Plate of Apples

How Long Before Diet Resolutions Fade? A Bit of Data

Isaac Bashevis Singer told us we must believe in free will – there is no other choice. Thus, many of us put a great deal of energy into resolutions at this time of year. Often, they involve an effort to eat more healthfully. Resolve fades. Though 77 percent of resolutions last for at least a week, more than 80 percent will lapse. These observations that date back to 1988 and rely on self reports. But a first-of-its-kind study gives us a fascinating new view of the attention span for a new dietary pattern.

This study suggests that, on average, it takes between three and five weeks for people to tire of a new dietary pattern and drop out.

Digital Epidemiology

Sherry Towers and colleagues used a bit of digital epidemiology to find these insights. They examined the patterns of internet searches for recipes related to popular diets. Seasonality was what we all would expect – a spike in January, followed by steady declines, and then a big drop during winter holidays.

The biggest January spikes in interest were for Weight Watchers (now known as WW). On the other hand, the biggest drops in December were for South Beach. Paleo, WW, and low-carb diets seem to hold attention longest. Attention spans for South Beach seemed to be the shortest. The authors write:

“Long-term patterns for some of these diets may indeed be driven by a contagious process whereby people are ‘infected’ with the idea to try a particular diet by what they see in the media or hear from their friends or family. Interest in some diets clearly wanes over time as new fad diets become popular, supplanting the old fad diets.”

Goals and Support

In PLOS ONE, another new paper offers a more encouraging view of New Year’s resolutions. Martin Oscarsson et al find that more than half of their sample of people making resolutions report success after a year of follow-up. Perhaps more significant is their observations about what makes for more successful resolutions.

For one thing, approach-oriented goals yield more success than avoidance-oriented goals. The idea is that it’s more motivating to pursue an achievement than it is to focus on avoiding a failure. Any parent can tell you, that don’t is something with limited power to motivate.

Another finding is that support makes a difference. The researchers randomized subjects to receive no, some, or extended support. The group that received some support was the most successful a year later.

Indeed, it seems that resolutions can be tools for positive change. Choosing the right goals and getting the support you need can make a difference.

Click here for the Towers study and here for the Oscarsson study.

Plate of Apples, painting by Paul Serusier / WikiArt

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January 12, 2021