The 95% Myth

By Jim F

How many times do you read “95% of all diets fail”?

That statement has become part of weight loss lore, and is the opening line for many a sales pitch. However each time I read the statistic it bothers me. Where is it from? Who said so? Is it a lie?

This example ad for a carb-blocking pill gets even
more carried away touting a 98% figure.

All evidence points to a very small study undertaken in 1959 by Dr. Albert Stunkard and Mavis McLaren-Hume. 100 patients were treated for obesity at a nutrition clinic at New York Hospital. Dr. Stunkard is quoted as saying:

The 100 patients in the study were “just given a diet and sent on their way,” he said.
“That was state of the art in 1959,” he added.
“I’ve been sort of surprised that people keep citing it; I know we do better these days.”

So there it is – a forty year old study of just 100 people.

UPDATE: More research has come to light since this article was first written. There are very few studies that check back after the initial weight loss period. However, a series of researchers at the UCLA looked at a number of dietary interventions – they discovered that most dieters gained back almost all their weight.

While we cannot put an exact figure on it (e.g. 95%) – we can conclude that most efforts at calorie restriction result in only very short-term weight loss, and, could even ultimately lead to weight gain/

References: NYTimes 1999, original study was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine 103(1):79-85.


  1. dee

    I have tried every diet to lose a stone but get bored after to weeks. I have spent hundreds on pills, shakes and all the rest but nothing worked. I do shift work which means own week i eat at normal times the following week im having dinner at 4am my body was all over the place. But i find walking the dog for an hour everyday and eating healthy keeps the weight of without having to diet.

  2. Dan Farrell

    Dieting without exercising is like trying to climb Mt. Everest without oxygen. It isn’t usually very effective.

    But many people hate exercising, sweating and taking the time out. But if they use a quick, sensible exercise plan, designed by a pro they will be more motivated to exercise and ultimately lose weight and firm up as well.

  3. Barb T

    One of the major diet pill pitches lets everyone know about their product, but listen closely. It says to take two tablets and exercise before a meal. I think the key is the exercise, don’t you? Actually, I’m in agreement that a low glycemic diet can be a good choice.

  4. Spectra

    Statistics can say whatever you want them to convey, I’ve learned. 95% of diets fail…well, yeah, I think you’re right, Jim…dieting is a flawed system of losing weight. 95% of the people that go out and buy a case of Slimfast hoping to lose 20 lbs in a week aren’t going to keep buying it if they only lose 2 lbs in a week. So they go “off the diet”. That would be a failure. But of people that don’t “diet” to lose weight and instead start exercising and eating right, the success rate is probably much, much higher.

  5. Jim

    Ha, didn’t mean to single out any particular product there… I’ve blurred out the name now. Many diet pill vendors use the 95% (or 98%) failure concept to try and sell a quick fix.

  6. Randy Smith

    The truth is most people will not follow an eating plan.

    If there a 95% diet failure rate today I suspect the issue is how most people approach weight loss. Most people are looking for a magic pill or fix that will safely cause weight loss in the absence of lifestyle changes.

    If a magic pill is discovered I am reasonably sure it is not going to be some exotic cactus from the Kalahari or some herb from Brazil.

    It is also probably not going to be the Carb Manager (product ad insert in article) developed by Chuck Stebbins who is credited by their ad with “beginning the modern sports nutrition revolution in 1986” and who, by the way, looks fat in his photo on their website – he must have run out of his supply of Carb Manager – will somebody please send him a bottle?

    These ‘miracle discovery’ products do make good marketing stories though and are very hard to disprove unless you are willing to go chase after these cactus and herb eating people in Kalahari and Brazil. It is much easier to order the pills and try them. Who wants to eat responsibly and exercise? How boring is that?

    The issue really is finding a lifestyle that works – you can’t stay on a diet forever so approaching it that way will lead to failure most of the time or at best a yo-yo phenomenon. A reasonable eating and activity plan six days per week with a day off for good behavior works for me.