Why Diets Fail

man standing beside white wall while holding fruits

Last week, a friend was griping about how their weight loss and ground to a halt. I talked to them a bit about it, but then I came across someone in a group I’m in on Facebook talking about hitting plateaus with their weight loss, and I figured it was time to talk about why diets “fail.”

First, let’s understand something. What most people call “diets” are really diet protocols. They’re sets of rules that we adopt in an effort to create a nutritional framework so we can achieve our goals.

Yet I’m going to let you in on something a lot of people will disagree with me on. That tidbit is that pretty much all diet protocols work.

Wait…what?

Yep. They all work.

Well, they work under certain conditions, anyway.

See, if you’re trying to lose weight, you have to consume fewer calories than you burn. This is simply the laws of thermodynamics at play. You simply can’t undermine this simple fact.

If you follow pretty much any diet protocol as designed, you’re likely to lose weight, at least for a while.

The problem with many protocols, though, is that they’re restrictive. They tell you not to eat cake, but self-control only goes so far. I can delve into self-control another day in more detail, but the elevator-pitch version is that your self-control is finite.  The more tempted you are, the more likely you are to succumb to that temptation.

As a result, the more restrictive a diet protocol is, the more likely it is your temptations will outstrip your will power.

However, if you adhere to them, they’ll work. For a time, at least.

Then what?

Trying to eat healthy tens to look the same.

Eventually, you reach a point of homeostasis within the body. That’s the point where your caloric intake and outgo are pretty much in balance.

What most “plateaus” tend to be, though, is a case of someone jumped on a protocol that promised them they could lose weight without counting calories, which they did…up until they didn’t.

With my friend, it was keto.

Now, I have nothing against keto. In fact, I find keto to be a perfectly acceptable protocol if you’re someone who can conform to that degree of restriction in your food choices.

However, let’s understand how keto and many other diet protocols actually achieve results.

To start with, you cut out certain foods. For many protocols, it’s usually starchy, calorically-dense and processed foods. These foods provide lots of calories, relatively little nutrition, and don’t really help the body very much.

If you remove them and replace those foods with an equal volume of something like broccoli–a food that it’s practically impossible to overeat–then you’re reducing your calories.

No, you’re not tracking you calories, but you’ve still reduced them.

When you hit that point of homeostasis, you’re not going to lose anymore weight. You’re just not. You can comply with the protocol all you want, but you’re done.

You’re likely to hit that point even faster if you buy all the goodies marked “keto” or whatever diet protocol you’re following. These tend to have ingredients that adhere to the protocol, but they’re often calorically dense.

Then there are the substitute foods you can make at home that some swear are just like the real thing. Sure, my experience says they’re not (see also: riced cauliflower), but some are probably tasty and they contain calories. Sometimes, those calories get kind of dense for the amount of food you’re eating.

As a result, though, you hit homeostasis, then wonder why diets fail like that.

No protocol will keep you thin on its own

None will.

The truth is, the reason why diets fail is because too many people fail to understand what their diet is doing.

Take my friend. When he and I talked, he brought up a mutual friend who lost 30 lbs on keto. “Yeah,” I noted, “but he’s still shaped like a potato.”

In other words, they lost a lot of weight to start with, then stalled out before reaching any point an outside observer would consider lean. Now, that’s fine if he’s cool where he is, but the only thing separating this mutual friend from those who gripe about the plateaus is his attitude.

Which, really, is what should matter.

But the important thing to remember is that diet protocols aren’t foolproof. Even veganism, which likes to bill itself as the healthiest diet protocol out there, has foods that comply with their rules that will make you fat.

Diets don’t actually fail

Diet protocols aren’t letting you down. What’s letting you down is yourself.

See, part of why I’m partial to flexible dieting is because it’s a protocol that lets me do whatever I want within a given framework. However, I also recognize that for some people, that just doesn’t feel sustainable.

But when your weight loss flatlines, if you’re still a ways away from your goal, what you need to do is adjust fire. Find the most calorically dense foods you’re still eating–or beverages. Do not drink calories without understanding why you’re doing it–and considering cutting them out as well.

Or, conversely, just eat a little less of everything.

Not everyone really needs to actually count calories, but you have to understand that the laws of physics aren’t going to change because of your feelings. Adjust fire or deal with disappointment. The choice is yours.

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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