Diets Don’t Work
If you’re familiar with my story, then you already know that I spent a lot of time stuck in the dieting cycle. You probably also know that my health philosophy has no room for restriction: diets don’t work. They’re also no fun. This is what my life looked like for years:
Look familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Almost half of American adults report wanting to lose weight, but only a handful actually succeed keeping the weight off sustainably. Diets don’t work and may actually result in weight gains instead of losses.
So why does the act of dieting start out so promising and then often end in disappointment? Let’s look at the science behind five reasons diets don’t work.
1. Diets don’t work because the math doesn’t add up
Diets don’t work because they’re based on funny math. Let’s start by looking at what influences weight gain in the first place.
Simplistically, body weight is influenced by energy balance. We maintain our body weight when the amount of energy (i.e. calories) we consume is approximately equal to the amount of energy we burn.
That means, when all other things are equal, we tend to gain weight when we consume more energy than our body needs because we store extra energy in the form of glycogen (i.e. carbohydrates stored in the muscle and liver) and, of course, fat.
In a little bit, I’m going to explain a few more nuances about what influences body weight (and another reason why diets don’t work). For now we’ll accept that, to lose weight, we need to consume less energy than we burn.
This is why, at their core, all weight loss efforts hinge on reducing calorie intake and increasing calorie burn.
“But the diet I’m on doesn’t ask me to count calories.”
Even if you haven’t been told to count your calories, the diet you’re on is designed with this goal in mind. For example, low carbohydrate diets often tell you that you can eat whatever you want, so long as you reduce your carbohydrate intake to very low levels. This tends to reduce overall calorie intake because carbohydrates typically contribute up to 65% of our total daily calorie intake, but whether you do this through eliminating carbs or any other type of calories is irrelevant.
It is true that we need to shift our energy balance to lose weight. But by how much?
3,500 calories does not a pound make
Most diets tell you to cut about 500 calories per day to lose a pound each week. They base this advice on the rule of thumb that a pound of fat is lost for every 3,500 calories burned. It’s a handy little guide, first published in 1958, based on very simple math which calculated the calories stored in one pound of fat tissue.
On the surface, it makes logical sense and works out okay for people with just a few pounds to lose. However, as you might expect after another 50 years of research, we have a much better understanding of the nature of fat tissue and what happens when we start losing it. We know now that one of the reasons diets don’t work is because the math just doesn’t add up.
First, people with more fat tissue tend to store more fat within the tissue. In other words, heavier people store more fat in each pound of fat tissue. You see where this is going now, right? More fat means more calories to burn, which means you’re going to feel rightfully frustrated when you can’t seem to lose weight at the rate your calorie calculator told you to expect. Diets don’t work because you’ll be forever frustrated when the change in scale doesn’t match the progress that you’ve been told you should be making.
Second, this rule-of-thumb doesn’t consider the dynamic changes in metabolism that can happen during dieting. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Diets don’t work because your body is smarter than your diet
The modern abundance of food is a new phenomenon in human history. For eons, our species evolved to prepare for times of scarcity by carefully hoard energy stores during times of plenty.
The problem is that times of scarcity have become, well, scarce but your body hasn’t caught on that the good times are here to stay. Your body is primed to hang on to energy stores and stubbornly refuses to give them up.
We are likely still decades away from understanding all the different ways that the body resists calorie restriction. We do know a few of its tricks, however. For example, we know that calorie restriction causes an increased production of hormones that:
- Increase hunger (your increased hunger isn’t just in your imagination!)
- Increase energy storage (i.e. increase the likelihood that your meal goes straight to your thighs)
- Decrease resting energy expenditure, making metabolism more efficient so that your body can do more with less (i.e.you burn less energy).
The bigger the calorie cuts and the longer you maintain them, the stronger these energy-saving systems become. Even worse, research has shown that these changes stay in place long after you’ve given up on the diet.
3. Diets don’t work because they ruin your relationship with food
If you’ve noticed a growing, unwelcome obsession over the food you eat, you are not alone. This is a common side effect of dieting.
Think about it. When you’re on a diet, you are following someone else’s rules. It’s likely that these rules involve restricting certain types of food. Diets often come with lists of no-no foods, such as refined grains, dairy, meat, butter, carbohydrates, sweets, and processed food.
Let’s think about what happens when your favorite food is on the no-no list. For example, imagine that you have been told to stop eating donuts.
What happens next?
Well, if you’re serious about the diet, you’ll try to stop eating them, of course. You might call them names (that food is “bad”). You avoid making eye contact with it at parties. You stop going to your favorite restaurant because can’t stand to glimpse the freshly-made donuts behind the counter.
Eventually, you find yourself thinking about donuts more often than you ever did before you started the rotten diet. You eventually give in and eat one. Afterwards, you feel ashamed and resentful towards the donut and to your body for betraying you.
Does that sound familiar? Research shows that restrictive diets do increase the amount of time dieters spend thinking about food and aren’t effective in the long term.
There may be another reason why this scenario sounds familiar. Here it is again… with just a few edits:
Well, if you’re serious about the breakup, you’ll try to stop seeing him, of course. You might call him names (that man is “bad” for me). You avoid making eye contact with him at parties. You stop going to your favorite restaurant because can’t stand to glimpse him working behind the counter.
Eventually, you find yourself thinking about him more often than you ever did before you decided to break up. You eventually give in and call him. Afterwards, you feel resentful towards him and to your body for betraying you.
Hold the food drama!
Something has gone terribly wrong when our relationship with food relationship begins to resemble the relationships portrayed on TV dramas!
Here’s the crux of the issue: Diets try to make us believe that certain foods are “bad” or “good.” Philosophers have disagreed about whether people are inherently “bad” or good” for centuries, so I can’t get on board with assigning these attributes to food. Food doesn’t have feelings. It doesn’t have needs or desires. It’s just food! It’s there for our nourishment, enjoyment, and comfort.
4. Diets don’t work because they make you miserable
It’s not just food obsessions that become heightened with dieting. Dieters often develop an increased, unhealthy obsession about their body and appearance. Indeed, dieting is recognized as the most common risk factor for developing eating disorders. The diet cycle we talked about earlier can quickly morph into an even more harmful cycle of restricting, restricting, excessive exercise, and purging.
If you think that your relationship with food has become disordered, I encourage you to check out this online screener, developed by the National Eating Disorder Association. More resources can be found in the appendix of this chapter.
5. Diets don’t work because they treat us all the same
Okay, for this last point, let’s return to what makes us gain weight in the first place. While it is true that consuming more calories that you burn tends to promote excess body weight, it is a tremendous oversimplification to say “calories in, calories out” explains it all. Body weight is influenced by a lot of different factors, many of which are largely out of our control to change. This is illustrated in the following model which was developed by researchers in an attempt to explain the many factors that can nudge us towards carrying those extra pounds.
At the bottom of the model, we again see our energy balance scales, but this time we can see additional factors that influence balance.
The Social Ecological Model of Health
Starting at the smallest circle, we see the individual characteristics that may it more likely for someone to gain weight. For example, we all have that friend who seems to be able to eat anything she likes without gaining a pound. Why is that? Well, she could have received some genes from her parents that make her burn more energy. It could even be due to different types of bacteria living in her gut. Her hormones might respond differently to stress. These differences could mean the difference between storing or burning hundreds of calories each day.
Moving up toward the top of the model, we see that our environment can also influence energy balance. For example, how and what we eat is influenced by our personal neighborhood, city, school, and work environments, as well as the media and national policies.
Think about some of these influences and how they impact your life. Think about the way you were raised, your current stress and responsibilities, your family and your culture. These are all unique to you and they ALL influence how and what you’re used to eating.
Are you now wondering how we ever came to believe that a one-size-fits-all diet could possibly work? Isn’t it ridiculous to expect that we would all respond to specific macronutrient ratios or meal plans?
Here’s the bottom line
The person who created that diet or meal plan you’ve been trying to follow doesn’t know you. They don’t know your struggles, your responsibilities, or what kinds of foods you love to eat. The only person who knows you well enough to decide how and what you should eat is YOU.
If diets don’t work, what does?
Forget everything you’ve been told about how to lose weight. The diets, the detoxes, the intense exercise – none of it is needed. You have within yourself the power to make small, sustainable, and relatively painless changes that will over time lead to the big results you want. The key is that YOU must be the one in charge.
ALL GOOD IDEAS ARE WELCOME. BUT WHAT IF U CAN NOT AFFORD TO EAT HEALTHY?
I’m going to address this in a future post. In the meantime, check out this free cookbook for healthy, inexpensive meals: https://cookbooks.leannebrown.com/good-and-cheap.pdf
I totally agree “diets” don’t work but a drastic change in what we eat definitely does. I’ve been on the autoimmune protocol for over a year now and it’s completely healed both me and my relationship with food. Who I was from two years ago wouldn’t even recognize who I am today. (Nor would 2 year ago me think she would ever be able to escape her fatigue, pain, and anxiety/ depression!) Food matters, and changing your relationship with it and switching to a healing lifestyle work miracles!
I’m so glad that’s working out for you. I think a key take home is that we are all unique and different things work for different people. It’s so wonderful that you’ve found something that is right for you.
Very good read! I’ve also tried dieting a lot! Of course I’ve always failed. This gives me a different perspective if what I need to do in the days to come. Especially come March after i have my baby. Gonna try a different route by following your blog’s! Thanks for the great advice!
Glad to have you aboard, Krista! Getting on the right track after the baby comes is a great plan. Keep in touch and let me know if you have questions!
I have been in a weightloss program for 10 years until it closed down my weight went up and down like a see saw
now i do exercise and Yoga annd Zumba at a Senior Center
How are the yoga and Zumba working out for you? I love Zumba. It’s always easier for me to stick to my workouts when I find a great class.
These tips are great. I find that dieting can be hard when trying to stick to strict methods.
I totally agree! I like to find a balance where my clients are making progress, but don’t feel miserable and deprived. It’s not a FAST method, but it’s one that is much more likely to keep the pounds off for good.
its all about changing your lifestyle, not just calorie counting.
You betcha! It’s a matter of finding a way of eating and living that will make you happy for a lifetime.
I’d heard the “3500 calories to burn a pound” very recently, actually. That’s very helpful to hear the update! Thanks for writing this. Clearly there is still lots of misinformation out there. Great post!
(Also, the public health nerd in me LOVES that you included the social-ecological model in this!!!)
I can’t quit the SEM. It’s been drilled into me and it’s impossible to talk about energy balance without acknowledging the myriad of factors involved. 😀
I’ve found that when I have dieted, I actually gain weight right away because I become even more obsessed with food. I’m already obsessed as it is… hence my difficulty losing weight.
Yes! That is so common. It happened to me when I used to diet. I never used to give any thought to food unless I was actually eating it… but after years of dieting I became quite obsessed. That’s why I love helping people get out of the diet cycle and repair their relationship with food – or help people avoid the diet trap altogether!
Thanks so much!
Thanks for the info!
You’re so welcome!
Diets don’t work because I have a hard time keeping myself committed
Diets rely on a lot of willpower. Making small, sustainable changes takes longer, but you’re more likely to stick to it in the end. Did you download my small changes guide? It might be helpful for you: https://www.choosefood.com/4-small-changes-guidebook/
I’m not looking to lose weight, just looking to eat cleaner & better.
That’s great. Many people who try to lose weight don’t really need to anyway – but we can all work towards healthier eating.
Diets don’t work because we feel we are denying ourselves what we want. Then we get miserable.
That’s so true. And who wants to be miserable?
No willpower, no drive, can’t stop munching, hate exercise, diets sucks.
Diets do suck! They require so much willpower and once things in our lives get a little bit stressful – out goes the diet. That’s why making small changes works better. It takes longer, but it actually lasts. Have you downloaded my free guide about this? You can find it here: https://www.choosefood.com/4-small-changes-guidebook/
I want to have a healthy relationship with food.
I have a blog post coming soon that gives advice for repairing our food relationship. I’ll try to get it out ASAP in hopes that it may help you.
I would love to win the fitness watch ! Thanks for the chance .
This makes sense thanks good read I’ll be sharing
Yes, please do! I appreciate it. 🙂
I find that diets never work for me. Personally I need to just have smaller portions and lots of exercise.
Smaller portions and exercise can make such a huge difference. They’re small changes that can stick!
This makes a lot of sense! Thanks for posting!
You are so welcome!
What a great article, lots of interesting information!
i feel most diets are useless if they are not done properly.
And it’s really hard to stick to any diet properly.
Thanks for the great advice! Ill be starting my journey in March! After baby!
So excited for you!
I never do diets!
This was a good read. Thanks for this! I feel like my husband and I would both benefit from your program.
Oh, wonderful! Let me know how I can help. I’m really excited about my online program starting in January. If you’re on the mailing list then you’ll be hearing more about it soon. 😀
These reasons are so true as why diets do not work. I find the low carb high protein diet works the best for me.
That’s great. That type of eating pattern can be really helpful for some.
I always find that with diets, I end up gaining wait. I will start off great, and then eat badly once and feel bad and end up eating bad again and again. It’s a terrible cycle.
You’re not alone! Most people end up heavier than they started. That’s why I like to use small changes – it takes longer but it’s more likely to last. Have you downloaded my free small change guide? Let me know what you think! https://www.choosefood.com/4-small-changes-guidebook/
My diets don’t work because of my busy schedule.
Yes, totally. They can work for a bit, but then things get busy and bye bye diet! Have you seen my free guidebook for making small changes? It’s a way to make changes without devoting your entire day to a diet: https://www.choosefood.com/4-small-changes-guidebook/
So so true
Greats ideas. Eating healthy now is very expensive
It can be expensive, but there are ways to make it cheaper. I have a blog post coming up on that topic. In the meantime, check out this amazing free cookbook with budget-friendly recipes: https://www.leannebrown.com/cookbooks/#what-is-good-and-cheap. This is
so very true! I have the hardest time when dieting, now i exercise regularly, try to eat cleaner and use portion control so far it seems to have worked better then any diet when ive counted calories and omitted items i crave from what i eat
Yes! I love hearing success stories like yours. Just getting a handle on portion size can do so much. Every food fits – we just need to find balance.
great article and tips ! thank you – YoYo Effect always gets me 🙁
Yep, it used to get me, too. When you lose weight through restrictive diets, what goes down always comes back up!