she really does describe the experience so many people have. But the first thing to remember with this kind of certainty is that weight gain and loss is not and never has been a simple, black or white thing. Every time science “learns” something, it takes years to figure out how the new puzzle piece fits into the bigger picture. In my experience, the setpoint she describes does seem to exist, but it also changes over time. I know from experience that it’s possible to lose 20 pounds, spend a couple of years comfortably at the new setpoint, and then lose another 20 pounds–and the plateau can be a nice time out from focusing on weight. I also believe that hypnosis can help change those setpoints, just as it can help change attitudes and intentions.

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