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.
And when you have goals relating to your health, wellness, physical performance, or aesthetic appearance, nutrition and diet (foods regularly consumed) are key players.
But 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.
It seems a bit counterintuitive though, right? If following a certain diet 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 a diet, see results, and keep it up?
(Of course, some people will need to follow certain “diets” 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 as ones that don’t work. 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.