Why doesn't dieting ever seem to work?

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What we call eating restrictively is very different from person to person and a very subjective experience in and of itself. One person will say they are on a diet and instead of overeating and their weight continuing on an upward trend they have truthfully cut their calories but now they are eating exactly what they need to maintain their respective weight. The only way to know for sure is to track every calorie you take in. Learn what you need to take in to lose weight and then count those calories. Everything else in my experience exposes an individual to bias and underreporting of intake.

One thing I know for sure with my clients, if they say that they are eating the caloric limit I have placed them on and no more and they still are not losing weight then they are eating more than they say.
Laura Motosko, MSEd, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
Weight loss involves many factors including your environment, behavior change, physical activity, diet and genetics. Reducing calories in your diet is the most effective way for most people to lose weight. It is important to see your doctor for physical exams and medical tests to determine if hormones or any disease process may be a factor in an inability to maintain a healthy weight.
There are so many factors to look at when someone does not lose weight on a diet program. Bottom line, though, is you have to burn more calories than you are eating. So if you are not tracking what you are eating, getting a good resistance program and cardiovascular program, you might not be hitting your goal that you want to. A lot of people think that if they just exercise they will lose weight. However if you are not tracking what you are taking in compared to burning, you won't know if you are on the right track. In the end this is why sometimes diet programs don't work.
Kat Barefield, MS, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
Diets do not result in weight loss unless the person is consuming fewer calories than they’re expending. Therefore, the people who don’t lose weight on a diet need to reduce the calories they take in and boost their activity level. Research shows that most people underestimate the calories they take in -- by at least 20%. That is, they think they’re eating less than they actually are.  

Unfortunately, most people want a quick fix so they go on a diet. This results in weight loss initially, but weight rebound inevitably follows once they return to their normal eating habits. Instead of going on a diet, I recommend people get more informed so they make better food choices, get educated on their body’s unique needs, get adequate sleep and incorporate physical activity into their daily routines.
Lisa Palmer
Marriage & Family Therapy

Every diet plan works, but usually only for a limited time, because it takes someone following it! I personally don't like the term "diet" for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of the negative connotations it has. Society puts pressure on us to diet, but anytime you are doing something just to satisfy the expectations of others, you are usually setting yourself up for sabotage down the road. The other reason why I don't like the word is because the emphasis is placed on what you will not do, instead of what you will do. In other words, we are inclined to think about the absence of a problem instead of the presence of a healthy solution.

It is true that the mind tricks us in many ways and so when we think of "not" eating something, all of a sudden we are focusing on it more than ever! For instance, right now "don't think of eating a potato chip!" What just happened? You thought of eating a potato chip! Chances are you weren't even thinking about it before! So instead of thinking about what you won't have, think about what you will have that is good for you and the benefits of being healthy and balanced. 

Remember also that if you are "dieting" just to feel good about yourself from the outside-in, there is more to feeling good. If you reach your ideal weight and you still have negative self-thoughts no diet is going to ultimately be the solution. It will never be good enough. The reason diets don't usually work in the long run is because they fail to address the underlying issues that cause you to eat in the ways you know you shouldn't. It takes reversing habits that have developed over time; being aware of how your feelings and circumstances affect eating; learning coping mechanisms such as setting boundaries, communication, mindfulness, identifying your needs and priorities to avoid stress; developing skills to overcome negative thinking and sabotaging thought patterns; learning how to get what it is you truly need and want in life without resorting to drastic measures; and finally accepting and practicing wellness rituals to maintain a sense of balance and reduce the need for emotional eating.

Ultimately, you need a "life plan" not just a "food plan" or even worse a "diet plan". You need to build strength, confidence, positive thinking, and mental discipline within yourself to be able to overcome obstacles, develop dreams and aspirations, and quickly get back on track and on your way to balanced living. 

Rose Reisman
Nutrition & Dietetics

Just the word “diet” has a negative connotation. It means deprivation, hunger and often isolated eating. That’s the reason it can’t possible work over your life. You have to change the way you look at food. 95% of all diets fail because this way of controlled eating can’t possibly be maintained.

Here are my tips for a life time “diet”:

  • Feel full on fewer calories, but more food that isn’t calorie or fat rich.
  • Eat three complete meals daily along with snacks in between to keep you
    from getting hungry.
  • Have 2 – 3 oz. of lean protein at each meal. This keeps you satisfied for longer.
  • Enjoy a vegetable or tomato based soup before eating. Or a salad with a minimal amount of dressing.
  • Watch your amount of simple carbohydrates in your day. Minimize white flour products and sugar based foods which increases your blood sugar and causes hunger soon after.

Enjoy what you’re eating daily in order to reach that healthy body weight.

A key reason why a diet plan may fail sooner or later is the very word, "diet." Once you get into the mindset of being on a diet, it's common to deprive yourself too much, create false expectations, and make overly ambitious plans that are almost impossible to stick to.

Also, our environment can present all kinds of obstacles to weight loss. Eating whatever you wanted at a restaurant was okay when people ate out only a few times a year, but these days we eat out far more often. Portion sizes are larger. Snacking is more prevalent and, while doing so, we tend to be standing up or have our attention focused on another task. This can lead to thinking the calories don't count, but they do.

Trying to stick to a weight-loss plan on your own can be difficult, but Weight Watchers gives you a structured program that teaches you how to make the right choices to lose weight and keep it off, and gives you the skills to use them in every situation.
 
Ruth Frechman
Nutrition & Dietetics

If you have tried to lose weight and can't, see a registered dietitian. They know the tricks of the trade. Most likely, you are not consistent. You may starve yourself for a few days and then be so hungry that you over eat. It doesn't take much to gain weight. You have to be consistent for a few weeks. Then you will see progress. You are in this for the long haul. Don't give up. 

Lona Sandon
Nutrition & Dietetics

When you significantly restrict calories for weight loss, a natural reaction of the body is actually to produce more of the appetite stimulating hormone ghrelin. A study by Leidy and colleagues published in 2007 in the journal Obesity found that normal weight women who lost weight by restricting calories (almost 1/2 usual calories) and exercising had higher levels of ghrelin in a typical 24 hour period than women who did not restrict calories. The calorie restricting women also reported less likely feeling full. One of ghrelin's roles appears to be to maintain calorie balance and prevent weight loss by increasing appetite.

This may be why current research on dieting supports only small calorie reductions such as reducing only 100 calories per day for long term success. Perhaps the smaller changes in calorie deficits have less of an effect on the rise of ghrelin. 

 

Heather R. Mangieri
Nutrition & Dietetics

Diets fail because they do not address the real obstacle to weight loss. Deprivation and food restriction set us up for failure. The hardest part of losing weight is learning how to overcome individual barriers to success and being committed to change from an unhealthy lifestyle to a healthy one. Food is only part of the puzzle. Having a healthy mind, being physically active and processing a “yes I can attitude” are all necessary to reach our goals. 

Because dieting is usually treated as a temporary phase to "get weight off" and as such is typically characterized by overrestriction of calories or food groups.  Obviously to lose weight a person has to consume an appropriate number of calories for gender, height, and activity level.   And this has to be at a sustainable level - sadly - most diets are so restrictive or not responsive to a person's nutritional needs, that they cannot be sustained for the long term and the person either returns to his or her original weight or gains weight.  In addition, most diets do not address the EMOTIONAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL and STRUCTURAL (e.g. environmental issues) that lead people to eat as they do. 

Diets are not designed for "normal" people, with "normal" lives. They are generally very unrealistic and are designed to set people up for failure which in turn makes people feel worse about themselves and want to eat more. Diets highly suggest that "you eat my way or you have failed."

The plain and simple truth is that eating right is not that complicated but because it's not a diet (that makes people feel bad about themselves) people don't routinely do it. Eating right is not a sketched out plan like a diet (telling you what you can and can not eat, moment to moment) but it's simpler. You can't get much simpler than whole foods not processed or packaged. Eating a balance diet that includes whole, fresh foods is THE diet. 

Diets don't allow you to eat, for example, cake. If a diet tells you not to eat cake, what do you think you'll spend your time thinking about? Cake! Moderation (not total denial) is also part of THE diet. 

Dieting is like a toothache: if you had education around the basics of tooth care you may not have gotten a toothache, you've tried all the over-the-counter medications hoping something would work (but it didn't) and it just kept getting worse and worse. This does not necessarily mean that tooth care education would have completely eliminated the possbility of getting a toothache but it does help just as having some education around eating healthy does not necessarily mean you won't always eat healthy but it sets you up for success.


 

Diets often fail because they typically address only one part of the equation, FOOD. They are often restricted and therefore easy to stray from. Even if clients successfully lose weight, they return to eating what they are used to eating, and weight gain usually follows. Other important factors to successful weight loss and maintenance of ideal weight, include addressing the following: exercise, stress management, sleep cycles, hydration, and nutrient density.

Karen Diaz
Nutrition & Dietetics

The goal of dieting is typically weight loss first, improving health or nutrition comes second. This is a set up for failure. Think about the dieting cycle:

  1. Desire to lose weight
  2. Restrict calories, stop eating foods you love, cut out major food groups like carbohydrates or fat
  3. Feel deprived, think about food all the time
  4. Give in to cravings, feel you messed up so why not keep going
  5. Return to usual habits, period of overeating or breaking diet

This yo yo effect is because dieting can often be unrealistic as a permanent lifestyle fix and it relies on external things to tell you what to eat. By external I mean, meal plans, purchased food, the number on the scale, etc. It does not teach us how to listen to our own bodies. Nutrition principles are easier to learn then trusting our own bodies to regulate how much and when we eat so our bodies can settle at their set point weight. Once you learn to listen to your body, you will not need to diet. You can go anywhere, eat anywhere, and be in any situation and make it work for you.

Pam Grout
Alternative & Complementary Medicine

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that diets don't work. If they did, why does every adult American weigh, on an average, eight pounds more than they did ten years ago? If diets delivered on all the promises they made, why are a third of us - not just fat - but obese?

Some of us put ourselves through this process of pain and punishment on a regular basis - every Monday or every New Year's Day or every time we see a new diet touted in the women's magazines.

Those diets you keep trying are never going to permanently take the weight off. We've been brainwashed into believing that dieting keeps us slim. If we can just refrain from eating that extra piece of pie, if we can just follow the recipes in the back of this book or that book, if we can just deprive ourselves of enough calories, our weight will magically disappear and we'll all live happily ever after.

What's the number-one thing you think about when you start a diet? Food, particularly fattening food that you can't wait to eat again when the grueling ordeal is finally over. Even the spelling of the word should give us a clue. Who wants to do anything that has the word "die" in it? Psychologically (not to mention physiologically), diets are never going to fly. They go against human nature. Even though we look to diets for answers, we subconsciously put up our dukes, become defiant. On the outside, we're saying, "I want to be thin. I'm going to quit eating waffles and French toast for breakfast."

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.