On the weekend I read an article about gambling addiction, and it got me thinking about how similar it is to weight loss dieting. The article was about Doug, who was drawn into the pokies after a big win one night. Within 15 minutes of sitting down, he won more than $6k. “It was a massive high,” he said. Not surprisingly, Doug got sucked into gambling addiction after this big initial win. It felt SO good that he wanted MORE.

People who have dieted a lot often tell me about their past weight loss ‘wins’. Most people have at least one story – a time in their life where the heavens aligned and they lost a lot of weight. In diet culture, a big weight loss results in an enormous sense of achievement, a huge ‘high’ that is reminiscent of that first big win on the pokies.

Of course, the pokies are rigged against us: everyone ‘knows’ that the house always wins. Those little signs on the back of toilet doors in pubs remind us that statistically, you’re very unlikely to win big. But the initial bonanza happens to almost all gamblers, and this is enough to hook people into chasing more wins. Gamblers look around the casino, they hear the celebratory music and the sound of other people winning. They see the big money advertised on the pokie machine, the promise of winning big. They think they’ll be able to beat the odds and be a big winner. Doug said:

“It’s such a roller coaster ride, you know. And I know I shouldn’t get on board that roller coaster, but it’s very hard not to. Because there are those one percenters where you do win big. The next spin could be the highway to heaven”.

This is SO much like diet promises. Even with a long-term failure rate of over 90%, the lure is there. People ‘know’ that in the long term, the weight loss they think they need to live a happier life is unlikely to happen. But the fact that there’s a tiny statistical chance makes them think that maybe, maybe they really could be in that winning group. And so they keep trying. Over and over again.

We get so sucked into the promise of the next big ‘weight loss win’ that we ignore reality. We try to follow the diet rules, overlooking our own bodily experience in the process, and we dismiss the science that shows us that the game is rigged against us. We think we’ll be the ones to beat the odds.

Doug took to recording his big wins on his phone, so he could ‘relish and savour’ them. And of course, he didn’t do the same when he lost. This is reminiscent of keeping our thin photos, our thin clothes. When we selectively pay attention to those past wins, we ignore our ‘after the after photo’ reality. By only selectively remembering our experience, we keep ourselves hooked on the Russian roulette game of weight loss dieting.

Doug won big a few times, but then he started to lose. Like many gamblers, he tried to chase his losses with more gambling. And of course, Doug ended up spending everything he had.

Like the pokies, for the vast majority of dieters, the initial weight loss ‘win’ is then followed by the loss of weight regain. And like the gambler, we keep trying to chase our losses. But with each successive diet, the wins get smaller. Less weight is lost with each successive diet attempt, and more weight is regained. The dieter is stuck in a spiral, a road to nowhere.

Doug talked about the frustration he felt when he tried to stop because the invitation to gamble was everywhere:

“I wish these machines weren’t on every corner, in every pub…”

This is horribly familiar. Invitations to diet and messages about weight loss saturate almost all corners of our modern life. And to make matters worse, unlike gambling, which pretty much has a bad reputation, dieting to lose weight is seen as A GOOD THING. For people in larger bodies, NOT dieting is seen as aberrant, wrong, ‘giving up’ on themselves. Imagine that gambling was actually ENCOURAGED by our government! Imagine that every time we went to the doctor, we were told to keep gambling, threatened with the fear of death if we dared to give it up?

This is what’s happening in diet culture.

We’re told to keep on gambling, even though it’s a lose-lose situation.

If only dieting came with the same warning signs that gambling did!