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Do Diets (Alone) Work?

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A few months ago we read–and mostly conceded–that exercise alone doesn’t work for effective weight loss.

Now a study has emerged suggesting that dieting doesn’t either.

As if we needed a reminder that diets mostly fail, The New England Journal of Medicine has published a new report on an intense, tightly controlled experiment involving more than 300 moderately obese people. After two years of effort the dieters lost, on average, 6 to 10 pounds. The study, funded in part by the Atkins Research Foundation, seemed designed to prove that low-carb diets trump low-fat diets. But in the end, all it really showed is that dieters can put forth tremendous effort and reap very little benefit.

This is interesting, in a way: the nutrition folks had themselves a nice little party at the expense of the gym rats when the now-infamous TIME article came out back in August; now the workout folks get a little payback.

But isn’t it time we all conceded that in order to lose a significant amount of weight, you’ve got to marshal all your resources? Throw everything at the problem? Diet, exercise, less time in front of screens of various kinds, more NEPA (non-exercise physical activity, like taking the stairs?).

I’ve never been obese, but when I was growing up I had a friend whose mother struggled with her weight. She had a magnet on the refrigerator which said “The Price of Fitness–like liberty–is Eternal Vigilance!” I remember thinking it was cringe-worthy. Even then, I believed that it was possible, maybe even advisable, to compartmentalize one’s life into “exercise time” and “the rest of the time.” I mean, shouldn’t you exercise so you can enjoy the rest of your life? I’m still a huge parking-lot circler (but maybe that’s due in part to the fact that my son is pushing 35 pounds of squirmy sinew).

I still believe in the life-enjoyment thing, but I also believe that life enjoyment can and should include activities which require movement. Not necessarily full-on exercise, but some kind of movement. I’m a huge fan of walks, for instance, and of going to the park with my kids. If I’m on parent-detail, believe me, we’re out the door.

As another article in the Times suggests, “little changes”–like skipping the usual cookie or having diet sodas instead of 100-proof industrial solvents–aren’t enough to make big differences in weight or health, but they may be “gateway” behaviors to bigger changes. You drink diet soda one month, and then wonder if maybe you could grow to like green ice tea. You try getting a salad with that instead of fries one day a week and then start doing it every day. You take the stairs instead of the elevator one day and then find yourself taking walks on your lunch break. And on and on.

The idea is to develop an awareness and start a trend rather than think you can kill a water buffalo with a push pin.

That’s the hope, anyway.

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