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Dieting does not work research shows and is associated with eating disorders

05 May 2017

Dieting is not an effective way to maintain weight loss, and is associated with disordered eating behaviours.

Dieting should be discouraged as a means of weight management, particularly in people who are overweight and obese. Rather, people should be encouraged to be healthy rather than to lose weight.

Psychology graduate, Sarah Melen from the University of Queensland conducted an independent review of the scientific evidence on dieting, eating disorders and the ‘non-diet’ approach to weight management. 

The review results will be presented at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) Annual Congress from 30 April to 4 May at the Adelaide Convention Centre.

Ms Melen said the research suggests that diets were ineffective as a means of long-term weight management.

“A meta-analysis combining data from multiple studies, showed that the average weight loss among more than 18,000 dieters was 5 - 8.5kg within the first six months of starting a weight loss diet,” she said.

“However, four years later the average weight loss of these individuals had fallen to between 3 - 4kg.

“Another study showed that a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI) before dieting was strongly correlated with their BMI three years later – even for people who underwent bariatric surgery to have the size of their stomach reduced with the fitting of a gastric band.

“Of more concern is the association between dieting and the development of eating disorders and poor body image, indicating that dieting may be doing more harm than good. Poor body image is associated with disordered eating behaviours, lower levels of physical activity and increased weight gain over time.

“Despite the poor evidence supporting the effectiveness of dieting for sustained weight loss, diets are still encouraged as a means of managing weight, including within the medical profession.”

Ms Melen said the stigma attached to obesity was also undermining people’s efforts to manage their health and wellbeing.

“Overweight or obese people are being blamed for being fat and suffer a triple stigma of being ‘unhealthy, unattractive and lacking self control’, however weight is not a proxy for health,” she said.

“A more compassionate and ultimately successful approach is to make health, not weight loss, the end goal. This non-diet approach can address weight concerns while avoiding the harmful consequences associated with dieting.”

RANZCP President Professor Malcolm Hopwood said: “These findings are particularly important at a time when we are aware that the poor physical health of people with mental illness, including poor diet, is a major public health concern. More research is needed in this area.”

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The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists is a membership organisation that prepares medical specialists in the field of psychiatry, supports and enhances clinical practice, advocates for people affected by mental illness and advises governments on mental health care. For information about our work, our members or our history, visit