Eating Disorders, 14:157–166, 2006
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1064-0266 print/1532-530X online
UEDI 1064-02661532-530XEating Disorders, Vol. 14, No. 02, January 2006: pp. 0–0Eating Disorders
Are You Currently on a Diet? What
Respondents Mean When They Say “Yes”
Current Dieters’ Responses to Dieting QuestionsC. A. Timko et al.
C. ALIX TIMKO
Center for Counseling and Student Development, University of Delaware,
Newark, Delaware, USA
Counseling and Psychological Services, West Chester University, West Chester, Pennsylvania, USA
Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Male and female university students were asked the questions “Are
you currently on a diet to lose weight?” and “Are you currently on
a diet to maintain your weight?” Respondents were asked to clarify
positive responses by listing weight-control behaviors in which they
were engaged. Responses were coded into 12 categories of dieting
methods. Results indicated women and men who diet to lose
weight engage in a wider variety of weight-loss behaviors than
those engaged in dieting to maintain weight. Findings further
indicated differences in dieting methods between individuals diet-
ing to lose weight as opposed to dieting to maintain weight.
The difficult, if not impossible, task of developing a standard operational-
ized definition of dieting is compounded by the various interpretations of
what dieting actually is. This is most noticeable in the lack of an accepted
way to measure or assess dieting (French & Jeffery, 1994). Though there are
some continuous measures designed to assess dieting (e.g., Martz & Shaw,
1994; Strong & Huon 1997), each measures different aspects of dieting and
approaches the measurement in a slightly different manner. One of the
most common ways to assess dieting is to ask participants either “Are you
currently on a diet to lose weight?” or “Are you currently on a diet to main-
tain weight?” This dichotomous method is a convenient and simple way of
Address correspondence to C. Alix Timko, 3720 Walnut Street, Department of Psychology,
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104. E-mail: email@example.com
C. A. Timko et al.
addressing whether or not an individual considers oneself to be currently
Although this gives researchers better insight into whether or not a partici-
pant identifies as being a “dieter,” asking these basic yes/no questions provides
no information as to the caloric intake involved in the diet, nor information as
to how the respondent is interpreting the question (Neumark-Sztainer, Jeffery, &
French, 1997). In addition, this type of question does not allow researchers to
ascertain what behaviors are considered dieting (Martz & Shaw, 1994), nor does
it distinguish whether or not one is eating to be healthy and/or watching what
one eats but still does not consider oneself on a diet.
Another aspect of dieting that makes defining it uniformly difficult is
whether or not individuals who report being on a diet are actually engaging in
behaviors to lose or maintain their weight. Dieting could be understood as
eating in a healthy manner or as the intent to engage in particular behaviors.
Individuals could also endorse “no” in response to a question about dieting if
they consider themselves “weight watching.” Weight watching, though involving
many of the same behaviors as dieting, may be viewed as being more preven-
tative in nature (Wertheim, Paxton, Schutz, & Muir, 1997). That is, individuals
who watch their weight may be attempting to avoid weight gain, whereas diet-
ing is usually viewed as attempting weight loss. There is also some evidence
that individuals who consider themselves as “controlling their weight” do not
consider themselves to be dieters but do engage in many of the same behav-
iors in which self-reported dieters engage (Connor & Norman, 1996).
Since most dieters use a combination of methods to diet (Nichter,
Rittenbaugh, Nichter, Vuckovic, & Aicken, 1995), it is difficult, if not impossi-
ble, to assume what individuals imply when using the term “dieting.” In order
to clarify respondents’ intentions when they endorse “yes” to the questions
“Are you currently dieting to lose weight?” and “Are you currently on a diet to
maintain your weight?” it was decided to ask individuals to clarify their
responses to these questions. Consequently, the current study was exploratory
in nature and collected qualitative data from individuals who self-identified as
being on a diet to lose weight or on a diet to maintain weight. By gathering
information about what young women and men mean when they answer
“yes” to the dichotomous questions being used to ascertain dieting status, the
current study is intended to provide necessary information for designing a
valid measure to assess dieting behavior and intention in college students.
Participants were 670 students from three universities. Their ages ranged
from 18–55 (M = 20.76, SD = 3.28). One hundred and eighty-three (183) of
the participants were men, 487 were women. Women’s BMIs ranged from
Current Dieters’ Responses to Dieting Questions
15.15 to 45.72 (M = 22.68, SD = 3.67) and men’s BMIs ranged from 16.73 to
44.07 (M = 24.59, SD = 3.77). The ethnic diversity of the population was
similar to that of the universities where data were collected. The majority of
the sample were Caucasian (83.7%, N = 561), 9.3% (N = 62) were African
American, and 6.0% (N = 47) belonged to other minority groups.
Procedure and Measures
Participants were asked to complete a battery of questionnaires to assess
eating habits and mental health in college students. The battery included
(among others): Body Shape Questionnaire (Cooper, Taylor, Cooper, &
Fairburn, 1987), Eating Attitudes Test-26 (Garner, Olmsted, Bohr, &
Garfinkel, 1982), and The Beck Depression Inventory – Second Edition
(Beck, Brown, & Steer, 1996). As a large portion of the battery was not rele-
vant for this study, it will not be discussed in detail. Questionnaires were
distributed and completed during various undergraduate classes. There
were no incentives for participation, nor were any students penalized for
declining to complete the packet. The appropriate regulatory boards at each
institution approved data collection.
As part of the demographic information requested, participants were
asked to report their weight, height, age, and ethnicity. In addition, they
were asked the following questions:
Are you currently on a diet to lose weight?
Are you currently on a diet to maintain your weight?
If you answered “yes” to one of the above questions, please list what
you are doing to lose or maintain weight (e.g., Atkins dieting, exercise,
low-carb diet, counting calories, eating healthy, etc.).
These questions were presented as displayed above, and participants were
given approximately three inches of blank space to list any behaviors in
which they were engaging. The examples provided in the question were
based on popular current diets and the authors’ clinical experience. Though
it is possible that this list influenced respondents’ spontaneous responses, it
was deemed necessary to provide participants with examples in order to
encourage responses. The separation of dieting behaviors into “dieting to
lose” or “dieting to maintain” weight has been suggested in the past, as diet-
ers who report they are on a diet to lose weight expend more calories
through exercise than those dieting to maintain weight or those who are not
dieting (French et al., 1994). It is therefore possible that other weight-
control behaviors may differ between these two groups.
The qualitative information provided by respondents was divided into 12
categories: exercise and eating healthy, eating healthy, exercise only, exercise
as adjunct, low carbohydrate/high protein diet, low- or no-carbohydrate diet,
high-protein diet, low-fat diet, reduced calorie, commercial weight-loss
C. A. Timko et al.
program, unhealthy methods, and other. Due to the way in which data were
coded, it was possible for someone to endorse more than one weight-
The individuals who reported “healthy eating and exercise” as a weight-
control method were coded under the first category. If a participant listed
eating healthy, exercise and another method of weight control (such as
reduced calorie intake or diet pills) each of these behaviors was categorized
separately. This was done because “eating healthy and exercise” when
combined with other behaviors may be different than “eating healthy and
exercise” when reported as a unit. Reduced-calorie diets included those who
were reducing intake and “counting” calories. Commercial weight loss
programs generally included Weight Watchers, LA Weight Loss, Atkins, and
use of Metabo-life. High-protein diets included individuals who took protein
supplements or shakes. Unhealthy methods included the use of diet pills,
products containing ephedrine, purging, smoking, and the identification of an
eating disorder. These unhealthy methods provided by the participants are
similar to unhealthy methods of dieting assessed by other researchers (Biener &
Heaton, 1995, French, Perry, Leon, & Fulkerson, 1995). Skipping meals or
reducing the number of meals eaten during the day were both coded as
“other.” Though some professionals would consider this an unhealthy dieting
practice, it is possible that respondents may consider this healthy. Additional
dieting practices that fell into the “other” category were use of professional
help, watching one’s weight, and consuming more water or green tea.
Before analyzing the data, inter-rater reliability for classifying dieters’ behavior
was calculated. Inter-rater reliability was quite high with alphas ranging from
.94 to 1.00. The only alpha level under .94 was that for low-carbohydrate/
high-protein diets (alpha = .80).
As dieting practices may differ across gender and type of self-identified
dieting (for weight loss or maintenance), the data will be reported separately.
In order to compare differences between weight-loss dieters and those dieting
to maintain weight, a series of chi-square analyses were conducted for the
female participants. There was not a sufficient number of male participants to
ensure statistical power, therefore no statistical tests were performed on that
data. Consequently, the male data was summarized according to the fre-
quency with which male participants reported dieting behaviors.
Almost half of the women reported not being on a diet to lose or maintain
weight (N = 237, 48.7%), 108 women (22.2%) reported dieting to lose
Current Dieters’ Responses to Dieting Questions
weight, and 101 women (20.7%) reported dieting to maintain weight. A
small portion of women indicated they were both on a diet to lose and to
maintain weight (N = 41, 8.4%). The groups of women differed significantly
in their BMIs (F(3, 483) = 15.08, p < 0.001), with those who were dieting to
lose weight having significantly higher BMIs (M = 24.55, SD = 3.99) than
those dieting to maintain weight (M = 22.27, SD = 3.26, p < 0.001) and those
not dieting (M = 21.86, SD = 3.29, p < 0.001). The latter two groups did not
differ significantly from each other.
Of the women who reported being on a diet to lose weight, 17.6% of
them reported eating healthy and exercising. This is less than half the num-
ber of women who identified as dieting to maintain weight via exercise and
healthy eating (32.7%, χ2(1), N = 209) = 6.35, p = 0.01). Women dieting to
lose weight also differed from women dieting to maintain weight in terms of
their use of exercise. Almost half of the women (43.5%, N = 47) dieting to
lose weight used exercise in addition to other forms of weight loss. This is a
significantly higher number of women than those dieing to maintain weight
(23.8%, χ2(1), N = 209) = 9.08, p = 0.003). On the other hand, women who
dieted to maintain weight tended to use only exercise (10.9%) more often
than women who were dieting to lose weight (0%). With respect to specific
types of dieting strategies, the only significant difference between the two
groups was in the consumption of low- or no-carbohydrate diet. More
women who identified as dieting to lose weight tended to engage in this
type of diet (24.1%) than women who identified as dieting to maintain
weight (9.9%, χ2(1), N = 209) = 7.35, p < 0.007).
There was no significant difference between the two groups of women
for the remaining methods of weight control. Thirty-four percent (34.3%) of
women dieting to lose weight engaged in healthy eating habits, whereas
33.7% of those dieting to maintain weight did so. One quarter of weight loss
dieters reduced their caloric intake; 14.9% of those dieting to maintain
weight consumed a reduced-calorie diet. In terms of low-fat diets, 9.3% of
those trying to lose weight used this method and 5.9% of those maintaining
their weight adhered to this type of diet. While 13% of the women dieting
for weight loss reported using some form of commercial weight loss program,
only 5.9% of those maintaining their weight used commercial programs.
Of the latter group, a few participants clarified their responses on the
questionnaire. For example, one woman noted that she used a commercial
program’s “point system” to help her maintain weight but was not trying to
lose any more weight. None of the women dieting to lose weight consumed
a low-carbohydrate/high-protein diet for weight control and only one
adhered to a solely high-protein diet. Of the women dieting to maintain
weight, 2 consumed a low-carbohydrate/high-protein diet and one con-
sumed a high-protein diet. A small percentage of both types of dieters
engaged in unhealthy weight loss, with 5 women trying to lose weight via
unhealthy methods and 3 attempting to maintain their weight via unhealthy
C. A. Timko et al.
methods. Finally, equivalent percentages of those dieting to lose weight
(13%) and dieting to maintain weight (12.9%) engaged in other methods of
There was a small subgroup of women (8.4%) who reported both diet-
ing to maintain and dieting to lose weight. Instead of discarding this data, it
was decided to investigate what types of behavior this group used for
weight control. It was possible that these women considered themselves to
be on some sort of diet but did not entirely characterize it as dieting to lose
or maintain weight. Of this group of 41 women, over one third of them
(36.6%) ate healthy and engaged in exercise. One third (29.9%) of the 26
remaining women engaged in healthy eating, 19.5% ate a reduced-calorie
diet, 17.1% used a commercial weight loss program, and 14.6% used a no-
or low-carbohydrate diet in order to diet. As far as exercise was concerned,
19.5% used exercise in addition to one of the other methods of weight
control and 4.9% (or two women) engaged in exercise alone for dieting
purposes. Two women noted that they used unhealthy methods to control
their weight and one woman ate a low-fat diet. None of the women used a
low-carbohydrate/high-protein diet. Over fourteen percent (14.6%) of the
women used other means of weight control.
Of the male respondents, only 13 reported being on a diet to lose weight
(BMI: M = 26.75, SD = 4.91), 28 reported dieting to maintain their weight
(BMI: M = 25.66, SD = 3.03), and 7 indicated they were dieting to both lose
and maintain weight (BMI: M = 27.36, SD = 4.36). Those who were not
dieting had an average BMI of 24.00 (SD = 3.61). There were no significant
differences in BMI between these groups of men. Of the 13 men who were
dieting to lose weight, 3 of them (23.1%) used diet and exercise to lose
weight. The remaining 10 primarily engaged in healthy eating (38.5%) and
23.1% reported consuming a no- or low- carbohydrate diet. A third of the
sample used exercise as an adjunct to their chosen method of weight loss
(30.8%). None of them used unhealthy measures for weight loss or a com-
mercial weight-loss program. The remaining methods of weight control
were endorsed by only one participant each.
As far as dieting to maintain weight, the 39.3% of the 28 men who
engaged in this form of weight control engaged in healthy eating and exer-
cise, and 17.9% used exercise as their only form of weight maintenance.
The 12 remaining men used exercise as an adjunct to other methods 17.9%
of the time, 17.9% used “other methods” of weight control, 14.3% engaged
in healthy eating, 10.7% ate a no- or low-carbohydrate diet, and 7.1%
consumed a high-protein diet. None of the men who endorsed dieting to
maintain weight used a high-protein/low- carbohydrate diet, reduced-calorie
Current Dieters’ Responses to Dieting Questions
diet, unhealthy practices, or a low-fat diet for weight control. Only one man
reported using a commercial weight-loss program.
As was found with the women, there was a small group of men who
endorsed both dieting to maintain weight and dieting to lose weight. Of the
seven men, none of them engaged in the following behaviors: eating
healthy and exercising, low-carbohydrate/high-protein diet, unhealthy
weight loss practices, low- or no-carbohydrate diet, low- or no-fat diet,
high-protein diet or other behaviors. Four of the men used exercise only
(42.9%), four men engaged in healthy eating (42.9%), 28.6% ate a reduced-
calorie diet, and one man utilized a commercial weight loss program.
Overall, it appears that women and men who diet to lose weight engage in
a wider variety of weight loss behaviors than those engaged in dieting to
maintain weight. Women who are dieting to lose weight do not appear to
engage in as much exercise as women who are dieting to maintain weight.
This is potentially important information, given that exercise is necessary for
maintaining weight. Women who are dieting to maintain their weight tend
to focus on healthy eating, exercise, and reduced caloric intake more than
any other method of weight control. They also tend to engage in these
behaviors more often than women dieting to lose weight. Some of these dif-
ferences may be explained by BMI. Though the mean BMI of both groups is
in the normal range, those women dieting to lose weight have significantly
higher BMIs than those dieting to maintain weight. Since those dieting to
lose weight are actively engaged in weight loss, it is not surprising that their
weight is higher. However, this higher weight may also drive them to not
only try less reliable methods of weight loss but also to engage in a greater
variety and even unhealthier approaches to losing weight.
As far as the men were concerned, there were relatively few men diet-
ing to lose or maintain weight, therefore the information gathered from the
men may not be representative of male populations. In general, the men
tended to engage in exercise more frequently than women and tended not
to use unhealthy methods or commercial weight-loss programs. Like the
women, there was more variety in the methods used by men dieting to lose
weight as opposed to those dieting to maintain weight. Men were also more
likely to engage in a diet that modified macronutrient intake (e.g., high-
protein diets). Unfortunately, there were also not enough men in the sample
who considered themselves to be dieting in order to compare them to
women or to make any truly meaningful interpretations of male dieing
behavior. One drawback to the assessment of dieting behavior in men was
that men were not given the option to note whether they were on a diet to
gain weight or muscle. There is some evidence that men prefer a more
C. A. Timko et al.
muscled physique that may lead them to engage in different “dieting” prac-
tices (Cafri & Thompson, 2004). This is an important area to assess in future
Surprisingly, there were very few men and women who were using
low-carbohydrate or low-carbohydrate /high-protein diets for weight control.
This was unexpected, given the great deal of advertising and media attention
promoting this type of diet. Of course, the women and men who indicated
that they were “eating healthy” did not clarify this. Eating healthy could mean
any number of things, including diets that restrict certain macronutrients or a
It is also unknown whether or not the respondents were actually
engaging in the behaviors they reported or were just intending to engage in
them. Those who reported not dieting to lose or maintain weight were not
queried about their consummatory behaviors; therefore, it is unknown
whether or not non-dieters were engaging in similar weight-control behaviors
as dieters — but did not consider it dieting. In addition, information about
the respondents’ dieting history was not gathered. Dieting may not mean
the same thing for an individual who has dieted frequently in the past as it
does for someone who is dieting for the first time. These are all issues that
need to be addressed in future research in order to provide more in-depth
and meaningful information about the types of behaviors used in dieting.
In addition to the respondents who endorsed dieting to lose or main-
tain weight, there was a small group of male and female participants who
endorsed both. It was decided to investigate their responses as well. This
group of individuals appeared to engage in similar types of behaviors as the
other two groups. It is noteworthy, however, that they considered them-
selves to be both on a diet to lose weight and on a diet to maintain weight.
It is, therefore, possible that this sub-group of men and women represent a
small population of individuals who are engaged in weight control behav-
iors, but who also characterize it differently than either dieting to lose
weight or dieting to maintain weight.
One limitation to this study is the population. Though it is a large sam-
ple, all of the participants were college students. The majority of research
done on the assessment of dieting and dieting behaviors has been con-
ducted in adolescent populations. Though it is uncertain how college-aged
individuals would differ from high school-aged individuals in terms of diet,
it is known that college-aged individuals do not generally engage in healthy
eating and weight control practices (Wardle, et al., 1997). Those who do are
those most likely to consider themselves to be on a diet or trying to lose
weight. In addition, many women actually decrease their unhealthy or eat-
ing disordered patterns of consumption 10 years out of college. Therefore,
the information gathered in this study may not be applicable to normal
weight, middle-aged women (Heatherton, Mahamedi, Striepe, Field, & Keel,
Current Dieters’ Responses to Dieting Questions
Dieting pervades western culture, with a large percentage of the popula-
tion currently attempting to lose weight for one reason or another (e.g.,
Nichter et al., 1995; Wertheim et al., 1997). Often socio-cultural pressures to be
thin, health reasons, and the clear prejudice that exists toward obese individu-
als are cited as the main reasons for this dieting phenomenon. In order to
understand dieting and weight loss, it is not only necessary to have a good
grasp of the possible mindset or intentions that exist but also to understand the
nature of the behaviors involved. Investigating the specific behaviors in which
individuals engage to lose weight may shed more light on the nuances of diet-
ing (Connor & Norman, 1996). This study was a step in that direction. Many
studies that investigate dieting or eating practices provide participants with lists
of behaviors or dietary practices. This study was unique in that it asked the
participants to provide qualitative information about their consummatory
behavior. Therefore, it is possible to take the qualitative information gathered
in this study and develop a more sophisticated method of measuring dieting.
Finally, exploring various behaviors involved and whether or not these behav-
iors differ according to the intent behind the diet should be studied/explored.
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