We’ve likely all been on diets; you might even be on one now! Throughout my lifespan, I’ve probably tried nearly every single one. Does anyone remember the old-school grapefruit diet, where basically you get to eat half a grapefruit and a slice of bacon every day? I was put on that diet in grade school. Dieting fads have been around since the beginning of time, and despite research letting us all know that 95% of all diets fail, we keep trying to be in the 5% of winners.
Today, I’m going to talk about some of the reasons why diets fail. Then we’ll get into a few suggestions on what to do instead of diet.
Why diets fail
Many diets are too restrictive, eliminating certain food groups or severely reducing calorie intake. These extreme restrictions can be difficult to maintain in the long term. They can lead to feelings of deprivation, cravings, and ultimately, a higher likelihood of abandoning the diet. I try to tell my patients that a diet isn’t something you do for two weeks to lose weight for a special event. A diet is what you develop to support your body’s nutritional needs so it can support you in everything you’d like to accomplish in your life. When you’re developing a diet, actually think through if it’s something that you can reasonably maintain for the long term.
Many diets promise quick and dramatic results. But when the expected results are not achieved within a short timeframe, individuals may feel discouraged and abandon the diet. When I talk to people who have tried 1000 different diets and haven’t been able to meet or maintain the unrealistic expectations, they want to give up on taking care of themselves altogether. That’s not good for longevity and quality of life.
Performance over pretty
Your body wasn’t built for pretty, it was built for performance. Cultural and societal influences drive us to create unsustainable diets and have unrealistic expectations. Based on your specific background, those cultural influences may vary slightly. In some cultures you want to be as skinny as possible. I remember watching movies and shows where everyone was a size 0-6, and they would talk about size 6 like that was on the fat end of the scale. In other cultures, maybe the goal is to be thick in all the “right places,” which means trying to have a 20 inch waist with 60 inch hips, or else their anaconda won’t want none.
When you focus on being whatever the current pretty trend is, you can lose sight of the fact that your body is focused on keeping you alive and functioning as best it can. As we’ve already discussed, many fad diets encourage extreme eating habits; and your body is only going to respond the way that evolution intended. One way that your body responds is through metabolic adaptation: when calorie intake is significantly reduced for a prolonged period, the body adapts by lowering its metabolic rate. This means that the body becomes more efficient at conserving energy, making it harder to continue losing weight or maintain weight loss over time. Another side effect can be the dreaded weight loss plateau. As the body adjusts to a lower calorie intake, weight loss may initially occur but eventually taper off and flatline. This can be frustrating and demotivating, leading to a loss of adherence to the diet. Hopefully, you’re beginning to understand how this one-size-fits-nobody approach isn’t going to work.
Lack of individualization
Now for the last reason diets fail: lack of individualization. Diets often follow a one-size-fits-all approach, disregarding individual differences in metabolism, genetics, lifestyle, and preferences. Each person’s nutritional needs and responses to different dietary approaches vary, making personalized and flexible approaches more effective.
How to manage your diet
Here are six guidelines that can be helpful in managing your diet in a healthy way.
Establish Realistic Goals
Establish realistic and achievable weight loss or weight maintenance goals. Aim for gradual and sustainable progress rather than quick fixes or drastic measures. No one likes to hear this, but slow and steady is the best approach here.
Embrace a Balanced Diet
Consume a diet with a variety of nutrient-dense foods. Incorporate fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats into your meals. Reduce your intake of processed foods, sugary drinks, and foods high in saturated and trans fats. Listen to your body. Pay attention to how your body responds to different types and amounts of certain foods. Mindfulness is your best friend here in crafting a diet that is tailored to your body.
Practice Mindful Eating
Develop awareness of your eating habits and cultivate mindful eating practices. Pay attention to hunger and fullness cues, eat without distractions (such as screens or multitasking), and savor the flavors, textures, and aromas of your food.
Do you struggle with staying in the present moment? Here are 5 tips for enjoying the here and now! Listen as Dr. Johnson explains in the episode below.
Foster a Positive Mindset
I find that when you have a mindset of having a balanced diet coupled with mindful eating, it can be a game changer. For instance, no matter what anyone says, I am always going to maintain that I have a sweet tooth. I grew up in a family where sweet teeth were satisfied with ice cream and fun-size Kit-Kats. Because of that, those are the kinds of food that I always associated with sweetness, and that is what I would crave. Using mindfulness skills, I have a much wider array of foods that can satisfy my sweet tooth now, like fruit. I’m currently eating these yogurt parfaits that are truly delicious, but also give me good nutrients like dairy, grains, and fruit. When I have ice cream now days, I have better portion control because I am mindful of my satiation, and I stop at that point.
Prioritize Quality Sleep
Lack of sleep has been associated with disruptions in appetite-regulating hormones, increased hunger, and a higher risk of weight gain. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, and establish a consistent sleep schedule.
Manage Stress Effectively
Unfun fact, chronic stress can contribute to weight gain. Finding healthy ways to manage your stress can aid in the overall effectiveness of your diet long term. Engage in stress-reducing activities such as exercise, meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or hobbies you enjoy.
Celebrating Non-Scale Victories
Last but not least, monitor your progress. Keep track of your progress using objective measures. These include body weight, body measurements, or body fat percentage. However, remember that weight is just one aspect of health. Focus on other indicators of well-being, such as energy levels, strength, and overall fitness. Due to your own health, you may need to have weight loss as a goal. But that doesn’t have to be your only goal. I strongly recommend adding in non-scale victories as a way to monitor your progress as well. I know for myself, who has always been obese and over 400lbs at my top weight, this mindset shift was a game changer.
Here are some non-scale victories to get you started.
- Being able to complete 10 regular push ups
- Running one mile
- Being able to touch your toes
Having non-scale victories allows you to focus on body function. You can see how your body supports your daily lifestyle, rather than fitting into a specific aesthetic which may be unrealistic for you.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.