Each year, millions of Americans go on diets. Not all people who diet want to lose weight: Some want to maintain their weight, gain weight (e.g., high-protein diets for building muscle mass), or manage a medical condition, like diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (the low FODMAP diet), or kidney disease.
However, many Americans who go on diets want to lose weight, which is not surprising, given that 3 in 4 Americans are overweight or obese. Some popular diets for losing weight include low-calorie diets (e.g., intermittent fasting), low-carbohydrate diets (e.g., the Atkins diet), detox diets (e.g., juice cleansing), and the infamous “pre-wedding” crash diets (e.g., very low-energy diets or VLEDs).
However, many who follow a weight loss plan and succeed in losing weight fail to maintain the weight loss in the long term. Only about 20% succeed. So, might there be ways to assist dieters, such as through providing more personalized help—depending on factors like their personality, motivations, behaviors, and habits? Perhaps. A study published in the September issue of Appetite has identified five diet styles—temptation, foodie, overthinking, social, and impulsivity—which may be used to personalize healthy eating, dieting, and weight management programs.
Investigating weight loss in relation to diet styles
The authors of the paper, Brindal and Golley, are affiliated with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), a government agency in Australia. And they recruited participants using Facebook advertising on CSIRO’s website. Overall, 1047 people completed the survey used in the investigation.
Characteristics of the sample: 56% identified as Australian, Anglo-Saxon, European, or White; 82% female; average age of 43 years. Of those who disclosed their body mass index (BMI), 48% had normal BMI, 29% were overweight, and 23% were obese.
A variety of measures were used: They assessed personality (the 20-item International Personality Item Pool, plus items related to sociability), behavioral motivation (the BAS/BIS scale), impulsivity (the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale), dietary restraint (the Three-Factor Eating Questionnaire), food cravings (the Food Cravings Questionnaire-Trait), perfectionism (the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale), weight loss self-efficacy (the Weight Loss Self-Efficacy Scale), food involvement (the Food Involvement Scale), motivations for food choice (the Food Choice Questionnaire), and habits and mindfulness (the Mindful Eating Questionnaire, plus items addressing habits).
Outcome variables included vegetable consumption, frequency of eating fast food, body mass index, self-rated health, lifetime dieting frequency, and perceived dieting success.
Five diet styles
Factor analysis identified five factors, which were labeled as impulsive, temptation, overthinking, social, and foodie. The last three were more prevalent than the first two.
Let us take a closer look at these diet styles.
Impulsive: Individuals with the impulsive style are low on conscientiousness and high on fun-seeking. They often show an attentional bias toward food-related cues, like the smell or sight of tasty foods. Impulsivity, including attentional impulsivity (inability to stay focused) and motor impulsivity (acting without thinking), has been shown to predict unhealthy eating.
Temptation: This style is related to greater food cravings, overeating, and lack of control. Analysis of data showed the temptation diet style correlated negatively with health ratings and with believing one has been successful in weight management but positively with BMI, weight concerns, and diet frequency. Even though individuals in this group diet frequently, they tend to have little success losing weight.
Overthinking: This style is a mixture of neuroticism, perfectionism, and behavioral inhibition (e.g., indecision)—traits associated with poor health behaviors and well-being. These dieters tend to feel anxious and depressed, particularly when they feel they have “failed” their diet.
Social: Dieters in this group are high on agreeableness, extraversion, and social closeness. Their love of company and socializing means they are often exposed to many situations, like restaurants and parties, that make it challenging for them to stick to their diets. For example, social dieters may consume certain foods (e.g., alcohol, junk food) not on their diet plan only to please their friends.
Foodie: Foodies score higher on food appreciation and involvement but lower on having fixed eating times and on selecting foods out of convenience or familiarity. They have higher self-rated health and are more likely to eat healthy (e.g., fruits and vegetables vs. fast food). Since previous research suggests dieting success is associated with less variety in foods consumed, it is not clear if foodies’ greater meal variety facilitates or impedes successful weight loss management.
How to help people with each of the five diet styles maintain their weight or lose weight? Let us consider each style in turn.
Social dieters who want to manage their weight successfully need to learn more about the powerful effects of situational exposure to foods not permitted on their diet. Especially when combined with their desire to please their friends (e.g., by copying their eating habits), the constant exposure can present a serious challenge to healthy eating.
Foodies might benefit from combining variety with healthy. This means foodies are more likely to stick to their weight loss plans if their diet includes a large variety of healthy foods. Such a variety of healthy options would allow them to satisfy their desire to appreciate and enjoy food while on a diet.
One group that could really benefit from professional help (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy) are dieters high in the overthinking style. With psychotherapy, these individuals can learn how to cope more effectively with stressful situations, setbacks, and “failures” (e.g., not losing as much weight as hoped).
Dieters who have trouble managing their temptations and cravings should consider cognitive and visual strategies, such as dynamic visual noise, which can be used to interfere with mental images of foods one craves (e.g., images of chocolate, pizza, ice cream).
Last, since impulsive dieters dislike making plans, they need considerable encouragement and support to be willing to go on diets. Additionally, the use of mindfulness practices (to increase focus) and environmental changes (to reduce the visibility of food cues) may increase the success of their weight management plans.