Failure of Dieting in the First Few Weeks–And Later

by | Oct 2, 2013 | Weight control


Usually the first few weeks of a diet go well. The dieter loses weight the first week, perhaps even more than she had anticipated. The exercise goals she had set for herself do not seem onerous. The particular foods she is concentrating on do not seem boring, even if they are not her favorite foods. In a mood of optimism, she may have confided to family or to a few friends that she is actually dieting, thereby risking their disappointment and disapproval if she fails. She is hopeful.

The following week, however, the scale indicates that she has not lost any weight. The next week also– or the week after– she has once again failed to lose weight, even though she has stayed mostly faithful to the diet and kept, mostly, to her exercise regimen. Now, something happens in her life not directly related to her dieting. Maybe she goes on vacation. Maybe one of the children has gotten sick. Maybe a particularly stressful circumstance has developed at work. Since she realizes that this dieting business is not going to be over as quickly as she hoped, she decides to put it off until this latest complication of life is over.

It may be months or years before she starts her diet again. Had she continued to lose weight steadily, these unrelated circumstances in her life would not have caused her to postpone dieting.

The problem: Her expectations were unrealistic. Because her initial weight loss was probably due in part to a loss of fluid, she did not really lose as much weight as she thought.  It would be unreasonable to expect that she could continue to lose weight at that rate.  It is not even desirable to lose weight at a rate faster than one to two pounds a week. Studies suggest that weight lost more precipitously than that usually comes back after the diet is over.  The reason, probably, is that that particular diet is too divergent from ordinary eating habits to maintain indefinitely. Putting it differently, weight loss has to extend over a considerable period of time in order to give the dieter enough time to develop a more proper way of eating, by which I mean an interest and delight in eating those healthy foods which do not cause excessive weight gain.


Had the person described above been able to persist in her diet and continue to exercise as she had been doing, she might have discovered, nevertheless, that she was no longer losing weight. This tendency to plateau is more common than not. Around this time, also, those friends that have been congratulating her on her loss of weight are no longer doing so, not because they see that she is no longer losing weight, but simply because they have begun to take her diet for granted. Others haven’t even noticed that she has lost weight. Consequently, she becomes discouraged; and it is easy to give up.

The problem: Although the dieter may still be very overweight, prolonged dieting induces the body to go into a starvation mode. Perversely, the rate of metabolism drops; and it takes more restriction of calories and more exercise to cause the same amount of weight loss. It is as if the body has decided that a famine has begun and it would be prudent to start conserving energy. The dieter, herself, feels she is climbing up an endless hill. She doesn’t notice any progress, and it seems to her no one else does either.

Assuming the dieter has the courage and persistence to make those adjustments necessary to continue losing weight, there comes a time when the dieter’s weight goals are within reach. Usually she discovers then that she has more weight to lose. The “big bones” she always thought she had, as partial explanation for her weighing a lot, have shrunk along with the rest of her. In other words, she didn’t realize just how fat she was. In my experience, someone who has made it this far takes a deep breath and loses the remaining few pounds. She can dress nicely now, and fit into a bathing suit. Now what?


  1. Her family, including her spouse, treat her pretty much the same as they did when she was fat.
  2. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, her friends no longer pat her on the back for losing weight. Her children haven’t noticed.
  3. She was not promoted at work. Strangers have not come into her life clamoring to make friends with her.
  4. If she was hypertensive, her blood pressure has dropped some, but she still needs to take medication. If she was diabetic, she is still diabetic, but she takes less medicine, or none at all. She may sleep better. She is healthier; but she doesn’t feel healthier. The arthritis pain in the back and knees has not gone away.
  5. New problems have surfaced. Now that she is at her proper weight, she discovers that she is physically out of proportion. She is skinny in some places and still too fat in others. If she was very fat before, she may have unsightly folds of flesh. Her face seems more wrinkled.

Despite these disappointments, many people at this point in the diet feel a satisfying sense of accomplishment. They take pride, as they should, in having overcome themselves. But there are others who, after all that effort, feel a sense of let-down; and they are at particular risk of gaining weight again. They don’t say to themselves, “I might as well be fat;” but their disappointment makes it more likely that given a particular temptation— a party, perhaps— they will begin again to overeat—just this one time, they may say to themselves, but soon enough one more time and then again and again.

For these various reasons, and in these various ways, people fail to diet successfully. Another reason is the inclination to rely on fad diets which never offer much hope for dieting successfully in the first place. (c) Fredric Neuman