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Why Diets Fail and How to Avoid the Pitfalls

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Diets promise weight loss—and yet, ironically, there’s mounting evidence to suggest that food restriction makes you want to eat more. According to a meta-analysis of 29 long-term weight loss studies, participants regained more than half of the lost weight within two years and more than 80% within five years. 

More sobering still: dieters are more likely than non-dieters to become obese over the next one to 15 years

The underlying message? Diets don’t work. But wait. We all know people who’ve successfully lost weight—and kept it off. Few as they are (an estimated 20% of dieters), they’ve shown that long-term weight loss maintenance is possible. 

So, what’s their secret? Well, they’ve avoided the two common “pitfalls” of dieting. 

#1: Over-reliance on fad diets 

First: they steer clear of fad diets (e.g., ketogenic diet or juice cleanses). Fad diets often require strict record-keeping of what you eat, limiting calories or macronutrients (e.g., “no carbs!”) or both, and adhering to many strict rules (e.g., “you only have five hours to eat!”). It’s only natural to feel confused, overwhelmed, or downright miserable. 

So, it’s not at all surprising to learn that the outcomes of diets that involve restriction are short-lived

What’s the alternative, though? As it turns out, instead of subtracting things from their lives, successful dieters lost weight and kept it off by adding things. More specifically, they consumed more minimally processed foods, including high-quality proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These improved their satiety, lowering their overeating tendencies, in turn enabling them to achieve and maintain a weight-reduced state. 

The takeaway? Approach your diet with sustainability in mind (i.e., “Can I continue doing this a month, a year, or ten years from now?”) and build your diet around minimally processed foods. Remember: the best weight loss diet is one you can adhere to. 

#2: Environmental trigger management 

An unavoidable part of being human is fallibility. Life gets messy—you go through a breakup, endure job stress at the office, or suffer financial woes—and before you know it, you’re back to your old eating habits. 

To avoid this pitfall, we can learn from successful dieters, many of whom have broken the connection between psychological stressors (i.e., environmental triggers) and unhelpful eating habits. 

Your eating habits have three elements: a trigger, a behavior, and a result. Here’s an example of how it translates to real-life: you’re angry about a fight with your loved one (trigger), you start binging on ice cream (behavior), and you feel better (result). 

This is not a problem in the short term, of course. But when repeatedly done, you end up reinforcing this habit loop and over time, your brain learns to associate ice cream with feeling good, particularly in times of stress. Now, that’s a problem. 

Thankfully, you can break your habit (or any identified problematic eating behavior, for that matter) by practicing mindfulness. Before you eat, ask yourself these questions: “What am I getting from this?”, “Am I full?” and “Does this serve my long-term goal?”

Thinking about these questions updates your brain's information about how rewarding (or not) a food really is. And that's key to breaking your habit loop. Psst…you may also wish to turn to healthier stress-relieving methods (e.g., meditation and CBD supplements). 

Bonus tip: Diet from a place of love and self-acceptance 

Be honest with yourself. What’s your motivation for losing weight? If your weight loss journey is fueled by self-hatred (e.g., “If I can’t lose weight, nobody will ever love me”), your diet will work against you by crushing your drive and determination—a punishment of sorts. 

But if self-hatred won’t help you, what will? Answer: self-acceptance. As contradictory as the terms “weight loss” and “self-acceptance” may appear, there’s evidence to show that loving and accepting our bodies while improving healthy behaviors leads to better weight loss results.   

So, what does this mean for you? Reframe your motivation for dieting and losing weight. Don’t just diet because you feel pressure to look good in a swimsuit or because someone else made a derogatory comment about your physique. Feeling good about yourself and believing that you deserve better health should be your motivation to lose weight—while accepting and loving your body as-is.  

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Ultimately, you must play the long game when it comes to weight loss. There are no fixed set of dietary rules, quick fixes, or miracle cures that’ll help you lose weight—and keep it off. 

For most people, a well-balanced diet that includes all food groups (and the occasional treats!) works best in the long run. Oh, and don’t forget about staying physically active, too!

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