Why Fad Diets Usually Fail

I am sometimes asked why “fad diets” seem to fail so often for so many people, and what a simple diet plan would be.

In my opinion, fad diets—especially low-carb or no-carb type diets—usually fail because they involve trying to normalize extremes, specifically extreme restriction of calories and/or carbs. Being hungry or undercarbed (and as a result with poor energy levels and sometimes depressive feelings) can easily lead to falling off of the diet or outright binging. It takes the pleasure out of life to never feel satisfied after eating, and for every food to signify nothing but a certain number of calories. And who wants to live that way?

Pleasure is, believe it or not, just one principle from which to derive satisfaction in life. It is possible to derive satisfaction from other principles. For example, your food choices can be based on the general principle that your weight loss goals are valuable and worth sticking to, and some specific principles that fit within that. High caloric deprivation can cause feelings of fatigue, irritability, lethargy, and depression, especially when the calorie reduction is implemented all at once (to theoretically provide quicker results) instead of as a slow, gradual decrease in your daily caloric intake. Therefore, any principle upon which your diet is based must be strong enough to offset the displeasure that generally accompanies feeling tired, irritable, incapable, and unhappy.

Your thought process must be closer to “I am lean,” rather than “I should be lean.” Saying “I am lean” is an act of self-definition based on a principle whose validity you also define. Whereas “I should be lean” reflects more of a desire to conform to society’s principles, society’s definitions of what you should be. The more you validate societal principles, the more time, thought, energy, and passion you expend on them, the more you devalue yourself. Think about that for a moment.

What I’m getting at is this: the key to changing a behavior such as diet lies partly in understanding why you’re attempting to latch onto such a principle as “I should be lean.” Is it for your health, for your sense of well-being and happiness, your sense of accomplishment and personal growth based on the knowledge that you’re worth the time, effort, and appropriate level of self-absorption necessary to improve?

Or is it because you feel inferior to thinner, more jacked, or more “healthy-looking” people? Is it because you have failed in achieving fitness in the past, or failed in some other area of your life? Or do you feel defined by some other sense of just not being “good enough”?

Going a little further, does it seem like people go out of their way to make you feel bad about yourself, and your desire to get fit is a reaction to that? To appease them and shut them up? It’s a rough world and such things are common. But worrying about being super-skinny to please other people generally doesn’t make most people happy, even if they succeed. Indeed, such folks often feel weak, miserable, and irritable, as I mentioned above, and as though everyone is criticizing them, hence the stereotype of the high-strung temperamental dieter. And a lot of them understandably have body image issues. Wouldn’t you?

Most mass-market fad diets play on people’s emotional insecurities and exploit them. The diets themselves are often designed by “doctors” or “nutrition experts”  (some of whom have no nutritional or even medical training) who are only trying to line their own pockets. Now, before any of you hardcore “free market” advocates come at me and say, “well is there anything wrong with wanting to line your own pockets?!” let me point out that not only have such business practices by “nutrition experts” NOT helped to curb the obesity epidemic in America, but anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders have steadily increased as well. So I say, YES THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THAT.

Whew. Almost went off on a rant there.

That is not to say that these diets don’t have a place. For instance, if you want to lose fat very very quickly, like for a wedding or upcoming beach trip, dramatically cutting carbs can make a big difference. However, such weight loss is generally not sustainable because living life without carbs is a ridiculous and bad idea, and your body knows it. Think of extremely low-carb diets as a specific tool, like a jigsaw or a pair of bolt cutters. They fulfill one specific need very well and aren’t terribly effective beyond that.

“Specific tools” is pretty much how I feel most diet schemes should be viewed. For instance, the technique of intermittent fasting (which I will discuss in detail in a separate article, along with its often-mentioned-in-the-same-breath counterparts, flexible dieting and 6-small-meals-per-day), is effective for some people at making bodyfat “melt” off. It involves utilizing only a relatively small window of time every day in which you get all of your calories and maintaining a fast throughout the rest of the day.

For some people, intermittent fasting, or IF, is a godsend. It is more of an eating schedule than a diet per se, and as such it provides clear guidelines and boundaries that do a lot to simplify the process of calorie control. And as I am nearly always willing to point out, if it works for you, do it.

But for a lot of people, not eating for long stretches of their waking day is not feasible. Some people work very physical jobs and it is not practical for them to start their work in the morning in a fasted state. Even people who work at desks experience trouble focusing while fasting and turn to caffeine or other stimulants to perk them up for the next 6-8 hours. Many people can’t exercise effectively or muster up the motivation to do so when they’re undernourished.

In general, it is unpleasant to be hungry for long periods of time, and I can imagine (I don’t have scientific data to back this up, but bear with me here) that it leads to cheating for a lot of people, if not outright binging. And this failure will have to be recovered from, as will the next one, and the next one….such is the definition of “yo-yo dieting.”

Continuing with IF for a bit longer, that’s why, from what I’ve seen, the people who have the most success with IF are not new to fitness or dieting. They are already engaged in one or more aspects of a fitness lifestyle, and use IF or other tools for a specific purpose, much like a veteran gym-goer who knows how to deadlift but only chooses to do so for a specific purpose, rather than the novice gym-goer who has no idea how and would probably get hurt if he/she tried. Deadlifting, and IF, are not good places to start.

The trick is, we’re trying to develop discipline. It’s hard to develop it if every time you try, you experience physical pain or discomfort. I get it, we need to break free of our comfort zones, et cetera, and that is 100% true. But let’s briefly think in Darwinian terms: imagine placing a gilled sea creature—the distant precursor of the human being—on the sandy shore and yelling “Evolve! EVOLVE NOW! BREAK FREE OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE!!!” at it. What’s going to happen? It’ll desperately try to get back to the water, and die from lack of oxygen. It took millions of years for those sea creatures to creep up onto the land, and then to breathe air, and then to walk upright. They crept up, and experienced a benefit: safety from much larger sea predators. They learned to breathe air, and another benefit was bestowed: the ability to sleep. Walking upright proved another benefit: reaching for sweet fruits from trees, making fire, and so on.

For successful dieting, it needn’t take millions of years. But it will still take patience, and experiencing particular benefits. You can’t get that from merely dieting. You need holistic health: nutrition AND exercise. That’s all I’m saying.

And now, after that picaresque detour, on to the second part of the question I am often asked: what is is a simple dieting plan that can be adhered to with relative ease?

A simple dieting plan would be to focus on nutrient-dense whole foods in meals, snacks, and desserts, monitoring salt, unhealthy fat, and empty calorie intake, drinking tons of water, and eating enough to match, exceed, or fall short of your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) depending on whether your goal is weight maintenance, gain, or loss, respectively, all while utilizing an exercise regimen based on compound movements, flexibility, joint health, and cardiovascular health, consisting less of a certain number of sets and reps (although this is fine and works for a lot of people) and more of a specific amount of medium-heavy to heavy exercise per week and light-medium to medium exercise per day. Whew. Long sentence.

To identify your TDEE, do an internet search for TDEE/BMR calculator. I don’t want to push a specific on you because a lot of these sites are trying to sell you something. So try a few of them and average the results. But take my advice: never go below your BMR. Your body will go into starvation mode, your metabolism will become sluggish, and your weight loss will stagnate if not reverse itself. Let’s do this right, or not at all.

It is important to find exercises that give you a sense of enjoyment, just as it is important to find nutrient-dense foods that you also enjoy and can serve as staples. In order to lose one pound per week, you must reduce caloric intake by 500 calories. And when it comes to reducing caloric intake, think of it this way: you can reduce caloric intake by eating less, or by exercising more. That’s a liberating concept. The more you exercise, the more (healthy, nutrient-dense) food you can eat. You can be full all the time. Doesn’t that sound lovely?

And then, eventually, when you have a strong grip on portion sizes, you won’t have to count calories. Ever again. Counting calories is just a tool. Just a tool.

Why not shoot for losing 1/2 of a pound per week, and use those 250 “extra” calories you eat each day to fuel some heavy lifting, or high-intensity interval training? And building that muscle, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, will increase your BMR and you’ll become a “fat-burning machine,” all on your own, without any need for super-restrictive diets or ACTUAL machines!!!

When these two things (diet and exercise) go hand in hand, it is much easier to maintain your diet because you are seeing your health holistically. The foods you eat will affect the quality and enjoyability of your exercise, and vice versa. For example, a lethargy-inducing, nutritionally-deficient burger-and-fries meal will make you feel like crap, diminishing your desire to work out the next day. Knowing this and cultivating foresight and discipline may help you avoid eating in such ways.

The positive benefits of diet and exercise complement each other, and screwing up in one area will result in a hiccup in the other. In other words, your actions and behaviors have effects outside of themselves. This is another reason fad diets often fail: when diets don’t connect in some way to exercise or your life in general, you are simply depriving yourself of something for its own sake; it has no gravity outside of itself. Whereas when exercise and nutrition are related and based on your life—instead of some “fitness guru’s” arbitrary or semi-arbitrary pronouncements about what’s healthy—it is easier to commit and see a greater purpose in it, especially when it relates to improving the overall quality of your life and not just some immediate weight loss goal.

I know this article got pretty deep and philosophical, but I hope it has helped you think critically about fad diets and about dieting in general. There are three main points to come away with.

1) The first step to improving yourself is to know that you’re worth improving.

2) Diet and fitness must be viewed holistically, as part of “the whole you.”

3) Improve the whole by improving its parts.

Now go forth and modify!

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