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Book Review: The Diet Fix–Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The Diet Fix: why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work, by Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is available March 4, 2014. It starts with a prescription for chocolate. Clearly this is not your average diet book.

Over nearly ten years and thousands of hours working with patients with weight management issues at his Bariatric Medical Institute, one of Dr. Freedhoff’s most important lessons comes in the form of chocolate prescriptions. This sets the tone of The Diet Fix: Changes that make you miserable are not going to last, and most diets make people miserable, so you need to eat some damn chocolate every once and a while.

The first section of the book takes dieting and diet culture to task. Freedhoff describes diet-related traumas: guilt, failure, depression, despair, among others. Reading some of the case studies in this section reminded me of some of my former personal training clients. I’ve seen it time and time again, people do too much too soon to try to lose weight and are overwhelmed. They “relapse,” feel guilt, shame, and revert to their old habits.

Many of these traumas are fueled by our approach to dieting, which is chock-full of myths that Freedhoff describes in the next chapter. I am so glad he starts with this one: People lack willpower. “Could it be,” he writes, “that in 50 short years, the world has gone from a willful place to one filled with weakness?” He points to the years of time, the thousands of dollars, the emotional and physical energy that millions of people expend trying to manage weight, in the face of impossible odds. He writes to his readers: “In all likelihood, you have spent more willpower on weight management than on any other area of your life.”

He describes an environment of cheap, ubiquitous calories, a culture that eats out and drives to get there (and everywhere), sugary beverages with every meal a social norm… “The default in this world is weight gain, and simple, brute-force willpower doesn’t stand a chance.”

This theme runs throughout the book: Stop beating yourself up. In fact, the number one qualifier that Freedhoff attaches to any of his recommendations is “can you be happy with this?”

The second section of the book describes Freedhoff’s prescription for a “10-Day Diet Reset.” Usually when I hear 10 days to do anything, especially health-related, my spidey-sense starts to tingle. He also writes that his 10-day approach is “easier than you ever imagined,” but I’ll forgive Dr. Freedhoff these transgressions. He’s writing for dieters, he needs to speak their language. In all reality, Freedhoff’s recommendations probably are indeed easy compared to the restrictive diets he is trying to “fix.” In this section readers will generally find measured, doable advice, presented simply, that doesn’t necessarily promise anything more dramatic than a healthier relationship with one’s food, and demands the reader’s happiness above all else–again, Freedhoff always seems to be asking: “Can you be happy doing this?”

Some of the adjustments that Dr, Freedhoff recommends for his “10-Day Fix,” especially those of attitudes and beliefs, will likely require more time and effort than can be exerted in one of the single days he prescribes. However, at the end of each day, he provides a simple checklist: Were the day’s goals met? No? No big deal, don’t worry about it, he writes. Just pick it back up tomorrow, try again, and wait until you get this step right before moving on to the next one.

The recommendations include keeping a food diary, learning to avoid hunger, learning to cook, setting goals, and learning to be generally more mindful about one’s approach to food–all things that have established research to back them up, and all things that don’t require dramatic lifestyle overhauls of his readers (except maybe the food diary, but that may be my personal reaction. Either way, he offers plenty of advice about how to make the diary work). His recommendations for exercise might be surprising to anyone too steeped in our fitness-obsessed culture of celebrity trainers and extreme weight-loss shows. The basic approach? Exercise itself isn’t going to burn a sufficient number of calories for significant weight loss, yet some exercise every day–even if it’s a little bit–is shown to be an important component of long-term weight maintenance. How much exercise? As much exercise as one can enjoy each day. This could be five minutes. Freedhoff’s eight-word exercise manifesto: “Some is good. More is better. Everything counts.” I love this.

The third section of the book, “The Recovery,” is kind of the “everything else” section, including passages about how to apply the Diet Fix principles to various popular diets, tips on how to handle traveling, holidays, and other social situations. There are also chapters about common food-related questions and misconceptions ranging in topics from the safety/efficacy of artificial sweeteners to food addiction.

If there’s one thing I would have liked to see in this book, it’s more attention given to the toxic, obesogenic environment we’ve embraced. He certainly touches on it, and that’s one of the strengths of The Diet Fix: Dr. Freedhoff repeatedly makes a point to explain that in our current environment it is perfectly natural, even expected, that people will gain weight.

But why should we accept this environment? Why is the onus on the individual? Freedhoff describes in detail the great difficulties in getting through even a single day without eating more low-quality food than is needed. Many of these difficulties can be directly attributed to billions of dollars spent on food marketing, as well as a culture and a government that does not hold responsible those best positioned to make a meaningful change in our food environment. The people with whom this book will resonate are a veritable army of potential advocates who could demand better for the public’s health. This may be a missed opportunity.

However, at the end of the day this is a book for people who are looking for help, for someone to tell them that their struggles are common, normal, and maybe even reversible. It is understandable that Freedhoff not ask more of readers already dealing with so much. And he is indeed using other avenues such as his blog, Weighty Matters to push for change in our food environment.

From what I’ve seen over years examining (and participating in) the diet and fitness industry, if any diet book “works” it’s going to be this one. And if it does, I’m looking forward to a sequel. Once his dieters are “fixed,” Dr. Freedhoff will be in a great position to point his readers to new goals, like advocating for change in the environment that caused them so much trouble in the first place.

Patrick Mustain About the Author: Patrick Mustain is a Communications Manager at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. He is interested in how environmental factors (built, social, media, economic, etc.) affect health behaviors and outcomes, especially those places where media and public health intersect. You can find more of his work at his website, patrickmustain.com. Follow on Twitter @patrickmustain.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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