Why Dieting Doesn’t Work. And What to Do About It
Updated: Mar 19
When the diet is wrong, medicine is of no use.
When the diet is correct, medicine is of no need.
For most people, a diet comes with an expiration date. They sacrifice their bodies for a month or two in order to improve their health or simply to improve the curvature of their waistline. This rarely produces a good result in the long term. According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) a staggering 95% of people who lose weight through dieting will regain it in 1-5 years. So, why does this happen?
The reality is that diets don’t work on their own. They tend to focus on only one piece (diet plan) of a bigger puzzle (lifestyle) and ignore the factors that are causing the need of the diet in the first place. In contrast, 80-90% of people that go through a lifestyle medical intervention (1) that uses an integrative approach to diet, continue to follow that program one year later.
Here are a few reasons why diets don’t work and what to do about it:
1 • Dieting is too Restrictive
The focus of dieting is cutting out food – and most of the time, it includes the food you like. In fact, the only word your subconscious registers is the word restriction. This has the unpleasant side effect of making dieting feel more like a sacrifice rather than a healthy way of improving yourself.
Instead of focusing on the things you’re removing from your plate, rather think of all the good things you can add to it. This way you won’t feel like you are depriving yourself. Explore foods you haven't tried before and add more colours and flavours to your diet. Like vegetables with different antioxidants, extra spices and different textures. Also, if you are a visual person, try making the plate more aesthetically pleasing, it will add another element of pleasure to your nutrition.
Furthermore, focus on the pleasure you’ll feel in the long term, feeling better, healthier, and experiencing more vitality. Treat the change in your diet not as “fixing” a problem but as a way of improving yourself.
2 • Diet Plan vs. Social Pressure
The majority of diets tend to consider numbers and calories without accounting your surroundings and cultural pressures, which also have a strong influence.
I see many people start a diet and then get anxious about going to dinner parties, outings with friends, family dinners, etc. They think they won’t be able to eat anything or won’t be able to resist the many caloric temptations they will find there. Family and friends can either be encouraging or offer some resistance to change.
There is an ancient Hindu saying that teaches us “If the floor is full of thorns, don’t try to cover the floor, protect your feet with proper shoes.” So before going out to a dinner party, eat nutritionally packed yet low calorie-dense foods, such as fruits or vegetables. It can be a salad, a soup, a snack, or simply your favourite vegetable spread. This will prevent you from arriving at the restaurant feeling famished. And it has the advantage of helping you eat less without feeling depleted. Also, since you already ate your portion of vegetables for that meal, you can indulge in some food at the table while enjoying the company of your friends.
Another tip is to take advantage of the social factor of the occasion. For example, by sharing your meals with friends who already have the diet and lifestyle you aspire to. You can tell your hosts that you would like to contribute by cooking and bringing along something for everyone. Choose the tastiest healthy dish you can do - please don’t take quinoa and boiled broccoli! Make something that can inspire others to try it out. This will help you make the changes you need with less effort and to share this new way of eating with the friends that you care about.
3 • Numbers and Calories
When a diet plan takes the centre stage of your thinking, it can limit your vision, making you focus too much on the analytic aspect of counting calories. But life is more fluid and dynamic than that. It is possible to improve your diet without the need to count calories.
The whole-food plant-based diet is the only one that has been proven to prevent and reverse diseases and, as an amazing coincidence, helps to lose weight without restricting portions and calories. To embrace this change, you will have to restructure your diet but going beyond it, also your lifestyle as a whole.
In 2017, an interventional study (BROAD) was published, where they tried the hypothesis of calorie restriction vs a whole food plant-based diet (WFPB) and the effect on overweight individuals and their health. Even after 12 months, the intervention participants’ results were better than any other trial that does not limit energy intake or mandate regular exercise, without counting calories or restricting quantities.
4 • Your Emotions Play a Big Role
In all my years as a nutritional expert, I have seen many people struggle to keep consistency in their diet. They start fully motivated and ready to implement the necessary changes. However, after a couple of weeks, when the results don’t show up as fast as they wanted, the motivation starts to shrivel. This is why it is important to make the process as pleasurable as possible. In other cases, food serves as an escape route, a guilty pleasure to compensate for excessive stress or emotions like sadness, frustration, anger, etc. and then they end up eating too many fats and sugars. Therefore, the success of your diet is less about keeping a strong mindset than it is about learning how to manage your emotions more effectively. Maintaining a strict discipline for a long time is hard for most of us, especially when something isn’t pleasant. This is why I believe that nutrition should be a pleasure, not a sacrifice.
As Prof. DeRose once said, “We are more than just a digestive tract.” To recognise the importance of the complexity in your nutritional choices, you have to consider your emotions. If it’s too logical, too rigid, or too perfect, it won’t work. In other words, it has to feel right and not just look right on paper.
We all have an emotional connection with food: it gives us pleasure as well as nourishing us; it’s part of our culture. It is around the table that families and friends bond and most business deals are closed. Some foods, for instance, should be considered emotional foods, as it pleases our emotions more than our physical body (have you ever heard about comfort food?) A diet plan should just be a reference tool, a starting point but not an end in itself. There is a difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. The next time you think you “need” chocolate, analyse what is happening in your life. Recognise what triggered the need and try writing it down, without any associated guilt. Repeat this every time and read it a few weeks later. By doing this simple exercise, you will know yourself better and know what motivates your choices. You will also be able see your emotions with regards to nutrition in a more positive light.
5 • Perfection is the “Enemy” of Good
Recently, I helped a client that had previously consulted a fancy nutritional therapy. After a myriad of exams, the result was a diet plan of epic proportions. It was designed to meet all his micro needs with loads of superfoods and ingredients he had never heard of. He was spending most of his time and energy around his meals. Guess what happened? He gave up. Food was becoming just one more stress factor in his life.
This is why ”perfect is the enemy of good”, which is a Portuguese saying I learned from my diet therapy professor at university. When a diet plan looks too perfect, it normally is. It might look perfect on paper but might not be adapted to the real world – it’s useless if you can’t apply it. That’s why it is so important to be practical. I always try to listen to people and work around their needs. Almost like a diplomatic negotiation: we have to listen very carefully and see what the other side is willing to compromise, and meet halfway. You can do the same the next time you consult a nutrition specialist.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself in search of the perfect diet, as it simply does not exist. It’s a process of discovery that takes time and is in constant evolution, just like your life. Sometimes things don’t work out according to your plan, and it’s ok. Try your best at every meal and take it step-by-step. The important thing is that you feel that you are making more conscious choices than before. Being a perfectionist here is counterproductive, so embrace the process with an openness to learn gradually. Just like when you start training for a marathon, you don’t start running the whole 42.195 kilometres at once.
6 • Theory vs. Implementation
In nutrition, just like in business, the implementation process is the key to success. An amazing plan or idea will be worthless without the process or the system to turn it into reality. However, for some people, this is where they struggle. Whereas in point 4 we talk about how the impossible perfect diet plan can be an obstacle to your success, point 5 is more about understanding your capacity to follow through. Sometimes over planning and focusing too much on the theoretical aspect can lead to procrastination.
We know consciously that we need to eat more fruits and vegetables, avoid processed food, eat organic, drink more water, etc. Then why is it so hard to put into practice? This is often where a professional can help you the most. He or she will help you navigate through the noise and provide you with small doses of information to help you achieve your goals in practice.
Value the implementation process and try building the habit of finishing what you start. This will be beneficial for your self-discipline. As Ernst F. Schumacher once said, “An ounce of practice is generally worth more than a ton of theory.” And to a certain degree, he as a point. Choose one thing that you can implement today and take it to completion. Once that is accomplished, try another until implementation and completion becomes second nature to you.
7 • Too Much at the Same Time
Nutrition can be confusing to most people, and yet everyone seems to be an expert. I’ve seen people with a reasonably balanced diet get confused about all the conflicting and contradictory information out there. Everyone has an opinion: your personal trainer, the internet, your doctor, an Instagram influencer, your coach, and even family and friends. Most of the time, the advice is sincere but it can cause more harm than good.
Even if all theories and diets were right, we could not practise them all at once. It would be like trying to dig holes in the ground in search for water but not finding any because you never dig deeply enough at any point. It’s not easy to find your voice amid all the noise.
Start to know yourself better, so when you do your research, you can filter the things that don’t click with you. And avoid buying into a diet just because it’s a trend. Find a good professional that you trust. Stick with the programme he or she designed for you for a reasonable amount of time to test how you feel. It’s just a matter of applying common sense with the right dose of discipline. As tempting as it can be to test new theories, sometimes jumping from branch to branch may sabotage the results you are aiming for and prevent you from taking advantage of what’s right in front of you.
8 • Time Management
One of the main things that often get in the way of improving our nutrition is not managing our time and energy properly. I knew a person who filled her fridge with all the best organic vegetables and fruits money could buy, but they would always end up rotten and in the bin. She would arrive home tired and, because she didn’t plan, ended up ordering takeaway instead.
When there are too many things on our minds and we’re physically drained, taking the time to prepare a nice meal is the last thing we feel like doing. Regarding meals, the better the planning, the easier your life will be.
Time management is all about having your priorities straight. So think about what is really important to you. If you make your health a priority, you will be on top of your game. You will create a virtuous circle that will give you clarity (by planning better) and more vitality (from eating correctly). You will have more energy to do the things you want to do. Choosing healthier foods is part of this.
Think of your health as your best investment. If you put time and effort in, it will pay off. Start by just improving your evening routine, for example. Plan your meals and buy all the ingredients you need (it takes only a few minutes if you do it online). When the food arrives, chop the vegetables, soak and cook pulses, if possible. Try cooking in batches and then divide them into portions to store in the freezer. I know it takes a bit of discipline, but as a friend of mine always says, “Discipline will free you.” With time it will become second nature. Here are a few extra tips that I use:
• An electric pressure cooker really helps to speed up the process. Besides saving a lot of time, you can just put everything inside and let it do its magic. You program the time and go do something else.
On the days that I don’t have a lot of time to cook, I simply add a mix of lentils, vegetables (leek, kale, carrots, potatoes, plenty of tomatoes etc.) water, spices and fresh herbs to the electric pressure cooker. It’s in itself a complete and balanced meal. You just need to vary the vegetables, grains and pulses each time to vary the micro-nutrients.
• Buy frozen onions, tomatoes, vegetables (such as spinach, pumpkin, mixed vegetables, etc.) and even fresh herbs. They’re pre-chopped and ready to use. You can also hone your chopping skills and freeze them afterwards.
• Cook at least 2 extra portions of your meals. Then, set them aside into tupperware containers and store in the freezer. Indian food, for example, tends to be tastier the next day.
• Stock your cupboards with plenty of canned beans, lentils, and chickpeas to add to your meals. Although canned food is not ideal, it’s unquestioningly very practical. Use it when you can’t cook lentils and beans in advance.
• Use the hell out of your oven: just cut everything (vegetables, potatoes, kale, broccoli, asparagus, etc.) Season with olive oil, salt and paprika and let them roast.
Until now, I have been focusing on the reasons diets don't work. But, as a professional nutritionist, I can also see the potential dieting has. It can be an excellent catalyst for change and improvement. It can help start a process of personal growth that far extends your nutrition.
As soon as we understand that dieting is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, we can then see more clearly the connections between all the factors that make a healthy lifestyle – then explore the synergy between them. For example, the synergy between diet and emotional (and social) intelligence; mindfulness with intelligent exercise; and meditation with creativity.
At Lifestyling, we believe in crafting an organic lifestyle that goes beyond prevention, taking you closer to living your life to its full potential.