Updated: Jan 17
According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the word “diet” has a few different definitions:
Food and drink regularly consumed
A regimen of eating or drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight
To eat according to prescribed rules
I’m guessing for most people the word diet brings up thoughts of the second two definitions – a pattern of eating/drinking aimed at losing weight and/or according to certain rules.
When you have goals relating to your health, wellness, physical performance, or aesthetic appearance, what you eat is definitely a key player.
And if following a certain diet plan is going to help you reach your goals, wouldn't you be motivated and excited to hop on board? Shouldn't it be easy to stick to your diet, see results, and keep it up?
If you’ve ever followed (or attempted to follow) a diet before - whether that means eating or avoiding certain foods, counting calories, points, or other numbers-based programs, or eating according to a specific schedule - you’re probably well aware of the challenges that come up.
(Of course, some people will need to follow certain dietary protocols to manage conditions or diseases, or for ethical or religious preference – being gluten free if you have Celiac for example, or avoiding animal products etc. For the purpose of this blog post, I am NOT referring to these kinds of diets. There will always be exceptions to any rule!)
So: why do diets routinely fail to produce results? And what can you do instead?
Diets are problematic for several reasons:
1. Diets are inherently restrictive and create a deprivation mindset.
As I mentioned, the very definition of the word diet is to eat sparingly or according to rules – to restrict your eating.
When you create restrictions or try to follow a rigid plan, your brain is in a state of stress and anxiety.
And when your brain is feeling stress and anxiety, it’s not just an uncomfortable place to be, but it’s also extremely difficult to make or sustain change.
Plus, restrictions – and the stress and anxiety that come with – usually results in a feeling of deprivation. Which creates more stress and anxiety.
Have you ever had the experience of trying to avoid a certain food, only to find that all you’re doing is thinking about the food you’re supposed to avoid?
Your brain is in a negative feedback loop: Restrictions ---> anxiety and stress ---> deprivation ---> anxiety and stress etc.
When you’re caught in this negative head space, it’s a pretty miserable place to be. And being miserable does not bode well for forward progress or positive change.
2. Diets take away your autonomy.
Diets are telling you what to do. No one likes to be told what to do. And when you are told what to do, what usually happens? You rebel and do the exact opposite.
Having a sense of autonomy and control over your choices is key when it comes to behavior change that lasts. Giving away your autonomy to a diet plan is almost always going to backfire in the long run.
Not only that, you’re essentially outsourcing your hunger and fullness cues and food enjoyment to your diet plan.
You’re letting a diet dictate what you eat or when you eat or how much you eat, and it’s easy to lose touch with what your body really wants and needs.
And when you lose touch with your body’s wants and needs, it’s hard to enjoy food and eating. You feel unsatisfied even if you’re consuming more than enough food. It’s a lose-lose situation.
3. Diets are unsustainable.
I think we’ve established that there isn’t a lot of enjoyment in a diet. And when there is no enjoyment, there is no sustainable, lasting change.
You might be able to follow a diet for a certain period of time – and you might even see great results – but eventually the restriction, stress brain, and lack of autonomy is going to catch up with you.
The whole idea of being “on” or “off” a diet makes it clear that these approaches are not built for the long haul. They may provide a quick fix, but they’re not helping you create long-term strategies that last.
4. Diets don’t factor in your real life.
This is a big one that I think gets overlooked: diets are not meant for the actual life you are living.
Diet plans might work when conditions are ideal – when you don’t have a lot of other stressors going on, when your life is fairly stable and routine, and when you can put a lot of energy and effort into it.
But this is not reality for most people most of the time.
You have jobs and families and responsibilities and crises...and that’s on a good day!
Real life is not counting calories or macros. Real life is work lunches and dinners with friends and family barbeques and birthday parties.
Diet plans don’t fit naturally and seamlessly into your life.
And if something doesn’t fit easily into your real life, it’s not going to last.
5. Diets ignore underlying factors.
Another important consideration that diets miss are the many underlying issues that prevent people from making better nutritional choices, or really just implementing any change in the first place.
I’ve talked about this before, but if you’re not getting enough sleep, it’s going to be extremely difficult to make the choices you want to make around food and eating, or movement, or whatever else in your life.
If you’re stress is unmanaged, it’s going to affect those choices as well (not to mention make it hard to get good sleep...Cue the vicious cycle!).
Diets work on the assumption that these other key factors of your health and well-being are taken care of, whereas in my experience, that is rarely the case.
Just like you can’t out-exercise a poor diet, you can’t out-diet poor sleep.
Addressing the foundational principles of good health, like sleep and stress management, needs to happen first.
Ok, so now we’re clear on why diets don’t work. And you’re probably wondering:
If diets don’t work, what am I supposed to do? What are my other options?
I’m so glad you asked!
In a nutshell: you want to find what works best for you and fits into your real life, by developing the skills and strategies that allow you to experiment and adapt as needed.
Instead of relying on a diet plan to tell you what to do, you can learn how to create your own path by building your toolbox and practicing the steps that move you in the right direction.
Implementing the skills you need to get you where you want to go will be far more valuable - and get you far better results - than following a set of strict rules ever will.
Instead of trying to follow a certain diet plan, what if you practiced eating more
slowly and noticing your own hunger and fullness cues?
What if you practiced noticing and naming what other factors affect your food
choices, or how different foods make you feel or perform?
What if instead of counting calories or macros or points you discovered what
portion sizes tend to work well for you, and how to adapt depending on your
hunger and appetite?
What if instead of restricting foods you figured out how to include all the foods you
enjoy without feeling guilty or overeating?
What if instead of following a meal plan you learned what kind of planning and
prepping strategies fit into your life – so you can create your own meal plans?
Obviously, this all takes time and effort, and may feel like it will be much harder than simply being given a diet or meal plan.
But really, building the skills and strategies you need to make the best choices for yourself is done through a series of very small steps and changes.
This approach is the opposite of an extreme diet: It’s sustainable, it gives you autonomy, it’s not restrictive or depriving, it looks at the underlying issues first, and it takes into account the context of your real life.
Ditch the diets.
Build your skills.
And discover the lasting results you’ve been looking for.
And if all this sounds daunting or overwhelming, you’re not alone! If you’re used to the on again/off again diet approach, doing things differently can definitely feel scary. In my coaching program, we’ll break it down step by step and create a plan that works for you, your life, and your goals. To get started, send me a message or schedule your free consultation call today.