Why Dieting is Ineffective and What to Do Instead
By Nick Rizzo
We are all guilty of it. You put on a little extra weight and you decide “it’s time to go on a diet.”
Instead of working to actually improve your eating habits, you instead decide to make some radical changes based on a singular proposed idea of what it means to “eat healthy.”
You jump on the latest “dieting trend”. They all claim to be backed by science and guarantee amazing results.
The unfortunate truth is that most of this information has been altered by well-intentioned gurus and cynical marketers. Taking only the studies that support their own biases, ignoring what doesn’t, and avoiding discussions around the glaring gaps in the research they claim as evidence.
Let’s look at two of the most basic and most prevalent lies in the industry.
1. Calories in – Calories out = Changes in body fat
The calorie-counting model of dieting is talked about as being a science fact. I have even overheard trainers say things like “It’s not hard, just eat less calories” when talking about weight loss. The thing is, it isn’t that simple.
That’s because this concept relies on the myth that the calories ingested are independent of the calories you burn throughout the day – a point that was proven false by The Women’s Health Initiative dietary modification trial that followed 50,000 women for seven and a half years. The experimental group ate 342 calories less per day on average, ate 10% less fat, and exercised 14% more. The result? The experimental group lost a whopping .88 pounds on average, and their waist to hip ratio actually increased.
This is only one of the many myths surrounding this general approach to dieting.
2. Another great example is low-fat diets, which only rose to prominence due to the extremely flawed 7 Countries Study by Ancel Keys.
The thing is, this study was actually supposed to include 22 countries, but he ended up removing the rest of the countries from the study as the data that they were producing did not align with his hypothesis.
It is this flawed research that gave rise to things like the Mediterranean diet and the belief that fat is the enemy. In reality, eating too little fat can actually be dangerous. Not eating enough fat can reduce your body’s ability to absorb the necessary fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.
Fat is also critical for the health of our brain and the overall nervous system. That’s because 60% of our brain is made up of fat. And the myelin sheaths that cover the nerves throughout our body are made up of 100% fat.
Lastly, it is foolish to believe that a style of diet that works for one region will be similarly beneficial for a completely different population. This does not account for genetic and epigenetic profiles of these vastly different populations that are isolated from one another.
There are more and more reasons you shouldn’t diet by following one of these flawed prescriptions blindly.
If typical dieting doesn’t work, let’s focus more on what you should be doing instead in order to be able to include it naturally.
1) Throw what you think you know about dieting out the window.
There a ton of myths and misconceptions parroted as truths. Start with a clean slate and focus on learning what is best for you.
2) Become more attentive to what your body is telling you.
Are you hungry? Then, it makes sense to eat. Are you thirsty? Drink some water.
Simple right? It is. But it gets a bit more complex when we look at other feelings our body conveys to us. How many times have you started eating because you were bored, because you simply walked through the kitchen, or because you were stressed? I am sure you have done at least one of these before, but you probably don’t think it sounds too weird because of how commonplace it is. To that I say, would it be weird if you ate every time you had to pee? Or what if you brought a sandwich with you every time you showered for a little mid-shower snack? Needless to say, that is a bit weird. But the same can be said about bored or stressed eating.
Additionally, it begins to degrade your relationship with your body and food because food starts to become the answer for things outside of just hunger and nutrition.
By being mindful of what your body is telling you and responding appropriately, you can start to identify and eliminate these poor associations with eating.
3) Eat mindfully.
Next time you are at lunch or out to eat, get your “people watching” on. You will see everyone talking, having a good time, and then as soon as the food comes out, people enter into this feasting trance. Overcome with excitement about eating, they just continue to eat and eat without stopping until the plate is cleared or they have overeaten.
Try to mindfully slow the pace of your eating. Take the time to appreciate each bite. Make sure you are helping yourself to digest your food by chewing more. And when you have eaten about half of your food, take a small break. Use this break to check in with how full you are or if you are still hungry. After a few minutes, if you are still hungry, feel free to keep eating.
4) Address your eating habits by making one change to one meal at a time.
When people try to make changes to their eating habits, they usually try to set up restrictive rules to force a change. They want to change their entire diet in a single day.
Instead, start with focusing on making one small change to the first meal of the day. Continue to make these small changes every one to three weeks. This is the most effective way to approach improvements, because of the science behind habits.
Our habits are engrained in us and changing everything at once is extremely difficult, so even though you may be able to stick with it for the first week, you typically won’t last very long. That’s because your brain is designed to do what takes the least amount of effort as possible.
Changing one small aspect of one meal is significantly easier and will produce the least amount of stress for you. Make a change that is just challenging enough to produce a meaningful benefit without it being overwhelming.
5) Eliminate shame from your diet.
One thing that can set you back is feeling shame and the negative self-talk that comes from eating a not-so-healthy meal.
We are all human, we get cravings, we have favorite foods, and you shouldn’t feel bad for it.
It is perfectly okay to enjoy these foods at parties, family gatherings, when you’re out to eat, or just because. The key is to enjoy these things in moderation and let go of the belief that you should feel bad about it. You shouldn’t.
The thing is, eating well is not a sprint, it is a marathon. If you are eating healthier overall, every day, then over the long term a “guilty pleasure” or two will do very little to hold you back.
Be flexible. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy your food. All while improving your overall relationship with food, one meal at a time.