Why do diets fail?

Kelly Currier
Nutrition & Dietetics

The problem with dieting is that it is usually unrealistic to maintain diet restrictions long term. Many people are successful temporarily, but then realize that they do not want to follow this "diet" for the rest of their lives. It is much more effective, even though the results are not seen as quickly, to make small, lifestyle changes that you can stick with for life. Remember, the weight did not come on over night and will not leave that quickly either. Make realistic weight loss goals and follow a manageable diet.

Arthur W. Perry, MD
Plastic Surgery

Anyone who has dieted knows the ins and outs of weight loss - it's a matter of counting calories and burning off more calories than you eat. And unless you are green and photosynthesize, it's really that simple. However, I believe that the reason most diets ultimately fail is because of the deprivation they cause. No one likes to be denied anything they like. And the longer you deny yourself that pepperoni pizza, the more internally discontent you become. And we all know that leads to binging. Oh, how good that forbidden food tastes. But that binge often begins a slide towards even more weight gain.  And that's the yo-yo syndrome so commonly seen when dieting.

Kate Myerson
Nutrition & Dietetics

Diets fail when they are not based on sustainable changes. I can cut out any food for one week but ask me not to eat that food for the rest of my like and I am bound to fail. You should approach any diet by asking yourself, "is this something I can do for the rest of my life?" if not then you are putting yourself in the position to fail. And this can become a vicious cycle because we often tell our selfs, "next time I will try harder" or "next time I am going to do better" But ultimately it is not us, it's the diet. There is no one size fits all diet, we need to adopt lifestyle changes we can do today and 20 years from today. 

Here's an example:

A diet might say you can only drink skim milk and you like whole milk. That is a pretty drastic change, that might only last a week and then we return to our old habits.

A lifestyle style change might be a smaller step like trying 2% milk that you might be more likely to stick to longer and once that change becomes a habit, you might even be willing to try 1% The idea is that even though it is not skim milk some change is better than no change.

Diets fail for the very same psychological reasons that cause us to overeat. They are dependent on an unhealthy relationship with eating. In one case we over eat to excess not to meet the physical needs of hunger but to meet the emotional demands of life. We choose to fix this then by entering into an extreme relationship with food in the opposite direction again not to meet the physical needs of our body and in this case usually extremely depriving our bodies of needed nutrition but to meet the psychological demands of a quick-fix. This fix albeit effective in many people for a period of time usually fails over time because it is dependent on the emotional sustenance of excess.

In my experience with many clients over many years you can only lose weight and keep it off by going through a retraining process when it comes to food. We must learn how much food we need on a daily basis and if we are overweight learn how to eat a margin under what our body needs over a period of time sufficient enough to lose the desired weight. We then need to learn with real food by the way how to eat what we need on a daily basis to maintain. The good news is this isn't as hard as it sounds. Retraining just takes a little time, patience, and discipline.

Sharon Richter, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
Diets tend to fail because when people hear the word "diet," they automatically think of deprivation, which can actually trigger binges. In this video, registered dietician Sharon Richter explains this concept, and also discusses "food freebies."

Crash diets often fail because they feed into the need for instant gratification, cause constant hunger, and give symptoms of chronic fatigue. Weight loss is something that takes place gradually and requires patience. Often, crash diets promise fast results, but these results are short-lived because they teach poor eating habits that cannot be sustained. When combined with exercise, a diet that is calorie restrictive will give symptoms of chronic fatigue, in that the dieter is always tired, and has a hard time completing workouts.

Dr. Kathleen Hall
Preventive Medicine
I could write a treatise on diet, but I am just going to touch on some things I believe are important for everyone to know. First and foremost, 90 to 95 percent of people who lose weight with diet gain most or all of the weight back within three to five years. Oftentimes, more body fat or weight is gained back due to yo-yo dieting. Here are several reasons diets may fail, and there most surely are more:
  • Most diets restrict caloric intake so much that metabolism slows down, thus hindering the weight loss process.
  • Dieting may result in depression, which is counterproductive to losing weight.
  • Most diets do not encourage lifestyle changes. To have permanent weight loss, you must make permanent changes in food choices, eating habits, and physical activity.
  • With very low calorie diets, weight loss is usually lean body weight as opposed to fat weight.
  • Exercise is not part of the program.
I am a big believer in "everything in moderation." Real, healthy weight loss can only occur through balanced eating and a sensible exercise program.
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Marisa Moore
Nutrition & Dietetics

Diets fail because they are based on deprivation and often take the joy out of eating and sometimes make it difficult to live a normal life.

Diets are temporary. People go on a diet knowing that they will eventually abandon it. It’s not if, but when.  

Unfortunately, once the “diet” is abandoned, you are left in the ocean with no solid ground to stand upon. Instead of going on a diet, consider taking this healthy eating thing one day, one bite at a time. Incorporate new healthy foods and behaviors each day or each week. Master them and add others. This way you build an arsenal of healthy eating practices that will last a lifetime. 

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
There are lots of reasons to eat: You're bored, you're at a party, your kids left 17 extra fries on the plate. The ultimate reason to eat is to provide fuel for your body-not only to keep you lean, energetic, and strong but also to feed your organs with the foods and nutrients they crave to keep your entire internal infrastructure running smoothly.

Depending on what you put into your body-as well as in what amounts and how often-eating affects how you feel and how you live. You can change the way your body works-and how you feel-with the food you eat.

However, when most people diet, they don't eat enough-and they actually slow their metabolism (which is the way your body digests food for energy). In essence, they go into a pseudo-starvation mode-the body stops burning calories as fast because it senses the need to preserve them. That's why exercise is so important. Physical activity helps keep your metabolic rate moving quickly.

In other words, exercise is what gives your body approval to burn calories. So essentially, you must exercise to keep your body from panicking and going into starvation mode.
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Margaret Floyd
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Many diets require significant deprivation along with complicated premises, strict rules, and endless calories or points to count. It's well-known that most people who lose weight on a weight-loss diet gain the full amount back within a couple of years, and the high maintenance level of most diets is a big component of such incredibly low success rates. Aside from being difficult, unsatisfying, and unsustainable for most people, this approach takes so much of the joy out of eating.
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Joel H. Fuhrman, MD
Family Medicine
Diets miss the mark more often than not. In this video I will explains why.

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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.