By Macaela Mackenzie

Counting macros, going paleo, and cutting out carbs might be trendy on campus. However, research shows that diets, which typically have strict rules about what and how much to eat, aren’t an effective way for students to maintain healthy eating habits long term.

Here’s why

  • Less enjoyment “Diets deprive us both physically and psychologically of things we tend to really like. When you limit yourself from something that you really like, it actually comes back to bite you in the long run,” says Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab in New York and author of the books Mindless Eating (Bantam, 2010) and Slim by Design(William Morrow, 2014). “As a result, diets tend to be very unsustainable.”
  • Biological changes When researchers followed up with competitors on a popular weight-loss show six years after they’d dieted to the extreme, they found they’d gained most of the weight back (and that their transformations had actually caused major metabolism slowdowns that persisted for years), according to the study published in Obesity. This isn’t a new phenomenon either—metabolic changes post weight loss are likely one of the reasons it’s so hard to keep the pounds off long term, according to a meta-analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
  • Risk of long-term restriction The more restrictive the diet, the harder it is to keep up, and the more you run the risk of getting into dangerous restrictive eating territory, says Tammy Ostroski, doctor of nursing and manager of the health clinics at Arizona State University. “The thing that concerns me is that students start thinking, ‘I can’t eat this, I can’t eat that,’ and then they tend to binge—it becomes a negative feedback loop.”

What works, say both the experts and the research, are behavioral changes. The idea is to “change the convenience, the attractiveness, and how normal it is to eat the right foods,” says Dr. Wansink.

In addition to educating students about the pitfalls of dieting compared to research-backed strategies for healthy eating, give students a leg up on healthy habits by optimizing their eating environments on campus.

  1. Keep healthy foods in view and easily accessible. Small tweaks like offering students precut fruit can have a big influence on eating habits. “If you’re going to have food visible, make it [healthy] food,” says Dr. Wansink.
  2. Offer smaller packages of snacks. Providing snacks at a campus event? Consider investing in individually sized rations to keep portions in check effortlessly. Simply eating from smaller packages makes a difference. In a 2007 study, participants who were given snacks in large packages consumed 30–50 percent more than those who were given the same food in smaller packages, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
  3. Downsize your dishes. If you’re providing students with pizza or ice cream, or offering other serve-yourself foods, purchase smaller plates or bowls. Doing so can reduce how much we’re eating, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
  4. Provide students with strategies for mindful eating. Pair up with other offices and departments on campus to bring awareness to mindful eating. Simply paying attention to internal and external eating cues and becoming more aware of the reasons behind eating helped improve participants’ body image perceptions and decreased unhealthy eating behaviors, researchers found in a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion.