The Not So Surprising Reasons Diets Fail

The diet industry–which includes diet products and plans–is estimated to be a $72 billion industry. One would think with so much money spent on eating well and losing weight, the diet industry would lead to highly effective outcomes. Yet, the sad reality could not be further from the truth. Many people bounce from diet to diet until they give up and feel bad about their lack of willpower and self-control. They judge themselves for being weak, lazy or incapable of living a healthy lifestyle. 

In a meta-analysis that included 29 long-term weight loss studies, the researchers found that more than half of the lost weight was regained within two years, and by five years more than 80% of lost weight was regained. 

The Big Three: Food, Pharma, Diets

The conventional narrative sets people up for continuous failure. Consumers are unknowingly manipulated by the power of marketing by three powerful industries: big food, big pharma, and the diet industry. When watching a television show you could go from watching a Taco Bell commercial that increases your propensity to eat gmo-laden fried taco shells with conventional beef, to a commercial for a proton pump inhibitor like Nexium to offset the heartburn that one might get from eating these heavily processed foods, followed by a commercial for Atkins that convinces you that you need to lose weight and have more willpower. 

As Dr. Deborah Cohen writes in her book, a Big Fat Crisis: “the conventional wisdom is that overeating is the expression of individual weakness and a lack of self-control. But that would mean that people in this country had more willpower thirty years ago, when the rate of obesity was half of what it is today! The truth is that our capacity for self-control has not shrunk; instead, the changing conditions of our modern world have pushed our limits to such an extent that more and more of us are simply no longer up to the challenge.”

I’ve listened to my clients in my virtual nutrition clinic describe their experience navigating this yo-yo cycle of dieting. Many of them are very focused, successful, and disciplined individuals in their day to day lives. When they put their mind to something personally or professionally, they achieve it. The area that this does not seem to consistently translate to is their long-term food choices, weight maintenance and health.

When scanning their list of previous diets, most of my clients have tried one or more of these three popular diets in the past: Weight Watchers, Atkins Diet, and/or South Beach Diet. It is true, most of these diets can provide short-term weight loss. An individual may lose 20 or 25 pounds. However, over time, the weight creeps back in, and in many cases, a few extra pounds sneak in, too.

To all who do the work to lose weight to only subsequently get let down repeatedly by popular diets, it’s important to note that despite thinking more restriction and force could be the answer to maintaining weight loss, these tactics rarely lead to long term success. That’s why I’ve developed this important list of five reasons why diets fail. When I address these reasons, I hope you have an aha epiphany that helps you see that you are not the failure. 

Five Reasons Why Diets Fail

1. They Don’t Take a “Food is Medicine” Approach to Healing 

For so long, the diet industry’s potential to make money was dependent on its ability to make people feel bad enough about themselves and their weight in order to prompt action to change. The conventional diet narrative is: lose weight in order to look better, be better and feel better. Follow our low calorie diet plan and lose 20 lbs in 8 weeks. This narrative involves so much obsession around: 1) being inadequate as you are and 2) doing anything to lose your extra weight. 

A very important concept is left out of this narrative: 

Changing your diet solely to lose weight completely underestimates the true power of nutrition.  When you approach food not just as a tool for losing weight but as a vehicle for improving how you feel and how you show up in the world, it changes everything. When you learn more about the science behind food, blood sugar balance, the gut microbiome, inflammation, and the body as a whole, it helps you make informed choices that are truly in the best interest of your body instead of simply making choices for vanity purposes or the number on the scale. Your weight matters, but how you feel matters so much more.  

This is especially true given that food is one of your most powerful forms of medicine. When used appropriately, food can change your physiology. Adequate nutrition can help reduce your risk of disease and even potentially reverse certain conditions and decrease dependence on medication. Foods that provide nutrients in whole, unprocessed forms deliver a wealth of nutrients that support every cell in the body and the way your genes are expressed which results in the body’s ability to thrive. Plants make an excellent example of that “farmacy” (as Dr. Mark Hyman calls it) approach. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds provide essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients including carotenoids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and polyphenols. 

Eating fresh fruit and vegetables have been inversely associated with the risk of major chronic diseases, particularly heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown, for instance, that polyphenolic compounds in plant foods are promising nutraceuticals to manage disease. As a bonus, these foods also help you feel more satiated and in control of the choices that you are making around your health.

True, lasting change happens when you can think about the foods that you are eating in relation to how you feel, how you want to feel in five hours, tomorrow and in 25 years. Rather than aligning your choices with an immediate impulse to eat two donuts, you can begin to make choices that are in alignment with feeling your best. You can ask yourself if you want to feel energized or tired and make choices that align with feeling energized.

Following a diet may in some instances help you lose weight, but sometimes it can be at the expense of your health. For instance, a low calorie, high protein diet may help you lose weight, but it can also impair your adrenal health, increasing cortisol and adrenaline production while impairing digestion and increasing fatigue. Another example would be a person following a ketogenic diet who develops more prevalent asthma symptoms and production of kidney stones due to the increase in nuts, decrease in fiber, and more. There are thousands of examples where this takes place. No level of weight loss is worth setting the body up for adverse symptoms that eventually make you feel worse than when you started. 

The goal is not to be on a diet for four months and lose weight. The goal is to change your life by addressing how to improve the way your body functions physiologically so that you can heal and feel better. Having energy to get out of bed, a better mood, less joint pain, more focus, and an increased chance of being around for more time with your friends, family, children and grandchildren are much more powerful motivators than fitting into a certain pant size.

2. They Don’t Emphasize Biochemical Individuality

Underlying everything I practice is a concept called Biochemical Individuality. Based on a book with the same title by Roger Williams, Ph.D., first published in 1956, the concept takes into account what we learned as children: Everyone is different. 

Biochemical individuality means your body has its own complex blueprint, making your nutrient needs very unique. You have many complex systems working together, including your genes, microbes, immune cells, neurotransmitters, hormones–so many variables! What this means is that what you need to thrive and maintain an ideal weight –– to keep a strong immune system, stay active and pain-free, and keep disease at bay –– will absolutely be different than the needs of your family, friends, and colleagues.

Put more simply: No diet is right for everyone. There is no diet manual that works for everyone. More broadly, how could any diet possibly address everyone’s unique needs? When you begin to believe this, nutrition can feel a little less polarizing. 

I love the saying “Test, don’t guess.” Nowhere does biochemical individuality become more obvious than with lab tests, which provide a far better glimpse at a person’s health, from the inside, out. Imbalances in certain hormones such as thyroid and stress hormones, for example, can certainly impact how efficiently the body burns fat and maintains a healthy weight. 

With lab tests, I can better identify imbalances that are happening underneath the surface. 

Some of the lab tests I look at with weight loss clients include:

  • Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (CMP-14). The 14 different blood tests in this panel can provide a lot of insight about your metabolism.  A glucose test measures the risk of diabetes. Other tests evaluate how well the kidneys and liver work to ensure that you’re detoxifying well. Measuring the levels of fluids, electrolytes, and minerals can also help understand the body’s ability to lose weight and function optimally.
  • Estradiol. Estrogen imbalances can make you hungrier, crave sugary foods, and lower your body’s ability to burn fat. Estradiol is the body’s most predominant form of estrogen during the reproductive years. I talk more about estrogen dominance and how to balance this hormone in this article
  • Vitamin D. Around 42 percent of Americans are deficient in this vitamin, which is actually a hormone. Some populations –– including people over age 65 and people with more melanin in their skin and have darker skin tone –– have even higher rates of deficiency. People who are overweight or obese tend to have lower levels of vitamin D. One study found that postmenopausal women on a 12-month diet and exercise plan who improved their vitamin D levels lost more weight than those who didn’t. Beyond this, vitamin D is incredibly important for bone health and immune health. 

Altogether, these and other lab tests help form comprehensive pieces of an elaborate puzzle for overall health. If you don’t know that, say, your thyroid hormones are out of balance, weight loss will feel nearly impossible – no matter how proficient you are at counting calories – and you’ll eventually become frustrated with your diet plan. Lab tests provide a window into how the body is functioning under the surface. When I see that lab results are out of balance, I use targeted nutrition interventions to correct the imbalance. 

3. They Don’t Teach You How to Listen to Your Body

Typically when I first start working with a client they will say something like, “just tell me what I should eat.” They crave a clearly outlined food plan that includes exactly what to eat with each meal. Without realizing it, they’ve placed more trust in me and my training than they’ve placed in themselves and the experiences that they have living in their body for their entire life. Information like: 

-What foods typically make you feel tired? 

-What foods trigger your reflux? 

-Why do you think it’s so hard for you to cut back on alcohol in social situations? 

These pieces of insight are more valuable than anything I could tell clients from my own experience and often more valuable than any conclusions we can draw from lab testing. 

So much of what we are taught is what you “should do,” “should eat,” “should be,” and the life that you “should live.” The distraction of what you think you need to look like, feel like and eat can be exhausting and can pull you so far away from what your body actually needs. Your actions are based so much on perceived external acceptance rather than what feels best for your body. Learning to listen to your body and how it reacts when you are exposed to certain foods, situations, people, and external energy is truly a practice that requires going inward. 

Listening to your body requires you to stop relying solely on advice from experts and opinions from friends and begin to know yourself and live your authentic truth. It requires less control and more listening and observing. For example, there’s no one who can say with 100% certainty that every person should avoid dairy. There are great arguments and opinions on either side, with science indicating that some people do not tolerate dairy well. It’s important to use the science we do know about food, in addition to what seems to digest well and make you feel good. This second half requires personal observation, an all too important strategy often missing from traditional diets. I have a client who realized when he ate dairy, his hands ached. When he removed the dairy, which he previously believed he could tolerate, he realized the aches vanished on their own.

This concept of listening to your body applies to more than just your food intake. It means really listening and decoding your symptoms, thoughts, and feelings. The more that you listen to the messages that your body is delivering, the more you will feel in control of your health.

If you feel tired, listen and prioritize rest rather than pushing through. If you feel more joint pain, pay attention to changes that have happened in the last several days in your diet and lifestyle. If you feel more constipated, pay attention to shifts that you have made in your diet and hydration. It’s often beneficial to work with an expert like a Functional Medicine Registered Dietitian who can explain more of the science and direct your recommendations. But for optimal results, you must also turn inward and rely on your own wisdom as well. 

4. They Do Not Teach You the Science & The Tools 

In addition to interpreting labs and listening to your body, understanding the basic science of how food impacts your body is key. It helps you understand the why behind advice like “eat more vegetables.” Until you understand the way that your food choices influence your blood sugar, your hormones, your gut and so much more, the advice does not usually translate to consistent action. 

In addition to the science or the “why,” you also need to know the “how,” which includes having tools that serve you long-term. Diets will typically focus on having you eat their protein bar for lunch or a reheatable meal that fits their criteria. But what happens when those foods aren’t accessible? What happens when you have very little control over the meal? There is a considerable amount of grey area when you are at a catered lunch for work, the ballpark, a movie, or out to dinner. It’s the grey zones that really make it difficult for people to decide on the most optimal choices. Having practical tools and strategies in these instances can be very beneficial for long-term sustainable changes. 

5. They Set You Up for Rigidity

Nutrition is a practice, just like any sport. You probably agree that you do not master a sport overnight but for some reason you may expect yourself to start following a perfectly laid out list of foods overnight. Following a list is not the same as changing your dietary habits and patterns. It does not solve why you eat a box of cookies when you are stressed in the middle of the afternoon. It does not solve why you reach for the diet coke to improve your energy levels. Following a list of foods is only sustainable for so long.  

The part of the path that people skip is the vulnerable place of needing to show up in imperfect action to become better. There is something very vulnerable about admitting that you don’t have it all together or that you need help in a certain area of your life like behavior change and habits. People would rather skip that uncomfortable place of vulnerability to following a list and appearing like they have everything figured out. But that is a recipe for crashing, burning and eventually binging on sugar. 

The What the Hell Effect is a term that I coined to describe what happens when a person tries to be so perfect with their diet. It’s the act of “getting off track” with your diet for one meal and allowing it to sabotage you in the future. Example: “I ate a donut for breakfast so, what the hell, I might as well eat a piece of cake for lunch.” It’s this idea of “getting the most out of being off track” that interferes with a sustainable approach to eating.

When that rigidity starts to feel confining, many people decide to give up the plan altogether. But rather than letting yourself feel like a failure for abandoning your plan, give yourself grace. Understand that there are “optimal eating days/choices” and “less optimal eating days/choices.” If you eat something that does not make you feel great, it does not make you a bad person. It means you made a less optimal choice. The good news is that there is no judgement attached to the action and you have the flexibility to make a new choice at your next meal. 

With these five limitations, it’s clear why many diets fail. The good news is that when I take these five otherwise-overlooked areas into consideration, the success rate of nearly every approach dramatically improves. Most people start feeling more confident in their food choices, able to listen to signals from their body, feel more energized, experience less pain, and are more focused and present in their lives. These are the true wins, the weight loss is just a nice added bonus.