Don’t go on a diet. They don’t work. This is how you lose weight

Many people make a New Year’s resolution. And if you were one of them this year, you are not the only one. In fact, in most western countries, more than 50% make a New Year’s resolution. We badly want to make a change on January 1st.

Maybe you have decided to go on a diet. But if you have, hold on for a second. Because for most people, diets don’t work. Maybe you have heard this already, but do you know why? Because it is in the ‘why it doesn’t work’ that we will find an answer to what to do instead. And in this article, I will tell you how to lose weight.

[If you don’t feel like reading a long article, then you can also hear this in my podcast “What Monkeys Do”. You can find the episode here]

Let’s begin…

All types of diet fail

What is the problem with diets? Well, there are many problems. I could start by saying that it is not much fun to be on a diet. I bet many of you have been on a diet at some point. You start with a high level of desire, hope and motivation about the new regime. But not many days go by before you sense that this is not much fun. Some of the food you enjoy you are no longer allowed to eat. Or worse, some food that you don’t like, you now must eat. That is not much fun.

Another problem is that it is such a jungle out there. There are so many diets, and it is hard to know which one to pick. There are essentially two types of diets; Low Carbs (The Atkins Diet, The South Beach Diet, Mediterranean Diet, Keto Diet) or low-fat diets. Both types of diets claim to work, but they say the exact opposite of each other. One tells you to eat plenty of carbs while the other type is telling you that exactly what you should not eat. What to believe? Which diet to pick?

But those two things are actually not the problem with diets. The problem is that they don’t work. The number one success criteria for a diet is that you lose weight and that the weight stays off. But on that most important criteria diets fail. All types of diets fail.

Let’s get a bit scientific about this.

A large study was recently published in the BMJ. The BMJ is a respected medical journal and one of the world’s oldest general medical journals. It was a large systematic review, which included over 120 trials with almost 22,000 people who were overweight or obese. Those 22,000 people had been following one of 14 diets, including the Atkins diet, Weight Watchers and the Mediterranean diet. And they had been on that diet for an average of six months. The researchers had grouped the diets into three categories: low-carb, low-fat, and then a third group which included diets that were similar to the low-fat but included a bit more fat and a bit fewer carbs.

The conclusions were

  • People on both the low-carb and the low-fat diets lost about 10 pounds or 4,5 kilo during that 6 months. However, most of that was put back on within one year after finishing the diet.
  • Blood pressure and cholesterol results improved modestly after six months, but also here those results returned to where they started after a year.
  • There were no major differences between the various diets.

According to Traci Mann who teaches psychology at the University of Minnesota and has been studying eating habits, self-control and dieting for more than 20 years, after 4-5 years after a diet, 2 of 3 people had not only gained the weight back on, they actually now weight more than they did before starting on the diet.

Most people are better off not going on a diet to begin with.

So, diets do work in the short term. While you are on the diet. But the bad news is that afterwards you gain it all back – and then some.

And that is a hard thing. Going on a diet. Putting in all that work. Getting a result only to regain it. Trying and failing perhaps many times is not just depressing, it also increases the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.

So, the problem with diets is that they don’t work. You lose weight but then you regain it again.

Three important reasons why diets don’t work

Let’s just get one thing out of the way. The reason diets don’t work has nothing to do with willpower. Or grit. Or discipline. Those things are generally good things to have; but with diets that not the main problem.

There are three reasons why diets do not work. Actually, there are more reasons than that, but these are the three, which tells us what to do instead.

The first reason is, that you are fighting many fights at the same time when you are on a diet. You are also fighting biological changes made to you while you are on a diet. For example, neurological changes, which means that when you are dieting, you are more likely to notice food. Or the hormonal changes, which means that as you lose body fat, the amount of different hormones in your body changes. The hormones that make you feel full decreases and the hormones that make you feel hungry increases. In other words, you become more likely to feel hungry when you diet. Finally, you also fight metabolic changes. Your metabolism slows down. When you are on a diet your body finds a way to run on fewer calories, making it harder to lose weight, as you burn fewer calories.

The second reason why diets don’t work is that there is too much focus on losing the weight and too little on maintaining weight loss. Diets by their very nature focus on losing the weight. But that’s only half the challenge. The real challenge comes after you have lost the weight. Now you must maintain your new weight. And that’s a whole different approach. Another type of diet if you like. You must restructure how you eat. So, you should really have two plans ready. The first plan is to lose weight. That’s the traditional diet. But then you also need the second plan, which is the weight maintenance plan. This plan will go on for a long time after you finish the first plan.

The final reason is that there for many people is an underlying reason why you gained the weight in the first place. Or in other words, overweight is for many the symptom but not the issue. And by going on a diet, you are not addressing the underlying issues. The underlying issues can be many things. Examples include loneliness, stress at work, depression, low self-esteem just to name a few. If you are suffering from stress at work and you are using food to regulate your emotions when you come home, then your diet will not work simply because the underlying cause – the stress at work – is still there and you will continue to use food to escape from certain emotions after you have stopped your diet.

So, diets don’t work because evidence show, that people regain the weight when they stop with the diet. And the reasons for that is that diets make biological changes which makes diets hard, because diets don’t focus on maintaining the weight loss and finally because for many, diets do not tackle the underlying reasons for the weight gain.

The question now is, is there nothing you can do to lose weight? And yes, there is. You have probably figured out by now, that I like my lists. And if you are thinking to yourself – how can I lose weight, then here are

5 things you must do to lose weight

But before we get into those five things, let me just be clear: I am not offering any medicinal advice here. You should always consult with you doctor before you go on a weight loss program. The following are evidence-based recommendations that will make you lose weight and keep it off.

  1. Pick a diet. If you do want to lose weight, you do need some kind of diet. You do need to consume fewer calories for a period. But it does not matter which diet you pick. Look at all the different ones; Keto, Mediterranean, Atkins, low fat/high carb diet, intermitting fasting or any of the other hundreds of diets. Pick one and stick with it. And pick one where you like the food. Some diets require you to spend quite a bit of time on finding and cooking new types of food. Maybe you will enjoy this. Maybe not. Other diets suggest that you almost eat what you normally eat, just a lot less of it. Maybe that is appealing. Or maybe not. But it does not matter which one you choose. Pick one and stick to it.
  2. Have realistic goals and lose your weight slowly. Evidence suggest that it is realistic to expect a weight loss of between 7%-10% of your initial weight. So, if your initial weight is 80 kilo or 175 pounds, then you can expect 6-8 kilo or 12-17 pounds. But don’t expect to lose that over a few weeks. Instead set your goals to lose that over 3-6 months instead. That will make it more likely that you will not regain when you stop your diet.
  3. Add physical activity. Physical activity is important as part of a comprehensive weight loss and weight control program because it contributes slightly to weight loss and as important, it helps with maintaining the weight loss. And don’t worry, I am not talking about breaking the world record in a triathlon. I am talking about a moderate level of physical activity 3-4x a week.
  4. Fight your demons. If you are using food to escape from unwanted emotions such as stress, depression, anxiety, or something like that, then you must address these issues. That’s probably a good thing to do anyway. I know that is easy in theory but hard in practice. But just know, if you do not tackle those issues, it will be hard to keep the results from your diet once you stop with it. Maybe you need professional help with this. Issues like these can be hard to tackle alone. Regardless, fight your demons.
  5. Have a weight maintenance plan. Once you have been on a diet and you have lost the weight, the likelihood of maintaining the weight loss is higher if you have and follow a ight maintenance plan. Such a program is often more specifically tailored to you. A maintenance program could consist of diet therapy (which is a fancy word for selecting the right food for you – creating a food plan), physical activity, and maybe behavior therapy (which is another fancy word, which means help to keep you on your plan). A weight maintenance plan should be continued for a very long time after you complete your diet.

Losing weight is hard. Really hard. But if you want to increase your odds of losing weight and keeping it off then those five things will help you.

And finally, have a Happy New Year. Make a New Year’s Resolution. I know that I will. But please don’t just go on a diet. Because they don’t work.

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