Dr. Geraldine Merola also sees the [diet] failures. But she doesn’t put them on a diet, write them a prescription or wield a scalpel. She’s a... psychologist who has spent years studying and treating people who are overweight. In fact, her graduate work dealt with the effect of chronic dieting on the tendency to binge-eat. And here’s what she’s discovered about this whole yo-yo business.
“It’s not about willpower. Compulsively overeating after dieting is the body's way of just trying to survive,” she said. Diets fail because when we deprive ourselves, we put our bodies in a state of panic. So when we stop the diet, we tend to eat voraciously—-our bodies afraid they’ll be starved again. The weight comes right back on and often doesn’t stop where it was at before the dieting began.
Merola explains this phenomenon as something that has been genetically handed down over the centuries. “Our bodies have evolved over thousands of years, through famine and times of plenty,” she said. So what once was a survival mechanism, eating a lot when there was plenty available, to prepare for famine, has been brought on artificially through chronic dieting by modern people, in the quest for the perfect modern body. “After your body has been through an overly stringent diet--which your body interprets as a famine-- your body stops trusting you,” said Merola. "It interprets the next diet as another famine, and strives to pack on fat in order to survive the famine to come. That's an important reason so many diets backfire."
But that’s not the only reason up to 98 percent of all dieters can’t maintain a weight loss. Each time a person diets, her metabolism slows down, making the next attempt a bit harder. “Any time you put your body out of balance, there’s going to be a backlash,” Merola said.
One of the biggest causes of the high recidivism rate is that so many people—-more than are reported, experts believe—-struggle with an eating disorder. And for those with eating disorders, it’s not just a matter of learning to eat right. Issues as troubling as the lingering effects of childhood abuse,,, feeling out of control much of the time... can contribute to the bingeing, the purging, the starving, and using food for emotional solace. And, as Merola points out, commercial diet centers, diet pills and surgery do not deal with the underlying issues.
“Very often our emotions are cut off in our childhoods,” said the psychologist, who helps her patients get in touch with their “real hungers, their emotional hungers.” She often encourages her patients to stop dieting and stop weighing themselves. “It takes a leap of faith to stop dieting,” she said.
Merola doesn’t put too much stock in commercial weight-loss methods: “People ... come to me because they’ve been on diets and they don’t work.”
Not everyone who’s overweight has an eating problem or a full-fledged eating disorder. Some, generally people who are only slightly over their ideal weight, actually have “a healthy relationship with food,” said Merola. They might have gained a little weight while on vacation or over the holidays. The difference, she pointed out, is that “they don’t go crazy about a weight gain. They just eat a little less until back at their previous weight.”
On the other hand, someone who has an unhealthy attitude about food—- and not all are obese, some are at a normal weight or even underweight—- freak out over a weight gain. They might “starve themselves [and then binge]. They’re all or nothing,” Merola said. “This all-or-nothing way of looking at the world is inevitable in people with eating disorders.”
About the myriad dieting programs, she said, “One thing I’ve learned from my decades of life is that if anyone says they have the answer, run away as fast as you can.”