4 Reasons Most Diets Fail (And How To Make Yours Work)
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4 Reasons Most Diets Fail (And How To Make Yours Work)

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4 Reasons Most Diets Fail (And How To Make Yours Work)

Posted 3 years ago

Brian Stanton

Brian Stanton


Tony O’Neill, PT, DPT, MSc, RDN

Tony O’Neill, PT, DPT, MSc, RDN

Author and Scientific Reviewer

Expert Approved

If you’re frustrated with dieting, you have lots of company. Most diets don’t work for most people. 

Yes, the diet might work for a bit. Maybe you lose a quick five pounds, feel good, and declare victory. 

But the progress never sticks. The diet ends, the old habits return, and the weight comes back. Frustrating. 

It’s frustrating because you know your health goals are achievable—whether that’s hiking a mountain with your family, slipping into a pair of jeans, or reducing your risk of chronic disease. Whatever it is, you know you can do it. 

If you’ve had no luck with dieting, it’s not your fault. The problem is with the process. Most diets don’t focus on the right things. 

4 Reasons Most Diets Fail

In this section, we’ll review the fundamental reasons most diets fail. Then we’ll cover how to make yours succeed. 

Here are the main problem areas: 

#1: Calorie confusion

Most diets obsess over calories. In these programs, counting calories (which measure stored energy in food) is all that matters. 

According to conventional dieting wisdom, the source of your calories doesn’t impact your health goals. It doesn’t matter if you eat 500 calories from a jumbo cookie or 500 calories from a salmon and spinach salad. Same calories, same impact. 

But this view ignores the complex effects that carbohydrates, protein, and fats have on the human body. For instance, eating 500 calories of carbs has a much larger impact on the hormone insulin than 500 calories of olive oil.  

Insulin, as you may know, inhibits the fat-burning state called ketosis.[*] So if you’re trying to burn fat, higher-carb intakes probably aren’t the ticket. 

For more inoculation against calorie confusion, let’s turn to a 2003 study from the Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism.[*] In the study, women eating a ketogenic diet lost more weight than a higher-carb, calorie-restricted group of women. Both groups ate roughly the same calories, but the keto women weren’t told to restrict calories. They ate fewer calories naturally, probably because a high-fat keto diet suppresses hunger hormones. 

Same calories, different results. 

#2: Calorie restriction isn’t sustainable

Heard of The Biggest Loser? It’s a show in which contestants strive for impressive weight loss goals. Often, they’re successful. 

The Biggest Loser Diet follows a principle that most diets follow: Consciously restrict how much you eat. This is called calorie restriction. 

On the spectrum of calorie restriction, The Biggest Loser Diet is fairly aggressive. You’re advised to consume 25-50% fewer calories than you normally would, day after day, week after week. 

And it works. People lose weight quickly. It makes for a good show. 

But here’s what they don’t tell you. After the show concludes, the participants almost always regain the lost weight.

The reason why stems from biology. When we vigorously restrict calories, our metabolism gets the memo. It says: Oh okay, you’re not feeding me now huh? Well, I’m gonna switch to low power mode. 

In low power mode, we burn fewer calories at rest. And when we start eating normal portions again, we still burn fewer calories at rest. That’s a recipe for weight gain. 

One study on 16 participants from The Biggest Loser found that their metabolisms were still depressed six years after the show.[*] Six years. 

But wait. When you lose weight, you get smaller. Is this just a case of smaller people needing less food? 

Unfortunately, no. On calorie-restricted diets, metabolic rate falls more than predicted by weight loss alone.[*

Calorie restriction is also well-documented to cause sluggishness and apathy.[*]

Bottom line: it’s not sustainable. 

#3: Old habits aren’t uprooted

A habit is a behavior that happens automatically. These automatic behaviors—which govern much of human life—determine your ability to achieve your health goals. 

If you want to succeed in becoming healthier, you need to uproot bad habits and install good habits in their place. Then you’ll be set up for long-term health, no willpower required. 

For example, being active every day moves you towards better health. Waking up every night for a midnight snack does not. On the journey towards better health, habits are almost everything. 

But most diets ignore habit change. You’ve seen the 15-day reset programs. They promise rapid results, but the results never stick. 

It’s not surprising. How can a two-week diet be expected to change habits formed over a lifetime?

#4: Lifestyle factors are ignored

Diet is a pillar of good health, but it’s not everything. If you ignore the other pillars—sleep, exercise, stress management, and positive social connection—even the best nutritional program will be powerless to help you. 

Take sleep. Sleep deprivation has been shown to increase hunger hormones.[*] It’s hard to lose weight (or keep weight off) if you’re ravenous all the time. 

Short sleep also impairs cognitive function, immune health, insulin sensitivity, muscle strength, the list goes on.[*] If you aren’t sleeping well, it’s hard to be healthy. 

Other lifestyle factors that may impact your diet or health goals can be your schedule, and the habits and behaviors of those around you.

If you’re always running late, and grabbing snacks or highly processed foods on the go, this may throw you off course. And it may be equally challenging to stick with your goals if you’re surrounded by family or friends who don’t value similar health goals, regularly offer you “cheat” foods, or question your choices.

The Carb Manager community is a great resource of like-minded folks who can support you on your health journey.

The bottom line is that health is a holistic endeavor. Diet matters, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.   

Tips For Making Your Diet Work This Time

Time to get practical. Here are tips for lasting success with your diet and lifestyle program. 

  • Eat enough protein. Research suggests that high-protein diets work well for weight loss.[*] Try to consume at least 30 grams per meal. 
  • Avoid refined carbs. Remember, a calorie is not a calorie. Processed carbs (especially sucrose and high fructose corn syrup) don’t fill you up, promote overeating, and can lead to weight gain.[*]  
  • Be mindful with calories. Eliminating 5-10% of your daily calories can be a smart weight loss strategy, but more aggressive calorie cutting likely isn’t sustainable. (See reason #2 above). 
  • Consider a whole foods diet. The Keto diet, paleo diet, and Mediterranean diet all focus on nutrient-dense whole foods. All show clinical promise for weight loss.[*][*][*]
  • Plan it out. Record your health goals every day in a journal or app. When you write something down, you’re more likely to follow through. 
  • Meal plan and batch cook. Having healthy meals and snacks on hand when you’re hungry means you can stick with your goals and avoid grabbing snacks or fast food when you’re on the go or in a rush.
  • Track your progress. Use an app like Carb Manager to log your meals, track your macros, and document progress towards health goals. If you can measure it, you can manage it. 
  • Stay accountable. Accountability is a huge part of the success mindset for weight loss. Tell your friends and family about your commitment. If that hasn’t worked in the past, try the Carb Manager app. It’s a big community of folks with similar health goals. 

Finally, don’t forget the other pillars of health. Get enough sleep, exercise regularly, do your best to reduce stress, and nurture your most important relationships. 

You won’t be perfect in all of these areas, but perfect isn’t the goal. The goal is better, and we’re all capable of that. 

Comments 22

  • PropitiousCauliflower308202

    PropitiousCauliflower308202 a month ago

    I love Carb Manager for tracking. I have been on a keto life style change for 3 months but had a hard time tracking what I ate. This is so easy and helpful. It also tracks the calories you burn when you walk or exercise. Plus you can log your water intake.

    • FantasticRadish541463

      FantasticRadish541463 6 months ago

      I really like the Carb Manager for tracking. I haven’t mastered the Keto diet yet. I’m having a hard time eating the macros listed for every meal. I find I go over a little each day on fat carbs.

      • FortuitousCauliflower923288

        FortuitousCauliflower923288 10 months ago

        This is my second time using this app. I’ve tried others but this one is the easiest and has the best recipes. I started keto and intermittent fasting before starting to record on this app, so total of 9.6 lbs in one week! I am thrilled with my progress so far but I know it won’t this good every week of course. I am due for knee surgery soon and don’t want to go into it at my current weight so I’m hoping to lose at least 30 lbs before my surgery and keep going to my goal so I won’t need to have surgery on my other knee.

        • Netty

          Netty a year ago

          Day 3 ~ So far, so good. I tried Carb Manager a few years ago and it was great. Hence the reason I signed up again. The recipes are awesome and I am looking forward to trying the premium ones. I love the tracking and have not cheated thus far.

          • Sunflowersmiles

            Sunflowersmiles a year ago

            day 5, willpower strong, following through, but it is a struggle as professional chef. I will make this work. The app is great, I also downloaded a step counter app. Together they seem to motivate immensely. I never knew that in a day's work I walk around 2 miles, not to mention all the lifting, bending, stretching, pulling, pushing. I can highly recommend the help from Carb Manager. I signed up for a year. The only struggle I have for far is quickly finding low/ no carb, unsaturated fat and higher protein choices for nibbling as I am not someone who sits down for meals but is rather a grazer. That is likely not going to change. I tried in the past with frustration and without success.

            • 46ADKpeaks

              46ADKpeaks a year ago

              I've been fighting a yo you diet life style for so many years. I was just told by Doctor I'm now diabetic. Talk about backing myself into a corner. Carb Manager so far has kept me true to myself and eating habits.

              • slangen

                slangen a year ago

                Just starting today. 1st time using this app!!

                • bessiergreen@gmail.com

                  bessiergreen@gmail.com 10 months ago

                  Me too 3 days ago

                • OutstandingRadish165644

                  OutstandingRadish165644 a year ago

                  I’m just starting out on Keto, How are you finding it so far?

              • OutstandingCauliflower974081

                OutstandingCauliflower974081 a year ago

                Great information. Much appreciated. I have been on a restrictive diet program for 5+ years. I lost a great deal of weight; however, I never reached my goal weight, and even gained some weight in the last 1.5 years.

                • 46ADKpeaks

                  46ADKpeaks a year ago

                  Stay focused. You will reach your goal

              • AwesomeArugula978242

                AwesomeArugula978242 a year ago

                Good information, will use as a reference. Thank you.

                • UpbeatKale629111

                  UpbeatKale629111 a year ago

                  info much appreciated. Thankyou

                  • Bobbie

                    Bobbie a year ago

                    Thanks. Ready to go

                    • RemarkableAvocado660191

                      RemarkableAvocado660191 a year ago

                      Great info

                      • UpbeatAvocado942556

                        UpbeatAvocado942556 a year ago

                        Just started yesterday and I think the counting and accountability will be helpful.

                        • Chitariv

                          Chitariv a year ago

                          Do we need to get in all protein, fats and carbs in to lose the weight?

                          • BlithesomeRadish499529

                            BlithesomeRadish499529 a year ago

                            This is my second time with carb manager, I did keto for 2years, weigh-watchers and just maintained for 1 year stayed within a 5 pound up and down range. Not really loosing. I still need to loose 15 lbs. I like this app the best of all I’ve tried ; so on to a new startup!

                            • PropitiousKale709117

                              PropitiousKale709117 2 years ago

                              I'm new here, just started a few days ago. This information is helpful and an eye opener. I'm loggin my food, but I still have to much carbs at the end of the day. Slowley I'll reach my goal. I'm doing low carb, not keto.

                              • Nannyporro

                                Nannyporro 2 years ago

                                Wonderful advice.Makes sence!

                                • UnbelievableMacadamia799691

                                  UnbelievableMacadamia799691 2 years ago

                                  Important info and encouraging

                                  • Dmalik

                                    Dmalik 3 years ago

                                    Thanks for the great advise, I lost over 7 pounds since July 31,2021. I know it’s water weight, but I’m still encouraged to go further with my weight loss plans. Again, thank you.