Fact or Fiction: Does Dieting Work?

Does dieting work?

Most people have heard, “You can’t out-exercise a bad diet.” Most of my clients know how important a healthy food lifestyle is. However, what I wish more people understood is that unhealthy eating is not necessarily rooted in ignorance about nutrition or lack of willpower.

I don’t even like the word “diet,” because it implies a sense of lack. Instead, I like to use the phrase “food lifestyle,” “eating choices,” or “eating behaviors.” No one truly diets – even if every meal you eat comes out of a color-coded container, you’re still making hundreds of decisions every day about food.

Instead, my own life experience – as well as my work with weight loss clients – has taught me that most of what people consider lack of willpower is actually the inability to cope with certain circumstances of life.

Food becomes the pressure release for too much stress or lack of meaning in life. That is why dieting does not work.

In other words, unhealthy eating, whether it’s overeating or undereating, often has very little to do with food itself, so dieting doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. It may provide a temporary band-aid, but not a true solution.

For example, my first year of “real” work after college was as an elementary music teacher, with a 90-minute commute one way. On top of the stress of the impossibly long drive, I also entered the teaching profession at a time when test scores, data, and teacher performance were truly beginning to drive evaluation. The bureaucratic environment and the mind-numbing commute were crushing for a young, idealistic teacher.

I made time in my hectic schedule to do “all the right things” – cook healthy meals, pack my own lunches, run three times a week, and do yoga or weight training every day.

Despite these healthy stress-management behaviors, I found myself inexplicably making excuses to stop for fast food.

The problem was that the occasional treats became more and more frequent, until I was fitting fast food into my life almost every day. On the outside, I was a healthy, fit yogi who cooked gluten-free meals from scratch. On the inside, I was an overwhelmed little girl who needed love, comfort, and play, and found it through food.

After only a few months, life circumstances led me to relocate to another part of the country and essentially start over with my professional life, doing more meaningful work with a shorter commute.

Suddenly, my insatiable, neurotic need for fast food basically evaporated.

What happened?

I philosophically agree with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever you go, there you are.” However, my experience taught me that changing your life circumstances so that your coping skills are not completely overwhelmed can dramatically transform your relationship with food.

As I continued to take responsibility for myself and make better lifestyle choices that resulted in decreased stress and increased meaning, my eating followed suit and balanced out without dieting or deprivation.

Now, as a personal trainer, I gently guide clients to focus on their larger lifestyle issues. Creating time for exercise is often the first step that people take in self-care, and it tends to shed light on unmanageable schedules, self-created life dramas, and intense stress.

Instead of dieting, here are the main stressors that you should examine if you feel that you simply cannot stop self-sabotaging with food:


If you have a long commute, hate your job/career, feel that you work “all the time,” or cannot get work off your mind even when you’re not there, it’s probably time for a change. The bottom line is that you need to be ready to do something different to get something different.


Do your relationships give back to you, or are you the primary giver in your adult relationships? When your relationships are based on inequity (this includes helping professions as well as family and intimate relationships), food often becomes a replacement for mutually rewarding interaction.

Family History

Let’s be honest – most families possess a certain degree of dysfunction. No family is perfect. However, if your family story has alcoholism, mental illness, or abuse lurking in the overlooked details, you may be holding that untold story of stress deep in your body, and soothing that submerged pain with food.

Take my advice: don’t start a new diet.

Instead, begin to carve out time for self-care. Exercise. Take an interesting class. Go out with friends. See a therapist. Talk to your boss about your responsibilities. Get a haircut. Keep a journal. You may be surprised at how food regains its proper perspective – without dieting or consciously “saying no” to things – when you take time for yourself.