Why diets don’t work

 In Comfort Eating

Willpower is not enough to overcome overeating

There is a social assumption in much of our culture that people who are overweight could just stop overeating, and do some exercise. Lots of people come into my office with stories of how their Doctor, Personal Trainer, or friends have told them to just cut down on sugar, try this or that diet, and take up running or swimming regularly.

This is unlikely to be a total revelation, and a fantastic new idea, to someone who overeats. Trust me, the person who overeats knows that this is what it takes!

But, there are so many different reasons why losing weight may not just be a matter of willpower. In this article I’ll describe some of the reasons. Thereby, exploding the myth that just saying ‘no’ to overeating, is enough. I’m also encouraging you to give yourself less of a hard time for not being able to just stop eating.



  • It’s only in the last few decades, and only in the West, that starvation has become far less of an issue. So, we have an inherited predisposition to eat as much as we can, when food is available. We are predisposed to put on, and to maintain weight, rather than to lose it, as a way of surviving longer.


The availability of food

  • Food has become available everywhere. From the checkout counter in B&Q, to the 24 hour and all night grocery store. There are shiny, colourful packets of salty, fried, sweet tasting temptations, everwhere, enticing us to overeat.
  • Years ago, food would have cost over 50% of your wage packet. Nowadays, we spend less than 10% of our income on food. Those tasty temptations are very cheap.



  • A person who eats less than normal is likely to feel hungry again soon, and will be prompted to eat again.
  • Falling blood sugar encourages a feeling of needing to eat.
  • Satiety can be overriden easily.
  • Our bodies register fullnes long after we are already full.
  • The human stomach and digestive tract have the capacity to expand, to deal with larger quantities of food. So, until it is filled, you may feel hungry.


The reduction in calorie expenditure

Our level of activity has vastly decreased in the last few decades due to:

  • The increase in driving.
  • The reduction of parks and open spaces.
  • The reduction in physical education at school.
  • The lack of availability of time.
  • Less active jobs.
  • Time spent looking at screens.



  • Significant events, social occasions and even times of rest and holiday, have become associated with food and drink, and overeating.
  • How we eat is habitual. Immigrants will apparently give up their eating habits last, when they change to a different country.
  • Food spells comfort, familiarity, home, nurture, or safety, for us.
  • Few of us embark on a voluntary change and find it easy.
  • Food is made to smell, taste, and look, irresistable.


The use of food for emotional management

A final factor in overeating is the use of food to help us through the day’s occurences. Most of us do this at some point. Who has not soothed themselves with a bar of chocolate or biscuit, when feeling frustrated or annoyed?  ‘Comfort food’ is a widely used term.

The occasional use of food to comfort won’t make much difference. However, if it is frequently used, it leads to over-riding signs of hunger and fullness, and to weight gain.


What can you do about it?

Health professionals and diet companies may sometimes touch on the first few of these categories. Rarely do people tackle the emotional side of overeating. The people who come to my group have tried most ways to approach weight loss, and it hasn’t worked. They know what they should be doing, but feel powerless to do it. Because they haven’t found another way to manage the day yet. This is not greed, it’s the need to learn a new skill set that society and biology, seem not to advocate.

If you want to go further with this, check out my programme on understanding and overcoming emotional overeating:



*Research based on the work of Julia Buckroyd