diets · fitness

When do New Year’s dieters stop dieting? Early and late, says science

CW: discussion of different popular US diet plans and trends in starting and stopping them, as evidenced by recent research.

Just this week, while watching actual live TV (waiting to see the ball drop in Times Square– hey, it’s a tradition), I saw an actual commercial. Remember those? And this one was by Weight Watchers (now trying to get people to call them WW; yeah, right…) Yes, ’tis the season for the major diet program sellers; January 1 must be their Black Friday, as the diet plan marketing is fast and furious right now.

Instead of images of diet marketing campaigns, I opted to show you a flowering meadow. Aren’t you glad?

Of course, all that flurry of activity around marketing and adopting diet plans in early January dies down soon, with most people stepping away from those plans and eating the ways they did before the above-mentioned flurry. That’s right, isn’t it?

Hmmm. Has anyone checked to make sure this is true? Has science checked this out?

Why yes, it has. In this mid-December article, called “How long do people stick to a diet resolution? A digital epidemiological estimation of weight loss diet persistence”, researchers looked at trends in US internet searches for diet-specific recipes (e.g. Weight Watchers, South Beach, Paleo). For the tl:dr version, read below:

We found that the most popular diets associated with recipe searches since 2004 were the Keto, Low Carb, Weight Watchers, Paleo, South Beach, Atkins and Low Fat diets. For all diets, the temporal trends evidenced distinct annual patterns, with a sharp increase in January, followed by a decline to the summer months and a further abrupt decline in November and December.

How did they find this out? The group analyzed trends found in years of Google searches in the US for diet-specific recipes. That, plus the obligatory fancy math, produced some groovy graphs. They show, for a bunch of different diets, the January spikes in diet-specific recipe online searches.

Graphs showing numbers of diet-specific recipe online searches, where the spikes are the months of January for each year investigated.
Graphs showing numbers of diet-specific recipe online searches, where the spikes are the months of January for each year investigated.

Turns out that the Paleo diet searches lasted the longest (about 5.3 weeks +-), and the older South Beach diet searches dropped off most quickly (about 3.1 weeks +-).

Then they analyzed the trends in diet-specific recipe searches through the course of the year. Here’s another set of cool graphs:

Graphs showing, for different diet-specific recipe searches, drop-offs in February, and then drop-offs in November.
Graphs showing, for different diet-specific recipe searches, drop-offs in February, and then drop-offs in November.

If you’re looking for more details about these graphs, here’s what the researchers said:

A significant proportion of American dieters appeared to stop dieting during the US holiday season in November and December. For all diets studied, 5–25 % of dieters appear to drop out in November, and 15–30 % of dieters appear to drop out in December. The lowest holiday season dropout rates were seen for the Paleo diet (with December dropout rate 14 ± 3 %), and the highest were seen for the South Beach diet (with December dropout rate 33 ± 7 %).

What do the researchers think these results show? Well, after issuing loads of caveats (which is appropriate), they think it’s interesting to see some evidence of greater uptake of newer fad diets like Paleo (their words here) and lower uptake of older fad diets (like South Beach).

What do I think these results show? That this study provides even more evidence that diet marketing plans cost money and aren’t sustained over time. Which we already knew. But it’s always nice to have more science on our side.

Readers, did these results surprise you? Reinforce what you already knew? I’d love to hear any thoughts.

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