Dieting has been around ever since William Banting, a Victorian man who decided that he was going to change the way he ate to try to lose weight. Banting had grown up in England, and all his life he had been fat. Then, one day, he decided to try out a new kind of diet. Instead, of stuffing himself full of bread rolls every day, he switched over to eating fatty meat and vegetables in the hope that it would help him to lose weight.
The good news was that the diet appeared to work for a while. It wasn’t good for his heart, but he managed to get his calories down enough to make a difference to his weight.
Then, later on in the 1950s, American doctors first began to encounter the problem of obesity among their patients. Some doctors put it down to stress, but many believed that it was simply the result of eating to excess and that the only way to combat it was to reduce calories or put people on what doctors called “a reducing diet.” Soon doctors up and down the country were trialling diets. They found the diets reduced people’s weight in the short term, but over longer periods of time, the weight slowly crept back on and people went back to their old habits.
It turns out that dieting successfully was nearly impossible. People went on a diet for a few months, lost some points and then, after two years, 95 percent of them had put back on all the weight that they had lost. This then led many people to begin a new diet to again rid themselves of the extra weight, hoping that another bout of dieting would help. Instead, they encountered the same problem: after a couple of years, all of the weight came back.
It didn’t seem to matter which diet doctors put their patients on, they all resulted in the same conclusions: demoralised patients who were fatter than ever. The reason for this failure, according to modern science is twofold. First, there’s the problem that people simply can’t cut calories forever. The body has a way of making sure that its energy intake is consistent over the long term and has powerful mechanisms to influence individual behaviour. The other reason is that doctors didn’t understand why people were eating so much. Usually, it wasn’t because they were lazy or corpulent: it was because they were miserable and the foods that they ate sent hormonal signals to get them to eat more.
Today, things are beginning to change. Doctors are starting to realise, after more than 60 years, that dieting doesn’t work and not just because people are lazy. Instead, they’re looking at ways to help their patients make lifestyle transitions. We’ve seen a plethora of technologies, like the online doctor app, to help facilitate this, where doctors can stay in constant communication with patients. And we’ve seen a health food movement that is looking for ways to make food both delicious and healthy so that people no longer feel restricted when they’re on a diet.
In the future, being overweight is likely to be seen more of a mental health issue than a laziness issue. Figuring out what is motivating people to eat so much will be the next frontier in diet science.