Why most dieters fail but some succeed.

When I was in college I was very over-weight. I tried and tried to eat healthier, and exercise more, but each attempt seemed destined to lead to a new failure. Fortunately for me, a series of events (most importantly, meeting the woman I would marry) helped me to lose about 100 pounds, and I have maintained that weight for 30+ years. But I know many people who are still trying hard, but cannot seem to reach the level of weight they aspire to achieve.

Recent research sheds some light on this challenge, and offers at least some scientific help. People who are trying to control their eating to lose weight are known as restrained eaters. They are attempting to do the right thing — eat fewer calories and more nutritional food. One of the main reasons that chronic dieters continue to struggle with weight-loss is that they live in food-rich environments. Most of us are bombarded every day with advertisements, restaurants, and other food choices that play on our desires for filling, tasty foods.  This abundance of attractive, high- calorie food in our food-rich environments contributes to over-eating and thus to being overweight. Some people are emotional eaters as well, and for these people, food-rich environments can be especially challenging.

Successful restrained eaters overcome these challenges by forming “implementation intentions,” which is a fancy way of saying that they plan how they are going to deal with temptations and emotions that cause them to over-eat. Implementation intentions specify the when, where, and how of what we will do to reach our weight goals. We may need to have several different implementation plans to cover different situations (e.g., the plan for when coworkers invite me to lunch at a fast-food restaurant, the plan for when I come home late from work, hungry and tired, the plan for what I will do at a football tail-gating party).  Thinking ahead of time about how we will respond when we are confronted with temptations can dramatically increase the likelihood that we will make good choices.

Successful dieters also form clear goals about how a healthier weight will improve their lives. These goals are most successful when they are connected to real, positive changes such as being able to play with my children, creating more capacity to care for my family, being able to sleep better, or being able to enjoy recreational activities. Once these goals are formed, successful dieters share them with important people so that these others can help support the dieter. Successful dieters also use a variety of cues to remind themselves about their plans, and the goals these plans are designed to achieve. This way we can review our grocery-shopping plan right before we head into the store, and we are prepared to walk right past those tempting food samples.  And, lastly, successful dieters celebrate even seemingly small successes, and treat mis-steps as opportunities to try again rather than treating them as failures.

Science tells us that change, while sometimes hard, is possible. We need clear goals, a set of plans to achieve those goals, and people who will care for and support us as we strive toward our goals. Of course, hard work and perseverance are also necessary, but science tells us there is a lot to hope for if we follow these important guidelines.

We hope you are flourishing!


Stroebe, W. , van Koningsbruggen, G. , Papies, E. , & Aarts, H. (2013). Why most dieters fail but some succeed: A goal conflict model of eating behavior. Psychological Review, 120(1), 110-138.

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