When It Comes to Food, Options Can Be Obstacles

Having more options might not always be a good thing, especially for men, says a new study.

With all the diet and fitness options out there, it seems like we have no excuse but to find what we like and just do it. But despite all these choices, we don’t always stick to our plans. In a recent study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers wanted to know if all our options might actually make it harder to be consistent and get results.

Each of the 144 study participants was either type 2 diabetic or pre-diabetic, but the results are probably applicable to anyone. The subjects were divided into two groups and were either given one specific diet to follow or the choice between three diets.

The group with no choice followed the CSIRO Total Wellbeing diet. The group with a choice between diets could take their pick between that same diet, the South Beach diet, or the Mediterranean diet. Each diet plan was to last for one year. At any point in time, the group with a diet choice could switch between plans.

The Hypothesis

First, let’s discuss what the researchers thought would happen. In my opinion, their hypothesis was reasonable. They believed the introduction of choice would increase compliance by reducing dropout rates and thereby increasing effectiveness.

The researchers also expected greater weight loss and cardiovascular health in the group that was allowed choices. They had a secondary hypothesis that men would lose more weight than women, but that’s hardly controversial due to the greater average starting size of the men.

Unexpected Results

What actually happened was not quite what they thought. The dropout rates were no different between the two groups. 33% of the participants ultimately dropped out, but these numbers were statistically even between the two groups and between men and women.

Even more interesting and unexpected were the weight loss results. As hypothesized, having a choice worked better, but only for women. For men, it was the opposite. Lack of choice was actually more effective.

Gender Differences

But it gets even more interesting than that. Only a few people in the choices group actually changed their diet, and only one of the subjects who changed was male. So even though the men didn’t take the opportunity to change, simply having the choice reduced their results. The researchers concluded that men performed better without choice and preferred greater direction than the female participants.

As mentioned above, although the study was focused on weight loss for diabetics, these results almost certainly extend to everyone and have more applications than weight loss. Although choice always seems to be the preferable option, it only seems to actually work better for women. For men, an abundance of options did not work out. The researchers explained why this might be:

The reasons for men to not do as well with a choice of diets and the ability to change diets is not clear but may relate to lack of confidence in decision making about food and a lack of knowledge compared with women.

This study reiterates that when it comes to weight loss, and indeed life in general, the most important thing is just showing up. For men, it seems to matter much less what you do once you get there. Make your pick, and stick with it. If you’re a coach, use this as a guideline for giving your athletes options.


1. Coles et al., “Patient freedom to choose a weight loss diet in the treatment of overweight and obesity: a randomized dietary intervention in type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes,” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2014, 11:64

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