"I really want to lose three pounds," Regina George declares in the 2004 film/cultural phenomenon Mean Girls.
That sentence, which has been uttered by so many women before and after her, reflects society's weight obsession and constant pursuit of physical perfection. For many, like Regina George, it’s just a reflex—something you're expected to say, as if pledging an oath to the gods of Girl World. In fact, new research suggests that such a declaration has very little effect on actual eating habits.
In one of the few large-scale studies on dieting that uses a representative community sample, researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands set out to understand what types of people say they diet, and why they do it. More than 1,000 Dutch participants answered a questionnaire about their eating habits, and one month later, completed a seven-day snack diary.
"People may become obsessed with regulating their eating behavior without having the actual intent or the skills to do something about it, which confronts them with a dilemma that can be resolved by considering oneself a dieter."
Previous research often used a single, self-report question to determine whether a person was dieting or not, which resulted in a wide range of sometimes-contradictory results. In this study, participants answered multiple questions about “restraint eating” (i.e. "Do you keep track of how much you eat?") from the Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire, which is considered a more reliable way to determine if people consider themselves dieters.
The study, which will be published in the journal Appetite in June, found that 63.2 percent of men and 62.7 percent of women had above-average scores—compared to their own gender—on the restraint-eating questionnaire. Previous estimates placed men at 13 to 44 percent, and women at 25 to 65 percent.
Being a woman, being older, and having higher BMI were all factors that predicted high-scoring restraint-eating answers. According to the paper, "the strongest predictor of dieting was the extent to which people were concerned about their weight or about the health consequences of their dietary practices."
However, there was only a very weak correlation between those who exhibited weight and health concerns and their actual snack food intake, as measured by the snack diaries. (Snack consumption is an indicator of following through on diet plans, “because snack intake is a major contributor to overweight and often the main target of dieting attempts,” researchers write.) The results demonstrate “that good intentions are not sufficient for putting one’s plans into practice.”
Also, the eight percent of people who said they recently purchased a diet book actually reported lower—not higher—dieting scores, “suggesting that they considered having fulfilled their intention by having a diet book available.”
Previous research on dieting shows that it is ineffective in the long term and could even lead to eating disorders. So, if the results of this study hold up and most people who say they are dieting actually don’t do it, then why bother claiming the label at all?
Their hypothesis: “People may become obsessed with regulating their eating behavior without having the actual intent or the skills to do something about it, which confronts them with a dilemma that can be resolved by considering oneself a dieter.”