The Issue I Have With ‘Diets Don’t Work’

And the unhelpful all-or-nothing mindset it encourages

If I had a dollar — or even a cent — for every time someone commented something along the lines of “But diets don’t work!” (often in full caps, accompanied by multiple exclamation marks) …

I’d be stinking rich. Truly. I’d be bathing in money.

That’s not to say that these individuals are wrong, though. The statistics don’t lie. Just take a look at the large systematic review and meta-analysis recently published in the medical journal, The BMJ.

After analyzing nearly 22,000 overweight or obese adults who followed one of 14 popular diets, including the Atkins diet, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, DASH, and the Mediterranean diet, for an average of 6 months, researchers found that most of the participants regained the lost weight within one year.

Previous studies paint a similar picture. Take this 2018 study published in the Medical Clinics of North America journal, which followed 29 long-term weight loss studies, for example. Its findings? 80% of the participants regained the lost weight within two years!

Faced with such convincing numbers, you might be wondering … “So, what’s the issue you have with ‘Diets don’t work’ again?” Good question. Well, the problem I have is that it encourages an all-or-nothing mindset. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Making sense of the widespread hatred for diets

First, let’s understand the widespread hatred for diets. Numerous factors contribute to diets’ extremely poor PR, but if you look closely enough, you’ll find that it all boils down to an overarching argument.

And that is the vast majority of people who lose weight through dieting end up regaining all the weight.

Remember all the numbers I threw at you at the beginning of this article? Yep. Things get a little more complicated when it comes to why, exactly, the results of dieting don’t hold up in the long-term. But here’s the gist of it — and of course, why the following points are misguided (aka the issue I have with them).

Your metabolism slows down

Scientifically speaking, metabolism is defined as the series of chemical reactions in a living organism that create and break down energy necessary for life.

But you can think of metabolism as the rate at which your body burns calories. A common argument is that your body reduces the number of calories it burns when you’re on a diet.

In other words: your metabolism drops. Another common term for this is also ‘starvation mode.’ The underlying idea behind all this is that if you don’t eat enough, your body will do everything it can to preserve energy — including holding on to the weight you’re trying to lose.

Sounds legit, right?

If you’re starving yourself, of course, your body will work hard to protect itself from losing more weight! Duh.

But here are some hard truths. Yes, your metabolism drops when you’re on a diet. But it’s not your body rebelling or working against you. Instead, it can all be explained by simple physics.

When you’re on a diet, you will lose weight — and that means you’re now carrying less weight around. And guess what?

Smaller bodies require less energy (i.e. fewer calories) to function than a larger body.

It’s just like how a small car requires less fuel to run than a larger vehicle. You don’t need as many calories to function at 120 pounds than when at 180 pounds.

As for starvation mode, the truth is that it only occurs in extreme malnourishment cases, such as when someone is suffering from an eating disorder. It’s not something you can or should blame when your fat loss results plateau.

Messes with your hunger and satisfaction cues

Ask anyone the reason behind their fat loss plateau, and you’re bound to find someone who blames it all on their hormones. Namely: leptin and ghrelin, your ‘appetite hormones.’

Here’s the surprising bit. They’re somewhat right. Because when you go on a diet, your fat cells will naturally shrink from weight loss — and this, in turn, results in reduced secretion of the hormone leptin, which is sometimes called the satiety hormone. It helps inhibit hunger and regulate energy balance. In addition to that, eating at a calorie deficit and losing fat also increases your body’s secretion of ghrelin, the ‘hunger hormone.’

The result? You’re looking at a double whammy that makes food so much more challenging to ignore; not only are you hungrier, but you’re also less easily satisfied!

So … game over, right? There’s just no way you’re able to lose weight if your hormones gang up on you.

But guess what? Just because it’s increasingly challenging to stay in a calorie deficit doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to. Are you giving yourself a free pass for not trying because it’s difficult?

Think about it.

It’s like saying that you’re not going to study for that Mathematics test because you’re never going to get a perfect score — or be a Mathematician.

See how ridiculous this reasoning is?

And, besides, what about the individuals who beat the odds and kept the weight off for the long-term? There must be something we can learn from them (I’ll explore this in a while); it’s unlikely that they’re somehow ‘hormonally superior.’

Overlooks your body’s set point theory

Ah, yes. The set point theory — the thought that our bodies have an internal ‘thermostat’ that regulates our usual body weight.

In line with this, the theory holds that some people have a ‘higher setting,’ which means that they hover at a higher weight, while others have a ‘low setting,’ which keeps them at a lower average weight.

This argument is closely linked to the first two arguments: lowering metabolism and messing up hunger and satisfaction cues during and/or after a diet. And as you can tell … this theory is unhelpful. It makes it appear that no matter what you do, you may be unable to change your weight. Your body’s set point has already set you up to fail.

Are you ready for the truth?

Here it is. While there appears to be some validity to the set point theory, it is not the primary determinant of your destiny.

How you navigate your food choices, along with your biological traits and energy balance, affects weight shifts over time. Weight isn’t based on a one-dimensional aspect.

You don’t just have ‘bad genes.’ In fact, here’s what a review of several studies that looked at the link between obesity and genetics had to say: “But it’s important to remember that overall, the contribution of genes to obesity risk is small, while the contribution of our toxic food and activity environment is huge.”

In reality, it’s a combination of factors — including your social environment, food habits, genetics, hormones, and set point — that all play a role in regulating body weight.

Also, guess what? Research shows that set points are not carved in stone. You can change your ‘set point’ through lifestyle changes. So, to stop trying to lose weight because you think your body can’t is foolish.

Eliminates certain foods or food groups

Here’s the truth. Many popular diets out there are centered around guidelines that tell you to eliminate specific foods or food groups for the sake of losing weight.

Take the keto diet, for example. You can’t eat carbs. Or the Paleo diet, which strictly eliminates grains, legumes, dairy, sugars, potatoes, peanuts, vegetable/hydrogenated oils, and all processed foods. Then, there’s the Ultra-low-fat-diet, which restricts your consumption of fat to under 10% of daily calories.

Anyone could tell you that these guidelines are unsustainable for the long-term. They can also lead to an unhealthy relationship with food, where certain food groups are demonized and labeled as ‘bad.’

I can’t argue against these points. These are all valid criticisms of the popular diets around. But here’s something we need to realize: these diets produce weight loss results (at least in the short-term).

Why do they work? Two words: calorie deficit.

The elimination of certain foods and food groups does indeed help individuals to keep to a calorie deficit — no matter if they’re actually aware of it or not.

Now, what does this imply? Easy. Instead of staunchly believing that all diets are designed to fail, we need to find one that advocates for a calorie deficit without strict, one-size-fits-all restrictions.

Is intuitive eating the answer?

Intuitive eating is a hot topic right now. Like, red hot. And at first glance, it appears to be what we’re looking for; it’s ultimately an evidence-based approach based on physical cues like hunger and satiety.

Its goal is to get you to use your internal wisdom to decide what, when, and how much to eat — instead of relying on external rules like no refined carbs allowed, no eating after 8 pm, or no butter on the toast (you get what I mean).

The approach also aims to disentangle food from feelings of guilt and shame. This all sounds good on paper. But what’s concerning is the social media sentiment that often accompanies intuitive eating: the notion that these practices are at odds with losing weight.

But Is losing weight a sign of self-loathing?

Many proponents of intuitive eating will have you believe that the desire to lose weight is a sign of self-loathing. That you don’t accept yourself.

But that’s not true; for some, the desire to shed some excess weight is an act of self-care and can be a positive experience.

As I said, numbers don’t lie. 70% of Americans are overweight or obese — a factor consistently linked with type 2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, and pain issues from carrying too much weight.

Does intuitive eating mean we’re against weight loss, even for those who might benefit from losing just 5% of their weight? Or for those who’d like to be the healthiest versions of themselves? Scroll through the #intuitiveeating hashtag, and it might appear so.

Intuitive eating does have its benefits

Now, please. I’m not saying that intuitive eating is useless.

No. I fully acknowledge the benefits it brings for psychological well-being. As a diet meant to repair an individual’s relationship with food, I’d say that it works pretty darn well. Research shows that intuitive eating leads to better self-esteem, emotional well-being, and psychological resilience.

At the end of the day, though, it still doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss. Why? Because its main focus isn’t being in a calorie deficit.

Let’s learn from those who’ve successfully kept the weight off

After reading the above paragraphs … you may be scratching your head, looking all confused.

Restrictive diets don’t work for weight loss. Intuitive eating, an approach that encourages you to get in tune with your body’s unique needs, doesn’t work for weight loss either. This all reinforces the point that diets don’t work, right?

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Because, let’s remember that there are still 20% of individuals who manage to lose weight — and keep it off for the long-term. If they exist, we can’t just proclaim that diets don’t work.

Instead of moping around and adopting a fatalistic mindset to dieting, why don’t we understand why certain individuals are successful instead?

We need to focus on patterns of behavior

And, as it turns out, for those who lost and kept it off, there are some common themes and useful lessons. Ironically, not one specific way of eating (i.e. diet) has emerged as the clear ‘winner’ in people who have lost weight and kept it off.

Yep — who knew that bestselling diet books were peddling lies, right? It’s not like they could earn money from it (all sarcasm intended).

Back to the topic on hand. When it comes to long-term weight loss, consistency, and adherence are the most critical indicators of success. This shouldn’t be a surprise to you.

Because energy balance is the most crucial factor for producing weight loss, you can accomplish weight loss through your preferred diet strategy that allows you to sustain a calorie deficit.

Something that you could do for a lifetime. If it’s cutting out meals after 10 pm, sure. Suppose it’s meal-prepping thrice a week, great. Or, if it’s plain and simple tracking calories, that’s awesome, too.

Plainly stated, the best diet is one that you can stick to. Not only will you lose weight, but you’ll also keep it off.

Stop allowing your mindset to get in the way of your progress

So … instead of spending all that time lamenting that diets don’t work, refocus your energy on trying various methods, strategies, and behaviors that allow you to eat in a calorie deficit.

Just because a diet didn’t work, doesn’t mean all diets won’t work for you. It also doesn’t mean that the energy balance is wrong. See what works for you and fits your lifestyle best.

Stop using the statement ‘Diets don’t work’ as an excuse to stop trying. If you do that, your body’s not working against you — you are. Own up to that, and you’ll be one step closer to shedding the weight and keeping it off.

Thank you so much for reading! Not sure how to get started? Start by learning about how many calories you need. And if you’re making any changes to how you eat, pay attention to building a healthy relationship with food.

Fitness & Nutrition | Evidence-Based | Let’s meet in your inbox: https://thrivewithscience.com/subscribe/

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