Dispatches from the Diet Lab

Belly FatHow would you like to spend your career studying diets and why they do or don’t work? That’s what Dr. Traci Mann does, and now she’s written a book about the experience.

Secrets from the Eating Lab shares many of Mann’s findings–which is that, by and large, diets don’t work–and then provides some advice on what to do instead of dieting. A reviewer from NPR shares these observations on Mann’s work.

Diets don’t work for a variety of reasons, from biology to psychology. Mann points the finger, first and foremost, at human biology. “Genes,” she writes, “play an indisputable role in regulating an individual’s weight: Most of us have a genetically set weight range. When we try to live above or below that range, our body struggles mightily to adapt.”

That sounds great, but I have a couple of quibbles with Mann’s conclusions. First of all, given the recent increase in obesity in the United States, is Dr. Mann suggesting that we have witnessed a monumental shift in human genetics? Second, just how wide is that range that she mentions? Is it a 5-pound range or a 50-pound range? That would seem to make a huge difference.

Beyond that, Mann goes to the brain, which (at least according to the reviewer) apparently is not a biological organ.

Second to biology, Mann blames a combination of neuroscience and psychology. Our brains are hardwired to want food for survival, she explains, so restricting calories creates a psychological stress response, which facilitates weight gain, not loss. Also, she adds: “Studies show that willpower, the thing we all blame ourselves for not having enough of, is in many ways a mythical quality and certainly not something that can be relied upon for weight loss.”

Again, I have to ask for some quantification. How much of a reduction in calories do we need before that “psychological stress response” kicks in? And this idea that willpower is a myth would seem to suggest that everybody ought to weigh 400 pounds.

Of course the problem with studying diets lies in defining just what qualifies as a diet. When Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonalds food for 30 days, that was a diet. So was what I ate when I weighed 55 pounds more than today. At what point does a change of eating habits qualify as a “diet”?

What this book seems to ignore is the spiritual aspect of dieting. When we see ourselves as belonging to ourselves, then we’re pretty much reduced to some sort of inwardly based motivation. When we see ourselves belonging to the creator of the universe, then there’s help and hope for a healthier future.