How Stating “95% of Diets Fail” Perpetuates Diet Culture

I am anti-diet, but I am not wholly anti-weight loss.  I am anti-weight loss/fat loss for reasons that can’t be fixed by changing one’s weight or amount of body fat.  Changing our body size won’t solve our relationship problems or help us love ourselves more.  And the pressures we put on women especially to look a certain way, to take up as little space as possible, are oppressive and dangerous. But, if you are in a larger body and believe you would feel more comfortable in your body when it’s a smaller size, I’ve got no problem with you working on that in a healthy way. (1)

There is a commonly stated myth that 95% of diets fail.  This statistic does not appear to be based on any particular research.  But even if we could find the study it was based upon (I’ve heard researchers suggest maybe it came from a study in the 1960’s), you can ask the questions:  What did they mean by “diet?”  And what did they mean by “fail?”  

If by “diet” we mean any intentional change to how someone eats with the desire to reduce their body fat, it is quite easy to provide evidence to the contrary of this statistic–many people make lasting and sustainable changes to how they eat and move their bodies that may result in smaller sizes.  However, if we assume that by “diet,” we mean dramatic, intentional changes to how someone eats, we are accepting the false belief that meaningful dietary change must therefore be major dietary change.  We are buying into diet culture if we suggest that anyone who desires to be a smaller size, for any reason, must be therefore making dramatic, extreme changes to their eating in order to elicit their desired change in size.  

The realities are many people are able to make shifts in how they eat.  They learn to think differently about food, about themselves and their bodies, and by embracing these new perspectives, naturally over time their eating behaviors change, too.  Sometimes, this results in changes in body size.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes it’s intentional.  Sometimes it’s not.  These changes take time, trial and error, and flexibility as life circumstances change.  The radical opposite to diet culture isn’t to deny the potential of these changes, but to empower each person to define their own needs and trust them to determine what is actually working for them, for themselves, and to get comfortable with the ongoing attention these changes require over time.

So, 95% of “diets” don’t fail.  

And besides, what do we mean by “fail?”  If what we mean is reaching some idealized weight and failing to maintain that weight indefinitely, denial of diet culture requires us to be more open-minded about how we define a successful end result.  Researchers have identified many positive changes in health outcomes that can occur for someone who is experiencing obesity with as little as 5-10% weight loss.  And even without weight loss, many changes suggested for weight loss improve someone’s health, even if they do not lose weight.  Regular exercise, eating more fruits and vegetables, reducing saturated fats–these changes are healthful and positive.  But if we let diet culture define the results that count and what counts as “success,” we end up believing that false statistic.  We end up perpetuating diet culture in our efforts to justify why people are harmed by it.

We can change the narrative by arguing that most people who go on extreme, restrictive diets do not succeed in making lasting changes to their weight or health.  We can say that most people who intentionally lose weight using a restriction mindset fail to keep most of the weight off.  But we can also frame this in a positive, healthful way–people who work to change their relationships with their bodies and with food are often successful in improving their health, and may also reduce body fat.  Diet culture so permeates our medical and research fields, I have yet to hear discussion of a study that works from this angle–helping people learn new ways to approach self-care from a place of self-love and acceptance, to give themselves the tools they need for lasting habit change.  We don’t have statistical data on the power of these interventions.  That doesn’t make it untrue.  People like that exist.  I am one of them.  

Like most folks, I’m in a bigger body right now after over a year of COVID isolation, but I’m still a lot smaller than I used to be.  Barring dramatic medical challenges, I don’t think I’ll ever end up as large as I once was–not because I found some magic dietary strategy for myself.  Not because I live in denial of my hunger or refuse to eat my favorite foods.  No, I doubt I’ll return to my largest size because I don’t think about myself, food, and exercise in the ways I used to.  I naturally gravitate towards more healthful decisions because the changes have coincided with changes in how I think about myself and my life.  These changes are real, even though they are difficult to assess on a research questionnaire.  And I’m not alone.  But I wouldn’t show up as a “success” by most research standards, because I’m not a “normal” weight on a BMI chart, and I haven’t maintained my smallest weight indefinitely.

Diet culture tells us change should be easy and quick and create rapid results.  This notion of rapidity permeates our expectations and insinuates itself into our beliefs about what we are capable of achieving and how we define success.  Researchers, activists, and fellow feminists are not immune to the draw of these simple definitions of meaningful dietary change or success.  I do not deny the harms of diet culture; however, it isn’t helpful to make unsupported statements that perpetuate fallacies.  I don’t want someone I love to go on a diet because I want them to practice behaviors that bring them joy, and many weight loss diets are deeply joyless.  I want them to find permanent strategies that align with their values, not temporary quick fixes.  I don’t have a problem with someone who lives in a larger body wanting to be smaller, but I do have a problem with “ideal weights” and romanticized notions of fixing non-weight- or size-related problems with weight or size changes.  Unfortunately, telling someone I love that “95% of diets fail,” doesn’t help them find a path for themselves that can give them the joy, self-acceptance and comfort in their bodies that they are seeking.

(1) And of course, if you are a physique athlete, or at least recreationally one, there’s going to be periods of fat loss built into your sport. I think off-season physique athletes could learn a lot about developing and maintaining healthy relationships with their bodies and food from the resources below, too.

Looking for resources to help you reframe your relationship with your body and your weight? Here are a few evidence-based practitioners I trust to get you started:

Nia Shanks

Balance 365

Georgie Fear

Gabrielle Fundaro and Shannon Beer, Comprehensive Coaching (interview with Gab Fundaro about this topic at Sigma Nutrition Radio here)

Know someone great and evidence-based working to improve people’s relationships with food and their bodies that I should check out? Have thoughts on this article? Please share below. Yes, we do have a comment policy.

Feature photo credit: Siora Photography, via Unsplash

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