By Jean Fain
As soon as Traci Mann’s new book, Secrets From The Eating Lab, hit bookstores shelves, I ordered my copy. Not only because the University of Minnesota psychology professor is one of the leading researchers on the psychology of eating, dieting and self-control, but her 2007 Medicare study on effective obesity treatments was the irrefutable evidence I needed in writing about how diets don’t work — at least not as dieters expect — in my own book on eating with self-compassion.
Diets fail to facilitate significant or sustainable weight loss, Mann argues. What’s more, diets are unnecessary for optimal health.
Diets don’t work for a variety of reasons, from biology to psychology. After two decades of studying the scientific literature as well as her own diet subjects, Mann points the finger, first and foremost, at human biology. “Genes,” she argues, “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.”
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 weight loss.”
Whether you’re interested in boosting your health or losing weight, Mann’s best advice is to ditch the diet and adopt her 12 “Smart Regulation Strategies,” her proven mental strategies for reaching your “leanest, livable weight.” Instead of counting calories, for example, she advocates penalizing yourself for succumbing to temptation as well as thinking about tempting foods in the abstract. So instead of thinking about the specific qualities of a glazed donut with chocolate icing, think of a donut as a generic dessert or just one of many breakfast foods.
Mann’s views come as no surprise to me, a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. The big surprise for me in her new book is that I only loved the first half — the half that pinpoints the problem with dieting. The other half, which focuses on her “no-diet” plan, well, I liked it only half as much. Turns out, a good bit of Mann’s plan calls for external changes, like using smaller plates and taking smaller portions, a la Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating. Mann prescribes internal changes, too, but none are what I’d describe as truly mindful.
I was tempted to dismiss Mann’s plan as a collection of mental tricks, then I thought better of it. Instead, I set up a mini-interview via email with the professor turned author and I’m glad I did. Not only did Mann have some interesting things to say about dieting — her own experience and that of determined dieters –- but her answers reminded me that there’s no right way to address eating problems. In fact, there are many ways to go. To see if Mann’s way of reaching your leanest livable weight is a way you might want to go, read on.
JF: You’re pretty unusual in that you ditched dieting after just one diet. And yet, you’ve devoted your career to proving diets don’t work. Why is that?
TM: I ditched dieting because the diet I went on made me miserable, and I watched both of my parents cycle through diets and re-gain, diets and re-gain, ad nauseam. Continue reading