13 Reasons Why Dieters Relapse

Relapse is a retreat to original behaviour. Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts relapse.

Even regular people relapse when they make a new resolution and fail to keep them.

Or probably every time you fail to keep a promise, you are lapsing.

So, even dieters relapse.

And like every other lapse case, this is also a scene of a crisis. So who is to be blamed?

Every time a person relapses we blame the person to be deficient in will power and self-control.

This applies to dieters as well.

Long term weight loss is possible. Those who maintain it for 2-5 years have better prospects of maintaining their healthy weight.

Still, we get to you hear from someone or the other, “Thats it! I cant stick to this diet anymore.” Or “ I have had enough of this. I am not losing weight. I give up.” The sound of these statements clearly resonates with lack of will power.

But is it really so simple or are they many other factors at play for this lapse?

13 Reasons Why Dieters Relapse

Here are 13 reasons which can explain why dieters relapse and fail to adhere to diets.

1. The term ‘diet’ itself means retreating to old habits

When we use the term ’diet’, it is equated with weight loss.

Dr. Avena, in her book ‘Why Diets Fail’, suggests using the term ‘eating plan’ instead of ‘diet’. But for simplicity sake, we toss the term ‘diet’.

When we say diet, mentally we strike it off as a temporary process.

In other words, we are sticking to a diet in order to lose weight, that is we are restricting ourselves or watching our eating habits for a certain time period till we attain our weight goal.

What happens after the weight goal is achieved?

Does it mean that after a few months of inconvenience and struggle to become healthy, we can get back to the forbidden foods?

No definitely not! Those who are maintaining their healthy weight are watching their diet and exercising regularly not for a temporary phase.

They have developed a strategy that keeps them fit.

So if you are going on a diet look forward to it as a change in your dietary pattern, not a temporary solution.

2. I am ‘hungry’

Hunger is perhaps the biggest obstacle against losing weight.

A person weighing 200 pounds will require to consume more calories to maintain that weight than one weighing 125 pounds.

But if you are on a diet, to lose that 200 pounds you will have to consume lesser calories which means you will be hungry.

Hunger makes us feel uncomfortable.

At that time all other concerns seem to fade away and hunger tends to make one aggressive. Hunger does not increase the desirability of food but reduces the individual’s urge to resist.

Therefore when hungry, you do not tend to focus on health quotient of the food.

However, the meal does seem very tasty when hungry.

Hunger makes sweetness seem more pleasant and satiety reduces the same pleasure. This occurs due to the release of brain chemicals called opioids.

This makes food seem tastier and more rewarding when hungry and can lead to overeating. That is why treating obesity by restricting diet is unsuccessful.

One way to treat this is to eat more satiating foods.

Solid foods of the same calories are more satisfying than liquid foods. You can drink 3-4 glasses of juice but eating 1-2 oranges seems more satisfying. Eating whole fruits, vegetables or snacking on nuts is one option.

Researchers suggest that reducing the time interval between meals can lead to a decrease of 45 calories a day.

That is a five-pound reduction in a year! You can plan your food choices in advance to reduce vulnerability towards hunger.

3. Using food as a drug

Certain food items are addictive especially those rich in sugar and fat.

In fact research proves that sugar is far more addictive than cocaine.

Excessive intake of such food can cause changes in the brain similar to those caused by drugs of abuse.

Our current day food environment exposes us to high carbohydrate foods, fast food restaurants, convenience food stores, snack machines and so on.

Also to save money we buy supersized bag of chips, supersized bottles of soda and together these supersized snacks add to our supersized waistlines.

When we eat these foods our brain generates ‘feel good’ chemicals which make such foods seem more palatable and addictive.

As we keep consuming them, we develop tolerance towards it where we have to eat more of these sugar-laden foods to achieve that state of pleasure.

Also, it is essential to note while dieting, individuals not only consume less calories but also less of their favorite food items which are most addictive.

When deprived of a particular food we tend to be psychologically hungry for the same food. And in the battle between such appetite and restraint, it is appetite who wins.

This could be the reason why those successful in losing weight subsequently regain their weight.

4. Emotional eating

Hunger is not the only stimulus that makes us eat, even emotions are involved.

Especially negative emotions like loneliness, anxiety, depression, family crisis, personal conflicts stimulate us to consume the so-called ‘comfort foods’ which are rich in sugar and fat like chocolate.

Stress hormones stimulate our appetite and make comfort foods seem more rewarding.

These foods definitely comfort us in the face of stress but also deposit themselves as abdominal fat.

In this study, it was observed that when scientists introduced stress hormones in the animals’ brains they remain stressed.

But oddly after consuming sugar, they calmed down.

A study evaluating the effect of stress on eating patterns demonstrated that emotional eaters ate more of sweet fatty foods during periods of chronic stress.

Overeating or binge eating reduces attention on the stressful event and enhances mood.

Emotional eating also makes your long term goals seem less valuable than your current requirements.

For example, eating the chocolate cake to get over your grief at this moment seems far more important than fitting into the perfect gown for your friend’s wedding in winter.

Comfort foods like chocolate blunt our system’s response to stress. Dieters who fail to find other ways to cope with stress regain their weight in this manner.

5. Lack of willpower

This is the one reason that always gets the blame when we fail to do something. Willpower can be defined as an energy that regulates self-control over impulsive behavior.

Successful dieters score more on mental efforts as they deliberately make healthy food choices and maintain their diet throughout the year.

Dieters who are personally motivated are more successful in losing weight.

For example, you don’t have to exert much self-control to avoid eating chocolate if dieting is valuable to you.

But the same act will require more willpower when you refrain from eating chocolate just because someone has ordered you to.

Mental stress affects one’s willpower to eat healthily.

It fuels your impulsive nature. Workload increases your susceptibility to look for immediate rewards than future benefits.

The busier people are the more impulsive they are likely to be.

That's why people working under great stress tend to skip meals or grab a bite just for the heck of it.

Or even a reverse attitude is seen where after a stressful day at work, sinking your teeth into a cheesy slice of pizza seems comforting. These factors lower your willpower to eat healthily.

Reasons Why Dieters Relapse

6. Cravings falter your perception of hunger

The enticing nature of cravings is explained by what is known as projection bias. Projection bias is falsely transferring current preferences on future scenarios.

For example, when a person is experiencing a craving he is said to be in a ‘hot ‘ state.

In such situations, he seems to overestimate his hunger or the time period for which the craving will last.

Once in a ‘cold’ state or satiated he will not understand the essence of hunger during a craving.

People in a cold state mispredict how they would behave in a cold state and vice versa.

A study demonstrated that when asked to choose a snack that they wouldn’t get to eat for a week, when hungry people would likely choose an unhealthy snack compared to when they are not hungry.

This shows that people project their current tastes on future tastes.

When we are seized with cravings we falsely overestimate our hunger, and when not we tend to underestimate it.

This weakens an individual’s willpower in face of tempting situations.

It would be wise to keep healthy snacks with you or stick to the perimeter of the store that sells healthy fresh food and not junk food.

7. When dieting isn’t a habit

We are creatures of habit.

Our lifestyle is a great determinant of our weight. When a person maintains weight, he is likely to continue maintaining that weight unless his lifestyle changes completely.

People who maintain their weight for 2 years are likely to maintain it for 2 more years. And those who maintain for 5 years have even better chances.

Habit is reversible.

If not practiced every day it diminishes. This is beneficial when it comes to cravings.

If you have a certain craving today and if you make it a practice to ignore it, it will eventually dwindle.

Refraining from indulgence is one of the best but toughest ways to rule over your cravings.

8. You are conditioned to go weak in your knees in face of tasty food

Psychologists call this cue elicited behaviour. We are living in a world where we are exposed to delicious, highly palatable, addictive food every minute.

When a dieter encounters the delicious aroma of barbecue or a bowl of creamy gelato, he tends to lose focus on eating healthy food or the goal of losing weight.

Food cues psychologically condition a person to react in a way that stimulates immediate consumption of the food item and satisfying the craving.

Food cues in combination with negative emotions can give rise to binge eating behavior.

Bingeing is eating in excess at one go on a frequent basis. This completely disrupts a dieter’s goal of consuming few calories.

It is a natural tendency to underestimate our response to food cues. Simply removing food cues can prevent us from overeating.

Limited variety in a restricted diet can reduce calorie intake but also heighten one’s response to highly palatable food.

Dieters should distance themselves from food cues that can threaten their goal or abstain from buying foods that ‘you can’t eat just one’.

9.The restriction that leads to dichotomous thinking

We have biological boundaries that determine our appetite.

We regulate our eating habits based on internal cues- we eat when hungry and stop when we are satisfied.

However, dieters do not follow this pattern.

They have a self-imposed limit on their calorie intake which is based on rules prescribed by a specific diet.

This causes dieters to feel hungry frequently which in turn makes them void the rules of low-calorie intake.

Since they follow a strict eating pattern, they do not think much or use mental power while regulating their intake.

So when they violate the rule of low-calorie intake, they think ‘ Oh I have already blown my diet, I might as well continue to eat.’ And they start overeating.

Scientists describe this as ‘what the hell’ effect. The prospects of overeating in the future or having access to forbidden food make the dieter feel hopeless about his inability to stick to a diet.

This results in extreme or dichotomous thinking of all or nothing fashion and dieting eventually paves a way to overeating.

Research proves that dichotomous thinking is the prime reason that causes dieters to regain their weight within a year.

However, this thinking is seen in those who are restricted in terms of diet.

Those who are unrestricted, compensate by eating less after having consumed excess calories.

A way to avoid such faulty thinking is to remember that every calorie counts and that a single violation does not mean you have a free pass to keep repeating the error.

10. Alcohol is a risk factor for weight gain

Alcohol myopia is a phenomenon in which alcohol promotes eating in dieters. Alcohol lowers our guard and reduces our self-awareness and willpower.

Many people consume alcohol or drugs in order to lose self-control.

Alcohol consumption disrupts our ability to self-monitor and regulate our intake.

Alcohol intake is considered as a risk factor for weight gain and abdominal obesity. It also stimulates our appetite and increases our preferences for salty and high-fat food.

A study demonstrated that subjects consumed 9 to 17% extra calories after a single drink.

11. Social influence on eating habits

Society always has a say on every aspect of our nature, even our eating behavior.

Every country has its own perception of ideal weight. What would seem as ideal weight in Greece, would appear to be overweight in China.

When anyone goes on a diet, there are always a set of people who won’t support you and will be waiting to say ‘See I told you.

Diets don’t work.’ But to counteract that there also support groups available who will motivate you at every step to achieve your weight loss goal.

What is of importance is to understand that your eating pattern should be healthy and should matter to you the most.

It should not be influenced by what others say.

When we have company, we tend to mimic the opposite person’s eating pattern. A study reports that individuals eat fewer cookies in the presence of a non-eating observer than when alone.

This is good news if you are surrounded by people who have healthy eating habits.

But if you observe family members tend to be of similar sizes.

If you come from a family where most members are overweight, then the time and frequency spent on eating as well as the quantity of food consumed will put more pressure on the person trying to lose weight.

Since the food industry is improving in leaps and bounds, they have developed different strategies to keep this progress going.

Apart from serving extra tasty food, most fast food chains have increased the food portion size. This instantly evokes overeating.

This attitude is not limited to eating at the restaurant but you frequently eat at your friends’ places then you are likely to eat how much is served to you rather than restraining yourself for this would seem inappropriate.

Society definitely dictates our choices.

12. Instant pleasure v/s long term benefits

Goals are mental projections of future states that an individual wants to be in.

A dieter faces the conflict between the goals of eating enjoyment and goal of weight control.

This is described as a goal conflict theory of eating behavior.

Dieters want to reduce or maintain their current weight but the value of this goal seems less in front of the instant pleasure obtained by consuming highly palatable food.

Even simple food cues like the approach of dinner time can increase their motivation to overeat.

The smell or sight of palatable food is likely to activate thoughts about eating enjoyment in dieters.

Thus the goal of eating enjoyment interferes with the goal of weight control.

The goal conflict model also gives rise to compensatory intentions to relieve the discomfort of indulging.

Dieters experiencing such conflict have a mindset that, ‘I will eat this treat now, but I'll cut back later.’

However research shows that dieters fail to follow this compensatory behaviour and it subsequently leads to overeating.

13. Extraneous factors that could lead to relapse

Apart from psychological factors, there are a number of other factors that could de-motivate a dieter.

Not so tasty diet foods, a high cost of nutritious food, lack of exercise, slow weight loss outcomes easily reduce one’s willpower to consume healthy food and achieve their weight goal.

Also, an improper choice of diets can result in certain physiological symptoms which can make you give up a diet easily.

Transition to low carb diets can cause dizziness and fatigue.

Low-fat diets reduce the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

Also, it is not a guarantee that every diet suits an individual. This can lead to delayed weight loss outcomes and not most of us believing in being patient.

Solutions to prevent diet relapse

Dietary relapse is something you can’t avoid.

Its human tendency to slip in an environment filled with such awesome food cues.

Here are a few suggestions we would like to share to help you if you were ever to face a dietary lapse:

  • Catch lapses before they manifest into weight regain. Have a comeback strategy and stick to it no matter what.
  • Keep monitoring your weight. Click pictures of yourself every month to keep reminding you of your weight loss progress.
  • Include physical activity in your weight loss regime. 30 minutes to an hour of workout should be enough.
  • Eat small portions but include foods that satisfy your appetite.
  • Eat regularly and make it point to eat a good breakfast as it helps control your appetite.
  • Make it point to follow the consistent eating pattern throughout the year and join a weight loss group to keep you motivated.


Dietary relapse is mainly a result of psychological factors. But the dieters alone do not deserve all the blame.

Food cues in today’s environment are very alluring such that even an unrestrained individual may tend to overeat.

Poor choice of diets, slow results and exorbitant prices of nutritious food can easily debilitate your weight loss efforts.

Also, the manner in which sugar and fats find their way in our diet, we tend to be addicted to it. This and lack of mental effort are prime reasons why dieters relapse.

But a good understanding of the reasons behind relapse can help nip the problem in the bud and set you back on track towards your weight loss goal.

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