Make your own choices

Whether your style is laid-out menus or laid-back suggestions, there are plenty of diets to select from

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / January 5, 2011

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Does the American dieter want to be told what to eat? Definitely yes! Also, definitely no!

With Weight Watchers’ new, more directive point system sparking accusations of “tyranny,’’ and with the diet-resolution season sadly upon us, the conflicted mind-set was best described by Concord psychotherapist Jean Fain. She likens dieters to children. “Little kids want to be told what to do by their parents,’’ she says, “but at some point kids don’t want mommy to tell them what to do, even though they sort of do.’’

The psychologically healthy child eventually asserts his independence, says Fain, author of “The Self-Compassion Diet,’’ but many dieters never reach that developmental stage. “They still want some outside expert to figure out when they’re hungry and tell them what to eat and when to stop eating. And yet they still have that rebellious part of them. They’ll stick to the diet for a week, and then go out and eat a whole cheesecake.’’

Or as Ariel Leve, author of “The Fussy Eater’’ column in the Observer Food Monthly, puts it: “As soon as you are told you can’t have something, it’s all you think about having. Maybe the best diet would be the reverse diet. You can’t have fruits and vegetables.’’

In other words: Tell me. No, don’t.

The inconsistent approach of the dieting public is perhaps best seen in our attitude toward two seemingly similar things: The prominently posted calorie counts in fast food restaurants; and the “Eat This, Not That,’’ series, which provides calorie counts and other nutritional information. While the government-mandated information inspires accusations of “Big Brother,’’ “Eat This, Not That’’ has been turned into a popular app.

Sometimes it’s the very same dieter who both does and does not want to be told what to eat. But people also fall into categories, explains Liz Josefsberg, a Weight Watchers leader and a director of brand advocacy.

Some members crave direction, she says. “I’m overwhelmed,’’ they say. “I cannot deal with figuring out what to eat.’’ Or: “I don’t know how this happened. Help me fix this now.’’ On the other end of the scale, she says, are people who come seeking support, not a menu plan. “We give them the frame of a picture, and it’s up to them to fill it in.’’

Erin Riemer, 27, a nanny who’s lost about 90 pounds on Weight Watchers in the past year, falls into the second group. “If they said, ‘Eat fat-free yogurt all day,’ I’d be mad,’’ says Riemer, of Watertown. “I like being told how to eat,’’ she explains, “just not what.’’

Common wisdom holds that it takes 21 days to form a habit — good or bad. As every dieter knows, it doesn’t take nearly that long to undo the good ones.

For its part, the US Department of Agriculture says it learned a valuable lesson about motivating people when it did the research that led to the original food pyramid in 1992. The bottom line: Emphasize the positive messages and avoid the negative, says Robert Post, deputy director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

“It’s a turnoff to tell people how they need to limit their existence,’’ he says. “We don’t tell them don’t eat this or don’t eat that.’’ In practical terms, that translates into guidelines that do advise people to eat more whole grains, but don’t advise them not to eat refined grains. The guidelines are updated every five years.

And yet, as Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, points out, direction is “the formula of every diet book.’’

“If you look at the popular diet books, there have been none that have any staying power, with the exception of Atkins or South Beach, but even those will go away after a while. None of them have shown any proof of long-term results, and hence people tend to move from one to another. Underlying all of these books is the idea that you tell people what to eat, and you have some new approach that no one has tried before.

“That’s what people gravitate toward. They haven’t been successful doing it on their own and are looking for solutions elsewhere.’’

That’s the situation Tina Kim, 36, of Belmont finds herself in. Health problems that made exercise hard led to a 30-pound weight gain, says Kim, a vice president at a high-tech firm. Now she wishes she could just put herself in an expert’s care. “I got into this situation because I didn’t know what I was eating. I want to be told what to do.’’

Aronson Kobacker, 27, of Allston, also does best with rules. “If it’s left up to me, I’ll do Burger King runs, I’ll find myself at Taco Bell.’’ Better, says the self-employed Kobacker, is a specific meal plan. “Being told what to eat, whether or not you like it, can help you lose weight.’’

Alas, if only giving ourselves over were that easy. Susan Roberts, author of “The ‘I’ Diet,’’ and a professor of nutrition at Tufts University, points out the difficulty of making changes. “If someone else is telling you what to eat, you have to find different stuff in the supermarket and cook different things. A lot of practical stuff gets in the way of changing what you eat.’’

And there’s another problem. “Everyone wants to be told what to do so they can have success,’’ says food and diet trends expert Harry Balzer, a vice president with the NPD Group. “They want the answer. The problem is, the answer is not that easy.’’

Perhaps that explains why his surveys of Americans’ dieting habits consistently find that the most popular diet in the country is “my diet’’ — a diet the person made up him- or herself.

And we all know what that means: in the end, no diet at all.

Beth Teitell can be reached at