3 Reasons Diets Don't Work and What To Do Instead

The word 'diet' can mean a lot of things to different people. To me, it is the overall pattern of how a person eats. It can include what types of foods someone eats or doesn't eat. It can include meal and snack timing, emotions, mindfulness, and relationships with food. It can even factor in someone's ability to cook, food and nutrition knowledge, health history, health concerns, and more. 

Despite our name, most dietitians (myself included) despise diets and the whole dieting mentality. Science has shown again and again the ineffectiveness and even potential health risks of continued dieting. Throughout our training as dietitians were are taught that diets don't work, and here's why...

1. They Are Not Sustainable
The number 1 reason diets do not work is because THEY ARE NOT SUSTAINABLE. (Read that again). The instant you say "I'm going on a diet," you're making a temporary commitment.  When we reach our target weight or when the diet is over, we fall back into our same old habits- because that's exactly what they are- habits.  We then regain the weight (and often more) and fall back into the dieting mentality each new year or each bathing suit season. Following a diet does not necessarily create new, long lasting, healthy lifestyle habits. Instead, you've committed to a certain lifestyle until you reach an end point.

2. They're Restrictive
Diets typically involve limiting or eliminating certain foods, incorporating more of a certain product, or following strict guidelines. Often when people say they're going on a diet they think they can't eat pizza or cookies and can only eat salad until the weight magically falls off. Putting restrictions on ourselves can actually have the opposite of our desired effect. When we tell ourselves certain foods are bad or that we can't eat chocolate chip cookies, often, all we can think about are those chocolate chip cookies. Sooner or later we give in to the craving and maybe even overindulge. Food should be enjoyable, you should not feel deprived! Do you really want to spend the rest of your life drinking those nasty weight loss shakes or fake protein bars or without eating cake on your birthday?!

3. They're Stressful
I feel as though the word itself has a negative connotation. The word 'diet' often comes with stress and pressure to lose weight. Both external and internal stressors can actually cause us to gain weight. Restricting calories from our body is a type of stress, just like the stress we put on ourselves to reach that certain weight or to fit into that old pair of jeans. Both types of stress produce cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol increases insulin which in turn decreases our blood sugar. When our blood sugar is low, our body thinks we need food, and usually causes us to crave sugary foods. High cortisol also decreases our response to leptin - the hormone that tells us we are full.


Study after study has shown negative health effects of yo-yo dieting. We all know obesity to associated with numerous health effects, but yo-yo dieting itself has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes as well.

So what should you do instead? Here are a few ideas...


1. Think long term, healthy habits over a short term diet
What small alterations you can adopt for a healthier lifestyle? Consider your intentions- why are you doing this? Think of it as a commitment and investment in your health for the long run and not necessarily to reach a certain number on the scale (see below) Although food is a large factor in weight loss, there are other parts to the equation, consider your overall wellness and try not to be so preoccupied with food. Wellness includes stress management, adequate sleep, proper hydration, movement throughout the day, and more.

2. Choose health over the number on the scale
We can become so preoccupied with this stupid number on the scale, when in reality it doesn't tell us anything. It doesn't tell us anything about fat or muscle or water retention. It's just a number. That's all. This year, focus on how your body feels. How do you feel when you eat vegetables vs. potato chips? When you go for an afternoon walk or make time for the gym? How do you feel after a good night's sleep or staying well hydrated? Health is so much more than a number on a scale. Listen to your body.

3. Start with small achievable goals
Large goals can take us longer to reach and can become frustrating if we don't meet it quickly. Start with something small, specific, and attainable that you'd like to adopt for your longterm health. Even start with just a weekly or daily goal - this week I will go to the gym 2 days, or today I will drink 8 glasses of water.


Happy New Year to all! I hope you consider ditching the diet mentality this year and focus on what healthy means for you and your body.