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Why Diets Fail: Emotional Hunger

Only one in every 100 people who goes on a diet succeeds in losing weight permanently. The rest gain it back again, and often gain back an additional 10 percent more than was lost in the first place. The average dieter begins and breaks four diets a year.

No one who begins something and fails feels good about it. Where dieting is concerned, it's a story of frustration on a mass scale, and yet, the futility of dieting doesn't deter those that are determined to shed pounds. People think this time it's going to work, this time I'll stick to it, or this new diet, pill, or surgery will do the trick. Maybe you can relate to that kind of thinking. Then, when the diet fails, you feel defeated, discouraged, or disgusted. And why shouldn't you?

The question is, why? Why do diets fail?
In my private practice I encountered so many people who were in pain because they couldn't diet successfully that I decided to conduct an internet interview with 17,000 dieters. It revealed that 99 percent of people broke their diets because they were stressed, depressed, or bored. Essentially, it's emotions, not lack of willpower, that make diets fail.

Diets tell you what to eat, but they don't take into account that on some level you feel like you need food to manage the stresses and strains of life. When it comes to losing weight, and more specifically, how to do it successfully, knowledge of what to eat and when to eat is not enough.

Everyone knows to lose weight you need to eat less and exercise more. We have television shows, books, gyms, and diet foods everywhere. There is more access to information about losing weight than ever before. Billions of dollars a year are spent on losing weight. Yet, people continue to gain. A recent study predicts that by the year 2015, 75 percent of Americans will be overweight. There is a reason this is happening. People eat too much when they are under stress. You can't break this habit until you prove to yourself that there are better ways of handling the emotions of stress other than eating too much.

To illustrate my point, look at three case histories:

"Lucille" was having sexual problems with her husband.
It was a difficult session and the minute we got to talking about those problems, she told me she suddenly felt ravenously hungry and had to have a cheeseburger with fries and a milk shake. She had just had breakfast. In fact, any mention of sexual issues awakened Lucille's hunger. Lucille, like all failed dieters, has particular issues she wants to avoid facing, and when those arise, she gets hungry. She can stick to a diet only as long as no sexual problems arise but they always do. Now she has two problems, obesity and intimacy.

"Susan" uses chocolate to fight off her depression.
The thought of chocolate is the only thing that gets her out of bed. To stay out of bed, she needs chocolate at all hours of the day. She's embarrassed to admit that chocolate brings her more pleasure than anything else. She walks around fearful that one day someone will discover that she's addicted to something that is swelling her hips, raising her cholesterol, and slowing her down. As soon as she consumes her last chocolate morsel each day, a dark mood returns until sleep relieves her. She believes that if she gives up chocolate, her sense of safety will shatter. She can never stick to a diet because she doesn't know how to manage her depression without chocolate. There are much better ways.

My patient "Ann" felt trapped in her relationship with her husband.
Her marital issues were tough, but not unsolvable. She had alternatives to explore, including counseling. But rather than attempting a new approach to her problems, she ate to banish anger, hurt, and loneliness. Eating gave her a false sense of temporary comfort and protected her from facing the tough issues in her marriage. She lived by avoidance and that only fueled her appetite. At least food felt safe. Or so it seemed until one day she recognized that she had become obese, and she still didn't know how to manage her relationship with her husband.

In all three cases, these women used food to avoid dealing with important issues that required their full attention in order to be resolved. Until they learned to face their feelings head on, they felt unable to give up food. It was not about willpower. It was about food feeling like the only way to manage emotions that seemed intolerable. The emotions weren't intolerable, they just felt that way.

People don't succeed on diets for one of three reasons:
  1. They overeat because they're afraid of their feelings.
  2. They overeat to reward themselves when they're frustrated or unfulfilled.
  3. They overeat to assert their independence, to feel safe, or to fill emptiness.

For these women, and all failed dieters, eating has been chosen as the preferred way to handle negative emotions. This psychological pattern makes diets fail. I've often been told that the work that you do in my program, is a prerequisite for successful dieting. Once you understand why you eat, what you're really hungry for, and how to feel fulfillment, you don't need the false security that food provides.

Then, any diet can be a success. In fact, not dieting, but just eating sensibly, will be all you need to control your weight.

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