Quite simply, dieters fail because the human body is not designed for dieting. Our bodies need calories for fuel, and physiologically, voluntary calorie restriction is a direct threat to this natural self-preserving mechanism. Our bodies embrace the life-sustaining sustenance in food, and to force our minds to coercively change that perception would in fact be in denial of who we are. Accordingly, it has been proven that dieters self-generate cravings at a much higher rate than nondieters. (If I say, “Don’t think of a red car,” what is the first thing that comes to mind?) Furthermore, we are hardwired to rectify hunger and satisfy the craving as soon as possible. If you’re hungry that means you’re body needs nutrition. (Notice I said “nutrition,” not “food,” because some food is not really food, but industrial products packaged to look like food instead.) So any diet that purposefully asks that you go hungry is already doomed to fail since our bodies recognize hunger as a state that needs to be fixed—not a state in which it prefers to operate. Ever wonder why you feel like you’re going crazy after you’ve skipped a meal? Your body is trying to tell you something.
Dieting also implies a temporary change in eating behavior. If you’re on a quest to lose weight, then I assume a certain set of behaviors got you to where you are now. Hence, it doesn’t make sense to change eating behavior now, lose the weight (hopefully), and then return to what you were doing before, just for you to gain the weight back again.
Scarcity imposes a mental strain, which in turn adversely affects those enduring the scarcity. A recent study has confirmed this phenomenon. A relevant conclusion is that people don’t necessarily fail diets because they’re weak—the dieting itself makes them less sharp and focused and thus less likely to continue the uphill climb. Psychologically, diets make it harder to diet.
The human brain is capable of processing only so much information at a time, and each individual has the inherent ability to either cope with more or less information. If our systems are stressed in any way (e.g., distracted, stressed, tired, or hungry), we’ll have less available brainpower to devote to other things. If Usain Bolt didn’t eat or sleep for a few days, the fastest man in the world would probably turn into a “normal” sprinter. This study has confirmed this phenomenon, analyzing subjects eating unhealthy versus healthy food after a mental challenge. Those who were given the more mentally taxing task subsequently ate more unhealthy food.
Diets also increase our bodies’ generation of stress hormones, which in turn make us fatter; they also alter gene expression that makes us less adept at dealing with stress in the future. One study has even demonstrated that food deprivation makes our brain place higher value on food. So if you see, smell, or even think about food, you’ll actually desire it more than if you weren’t dieting.
These results shouldn’t discourage you because you can use the information about how the human body works to your advantage: less thinking and less obsessing will lead to less mental strain and, therefore, an increased ability to stick with any plan longer. Another study has confirmed this conclusion with a surprising result: it wasn’t how tough the diet was that determined its complexity, but how tough the person thought it was that determined persistence. In other words, if you think a diet is very simple and effortless, you’ll stick with it; the thinking part varies with each person.
The bottom line is that self-imposed scarcity sets everyone up for failure and is a guaranteed course toward frustration. Instead of dozens of rules, keep it very simple; instead of a strict time limit, commit yourself to being a healthy person who lives a healthy lifestyle for the long run. No one likes limitations—frame your new choices in the context of food freedom instead.
There are many paths to take that all end up at your ideal weight and optimum health, so do it on your own terms and own up to the path you choose. You may try one thing for a while and then switch to something else, and that’s OK—the process involves evolution, adjustment, and experimentation to match your unique needs. Future preference assumes there will always be overwhelmingly more of later than there is now. With that in mind, rushing to lose all the weight in 90 days only to gain it back doesn’t really make sense. If it takes you one, two, even three years to achieve your goal, then so be it. Better to chart a slow and steady course ahead than to quickly go forward and fall back.
So here’s how not to fail:
Don’t go on a diet. Start the slow gradual process of lifestyle change. If you change one small thing at a time, that small thing will soon become your new normal. Dozens of small incremental changes have tremendous cumulative effects and result in a new and improved you.
Keep it simple and allow breathing room. I’ve talked before about the greatest weight-loss secret of all time, but start off by using a one-rule program like “no more than 100 grams of carbs a day” or “less sugar, more veggies.” These restrictions simultaneously allow a large degree of functionality.
Splurging every now and then is OK. Things that are bad for you sure do taste good. Do you have to give up [insert guilty pleasure here] forever? Of course not. Every now and then, you can have some of [it] because you’re not limiting yourself to a strict goal within a rigid time frame.
Your results will vary. Even people not attempting to lose weight will have their weight vary from time to time. It is completely normal for your weight loss to intermittently plateau, and you may also have small blemishes of weight gain on your overall loss in pounds.
Go long. Do you want to wake up every morning and feel great or tired and miserable? Do you want to feel winded with the slightest activity, or would you like to feel energized to do all that you want? Would you like to be around your family and loved ones longer or shorter? Keep these things in mind when adopting strategies and searching for motivation. Deciding to get healthy is an event, but what’s vastly more important is the process, which involves persistence, tenacity, and the all-important staying power.
Get help. Some folks are so self-driven and internally motivated that once they switch “on,” there’s no stopping them. Others need to be repeatedly nudged and encouraged to get something done. For those in the latter group, recruit your spouse, family, parents, kids, or whomever, and get them involved in your quest. For example, go on a weight-loss challenge with the rest of your household and incentivize the winner, ensure your house’s food buyer knows what they should and should not purchase, and grab a gym buddy to keep you motivated when you lose steam at the gym. One … more … rep …
Dr. C.H.E. Sadaphal