The Secret To Dieting Is To Not Diet At All—Just Eat Better

Scientists examine the secrets of the “mindlessly slim,” the people who stay thin without even trying.

The Secret To Dieting Is To Not Diet At All—Just Eat Better
Photo: Nick Kee Son/Getty Images

Why do some people seem to never worry about what they eat and yet stay thin, while other folks count every calorie in every kale salad they eat and gain weight even though they’re trying not to? Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab decided to take a look into what it calls the “mindlessly slim.”


The research divided people into two groups. The mindlessly slim group was made up of 112 adults who self-reported themselves as not following strict diets. The other group “consisted of those who dieted regularly, thought about food frequently, and were highly conscious of what they ate.” The idea, says study coauthor Brian Wansink, was to see how behaviors differed between these groups.

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The results showed that the mindlessly slim have many non-standard habits, things that depart from what you hear from a lot of weight-loss programs and gurus, although they won’t be surprising to anyone who does them. “These strategies include: eating high-quality foods, cooking at home, and listening to inner cues in order to stay slim,” says the report.

Other trends emerged from the study. A third of the mindlessly slim don’t drink alcohol (a double-ended bomb of calories plus a hangover-induced appetite for junk the next morning), most include fruits and vegetables with breakfast, and a majority eat veggies daily. Almost half report fruit as their favorite snack, and almost 40% swear off soft drinks entirely. Half of the mindlessly slim say they never diet, and three quarters say they rarely do.

Exercise, too, seems to come easily to these folks, with 42% exercising at least five days a week, and half of them weighing themselves weekly.

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Notably, there is no mention of calorie counting, or prepackaged “diet” foods, or any other faddy tricks such as wearing blue-tinted glasses while you eat (seriously) or raw food diets.

The comments from participants also hold some great tips. For instance, resist trashy food in the store, where it’s only in front of you while you’re at the shelf, rather than bringing it home and trying to resist eating it all there. Others recognize the importance of “quality over quantity” when it comes to eating.


Age-wise, the breakdown is roughly equal across all groups, suggesting that perhaps this is a life-long trait. More interesting is gender: 80% of the mindlessly slim are female.

If you’re the type who spends the whole day dreaming about chocolate cake while simultaneously trying to choke down a rice cracker draped with processed “turkey” slices, then it might be hard to permanently change your habits, but at least now you know what you’re aiming for.

“These results are encouraging,” says lead researcher Anna-Leena Vuorinen, “because they imply that instead of putting restrictions on one’s diet and avoiding favorite foods, weight gain could be prevented early on by learning to listen to inner cues and putting emphasis on the quality instead of the quantity of food.” It sounds almost too easy. And, for some folks at least, it is.

About the author

Previously found writing at, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.