How Diets Work and Why They Fail

My first step when undertaking any kind of new project is research. My husband and I are planners – when we got engaged there was a spreadsheet with 18 separate sheets, detailing our extensive research regarding venues, wedding locations and wedding service providers. It was a source of constant amusement to our friends and family.

Undertaking a lifestyle change requires a significant amount of research in order for success to follow. So many people simply jump on the bandwagon of the latest fad diet without thoroughly understanding its strengths and pit falls. The following discussion is meant to arm you with all the information you need to achieve your weight loss goals. Referenced facts you can read for yourself in order to come up with a strategy that will help to change your habits and achieve your goals.

Fact #1 – Why We Are Getting Fatter

From the Australian Bureau of Statistics;

‘Before 1980, obesity rates were generally well below 10%, but have doubled or tripled in many countries since then … Sedentary lifestyles which have come about due to increasing affluence and the modernisation of society, and changes to diets containing more energy-dense foods are believed to be the main causes in the rise in overweight and obesity rates.’

Simple – we are getting fatter because we are eating more and moving less. The American Heart Association reports that people are less active due to technology and better mass transportation. Furthermore, the number of sedentary jobs have increased 83% since 1950 and physically active jobs now make up only about 25% of the American workforce, a 50% decrease since 1950. To compound the problem, the average working week is longer – Americans work 47 hours a week, which is 164 more hours a year than 20 years ago.

That sounds pretty obvious – we are less active and we have access to more calorie rich food than we ever have before. It’s a recipe for obesity. But the challenge is that this gradual shift has infiltrated every aspect of our culture, from our eating habits to our working hours. It will be difficult, but by no means impossible, to change.

Fact #2 – Diets Don’t Work

I know that statement will upset some people, because if you are someone that is carrying extra weight, it is so easy to hope for a miracle that will fix everything for you. When you have spent years developing bad habits, often through necessity, (or so we may convince ourselves), the road back to a healthy lifestyle can seem like such an insurmountable challenge. And when someone is selling a simple one step solution, it can be too tempting to ignore. But make no mistake – they are selling you something. They have motives outside your health and wellbeing.

I have no ulterior motives. I am not selling you anything. These are the facts.

  1. Diets are temporary. They are designed to be short term – it’s unlikely you will be able to maintain them for the long term, or even the medium term.  Dr Nicole Avena, a neuroscientist who specialises in nutrition, points out in Pschycology Today that while diets may help you to lose weight initially, the odds are you will end up fatter than when you started across the long term:

“One study found that, overall, short-term diets could help you lose 5%-10% of your weight. This means that if you weigh 140 lbs., you’d be able to lose 7-14 lbs. in a relatively short amount of time. The problem then becomes that once people lose their desired amount of weight or once the “money-back guaranteed” month is over, they will usually stop the diet and go back to eating how they normally ate before the diet. A study in which researchers significantly decreased the subjects’ caloric intake (much like many commercial diets today) found that after 5 years, 83% showed more weight gained than originally lost! That means that the majority of the people in the study gained back more weight than they lost.

So what if before you gain the extra weight you start another commercial diet? Unfortunately, researchers in 2012 found even more evidence showing that more short-term dieting results in increases in amount of weight that will be gained. Shockingly, the amount of weight can be potentially gained after this type of dieting behavior is independent of genetic factors. This means that even if you and your entire family have always been normal-weight, these fad-dieting behaviours can lead you to become overweight.”

  1. Short term diets increase your stress hormones, according to a study from the Journal of Neuroscience. Diets are stressful, which makes them difficult to maintain. As a result they encourage binge eating.
  2. Difficulty in sustaining a diet is not the only reason they fail. Even if you are able to white knuckle your way through a diet for the long term, the results will be temporary. The other, and arguably, the more sinister problem, is the effect diets have on your metabolic rate – or the rate at which you burn calories through biochemical processes. Your metabolic rate dictates your ability to burn excess calories, and therefore your body’s ability to lose weight. A study from the University of California, (and published online via the National Institute of Health), found that low calorie diets actually decrease the metabolic rate, dooming low calorie diets to fail.
  3. Dieting has a negative impact on your health, according to Dr Le Couteur of the University of Sydney. His study has found that people that employ low carb diets face increased rates of heart disease and shorter life spans. Similar results were found in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Fact #3 – There is a simple way to control your weight. Simple, but not easy.

Sharp reductions in caloric intake will result in your body finding a new homeostasis. In other words, if you suddenly reduce your caloric intake to, say, 1200 calories a day, your body will adjust to cope at that particular energy intake. In doing so, it will reduce energy expenditure on a number of biochemical processes. In short, your metabolism will fall and you will stop losing weight, and as an added bonus you will feel sluggish and unwell.

Recent studies have found that the best way to achieve weight loss is to gradually reduce your caloric intake to a sensible level, (often the research uses different levels depending on gender, weight and age, but somewhere between 1800 and 2200 calories seems to be concensus.)

Exercise plays an important role here too, since higher activity levels increase your metabolic rate. In other words, exercise creates an energy deficit, and requires your body to burn more calories. It increases your metabolism, making it easier to lose weight in the long term. This article published by the Mayo Clinic explains the role of exercise and diet in metabolic rates and has a handy list of references at the end.

In short, there is a magic solution to weight loss, and so far, for me, it has been this – exercise every chance you get and maintain a sensible diet. It’s not easy, it’s not sexy, but it works, and most importantly it works over the long term, not just for the first month or so. You deserve the rewards you will get from a lifestyle change. You deserve to be healthier, to look your best and to reap the rewards of gradual and sustainable weight loss. All you need to do is keep the end goal in sight. Don’t be side-tracked by short term horizon or quick fix solutions that you know deep down will fail in the end. The solutions offered by a short term diet will soon be gone and you will be worse for wear, but a long term horizon will help you to achieve success. For good.

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