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.