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:

The dieting cycle shows that diets don't work

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.

Eating more calories than you need results in weight gainSimplistically, 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

3500 calories are based on old bath

Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife

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 ( 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:

Dieting ruins your relationship with foodWell, 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

Dieting makes you miserableIt’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

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.