Any diet that allows you to restrict calories is going to lead to weight loss. As long as you’re not overeating, then all diets will work.
But one question you need to ask yourself is: “How do I feel being on this diet?” What does it do for your energy levels and your hunger levels? How complicated is it to prepare and eat? Does it taste good or does it feel too restrictive? Are the ingredients easy to find, or does it make shopping for groceries a nightmare of confusion looking for unpronounceable foods that are allegedly super?
And there are weaknesses in our modern dieting culture. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in the U.S. almost 70% of adults are either overweight or obese.1 And what’s more, according to a Center for Disease Control survey, fewer than a quarter of Americans consume the recommended minimum of five servings of fruit and vegetables each day.2 Sorry, but Fruit Roll-ups don’t count.
Most overweight people have been on a diet. They’ve probably been on more than one diet. So what happened? Why aren’t we all slim with so many different diets available to us?
Often, it comes down to dietary complexity.
For millennia, eating was pretty basic. We need to eat to survive, and yet food was often in short supply, so we ate anything we could find (including bugs – gross), preferably stuff that was higher in calories, and we scarfed that stuff down like we were on the way to the electric chair.
And yet now the food supply is ample. We have so much overwhelming and super tasty choice available to us, and to match that we have many diets focused on restricting those choices. Hyperbolic statements sell books: Wheat bloats your belly. Grain melts your brain. Sugar is the same as cocaine. Trans fats are … well, they actually are without redeeming qualities.
We used to not have to think about what to eat that much, and now it seems like we’re forced to think about it all the time. And the more complicated dieting becomes, the harder it is to follow.
A 2010 study of 390 people published in Appetite looked at dietary complexity and adherence. The authors concluded that “Perceived rule complexity was the strongest factor associated with increased risk of quitting the cognitively demanding weight management program.” In other words, the easier a diet was to stick to – the fewer rules it had – the more likely people would be able to stick to it long term and achieve and sustain their weight loss goals.3
And it’s not just for people looking to lose some weight. A 2006 report in Clinical Diabetes examined the psychological and social aspects of dietary adherence and came to the same conclusions: fewer rules and fewer restrictions create greater compliance and long-term adherence.4 A 2005 report published in Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management said, “In some disease conditions, more than 40% of patients sustain significant risks by misunderstanding, forgetting, or ignoring healthcare advice.”5 And that includes dietary advice. Too much complexity is often to blame.
And that’s the same conclusion that Jutta Matta and her research team at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development came to in a 2007 article published in Appetite. The authors looked at over 1,200 participants who had been on a variety of diets. They examined diets that had “excessive cognitive demands” and found that: “diets with more complex diet rules correlate with lower adherence rates from clinical trials examining popular weight loss diets.” The authors also stated that: “perceived difficulty reported at the first measurement point predicts quitting of the diet prematurely (i.e., before goal weight or time planned to be on diet are reached) at later points in time.”6
THE COST OF COMPLEXITY
The problem with overly complex diets is that they suck the fun out of life. If you’re always on guard about gluten (and not celiac), wary of wheat, seeing sugar as sinful, dissing dairy or maligning meat, it creates a mental state that is fearful of food and can lead to an eating disorder. As my friend and registered dietitian Jennifer Sygo says, “The science of nutrition is complex. Eating shouldn’t be.”
Because if you make it too complex, you’re less likely to stick to the diet long-term, which results in going off the diet and often rebounding with overeating and gaining back all the weight you lost. Sometimes it’s a diet that is too complex, or sometimes it’s based on a gimmick, or sometimes it’s both.
Here is an example: The pressures of modern life are multiple. Figuring out how to pay for the mortgage, vacation and college for the kids while still being able to afford food. Commuting through tins cans in traffic jams. Working inside a building made of glass and steel with a boss who has a double-digit IQ. Helping kids with math homework that looks like ancient Greek. Being a taxi service for said kids. Planning birthday parties that are better than that other kid’s birthday party …
It makes the idea of living like a caveman seem preferable by comparison. That’s why paleo took off like a kid who heard the bell ring on the last day of school before summer vacation.
There are plenty of other gimmicks. Ones that are based around bacon, pushing peanut butter, blathering about blood type. Some of these diets can actually be healthy, whereas others are not. Compared to what most Americans eat, going paleo is often an improvement, but this does not make it optimal or sustainable, nor does it mean that it’s advocates have made a rational argument for what we should and should not eat.
Often, it’s the quirky claims that grab us for a little while. We are drawn to novelty, outrageous promises of effectiveness, and an exciting back-story. If you create a diet that has those three things, you too can write a bestseller.
I’m not throwing out diets, as there are some good approaches that can last a lifetime. That would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Nevertheless, there are some dietary programs that are old bathwater in need of purging from your eating regimen.
Here are 5 things to watch out for when it comes to choosing a diet.
1. DIETS THAT REQUIRE DEPRIVATION
Be careful with choosing a diet that is all about cutting things out of your life, as this is not a healthy mindset. It’s not healthy for your body either, as often it leads to restricting nutritious foods, or even cutting back calories to ridiculously low levels.
Some diets want you to consume as few as 500 calories a day. So, basically, they want you to starve. This is known as a “crash diet,” and generally used as a temporary measure in order to drop pounds rapidly for an upcoming event like a beach vacation or a high school reunion. Sometimes, a pseudoscientific “cleanse” is sold in conjunction or you are injected with the useless “hCG” as part of the ultra-low calorie process.
Other diets want you to cut carbohydrates, although they’re disguised as something else. Sometimes it’s about being in the “Zone” or living on some beach down south, or even travelling back through time to the Paleolithic era. They all have their restrictions about certain foods that you can’t eat, and your eating life becomes a long list of no-nos of things you’re supposed to stay away from.
And it’s not just fat, sugar, carbs and gluten that get cut, but the time of day you’re allowed to eat. Intermittent fasting has become popular and it’s getting people to skip breakfast and binge during brief periods of the day.
This is a problem because … Food should be a source of enjoyment, and placing a bunch of unrealistic and unnecessary restrictions on what we can eat, how much we can eat, and when we can eat it creates a mentality where food transforms from being a welcome friend to a detested enemy.
Food is life, and thinking about it in a negative sense is not a sustainable mindset. Diets that are focused on a form of deprivation are destined to fail.
2. DIETS THAT ARE TOO RIGID
Eating is one of the most natural behaviors humans have, and creating a complex set of rules to be followed for something that we do several times a day, every day of our lives quickly becomes tiresome.
You may find yourself carefully measuring calories, points, carbohydrates, protein and fat where food gets transformed into numbers. And don’t forget about the lack of flexibility, where instead of allowing you to eat what you want, when you want it, you’re instead shoehorned into this carefully controlled life of always being on a diet.
So many diets are not just about dieting, but dieting to the max. In our “get results fast” world there is always a new gimmick, and often the focus is about some new kind of nutritional extreme. This rigid thinking sucks the fun out of food, and so several times a day you’re thinking about how much you’re not enjoying this.
This is a problem because … Rigidly controlling what you eat causes you to become fixated on what you eat. Your mind starts to focus on what it is that you’re missing out on, and this chips away at your willpower a piece at a time so that eventually, you don’t just cheat a little on this rigid diet, but you cheat a lot. You go completely off the rails and start inhaling all the forbidden foods as if the End of Days is nigh, and racking up another one for the list of diets you failed at.
3. DIETS THAT LEAD TO REBOUND OVEREATING
This is a bad one. You’ve heard of yoyo dieting? This is a major component.
What happens when you deprive yourself too much? Well, you lose weight, and so this reinforces that behavior, and you keep on depriving. A constant sense of hunger sets it, but you knuckle down and use that willpower to stick to your diet because it’s working. You’re losing weight, and this makes you happy.
You’re both happy and miserable at the same time. Weight is dropping, but hunger is beginning to rule your life.
And you can only stand it for so long. Eventually, there is rebound overeating.
This is coded into your genes. For most of our history we didn’t have regular access to food. Famine and starvation have been very common, and when people began to starve their bodies would send out hormone signals that prompt people to eat. Because if they didn’t go out and find food, they’d die.7
These same hormonal responses are alive and well in the human race to today. If you go hungry for too long, the hunger hormones come out to play so that even the strongest-willed person can’t stand it for long. With so much tasty food surrounding us at all times, we relapse and binge eat.
This is a problem because … We binge, and regain all the weight we lost, and then some.
People go on and off restrictive diets all the time, and over time it only serves to cause weight to continually cycle upwards, and even has a negative effect on metabolism.8 What’s more, it creates a toxic mindset about eating, because there are …
4. DIETS THAT CREATE DESPAIR
When a diet is terribly restrictive or rigid, you’re going to fail at it. You can keep at it for a while, and even achieve some success, but eventually, you’re going to fall off that wagon.
This can lead to feelings of guilt for having failed once again. Even if you didn’t give up on your diet completely, every cheat, every carb, every gram of fat or taste of forbidden food creates an itch in the back of your mind that you’re doing something wrong. You’re cheating!
And cheating creates a downward spiral of negative emotions that leads to more cheating, until it’s just another failed diet.
This is a problem because … It can lead to a variety of eating disorders. The more times you fail at some new diet, the more desperate you become. Life turns in to a cycle of deprive and binge, deprive and binge. You forget what it’s like to eat like a normal human being and just enjoy food for the wonderfulness that it can bring into your life.
5. DIETS THAT DISRUPT FAMILY LIFE
When you go on a new diet, does everyone else in the family go on it too?
What happens to family meals together? Do you try to force them to eat what you’re eating, or do you prepare the foods that they prefer and sit there and pine for what you’re missing.
Trying a series of fad diets creates a negative impression on your children. It sets a bad example about food for them when they see mom and/or dad suffering with yet another restrictive diet plan.
And what about going out with friends? What about your social life?
Does your new diet jive with that? Can you go out to parties, to book club or other social occasions and still be able to eat, or will this restrictive diet rule your life in those situations too?
This is a problem because … It all serves to reinforce how unsustainable this new diet is. Beyond giving your children the wrong idea about what healthy living and eating is, dieting can create a negative backlash in your life with those you care about the most, and eventually this wears you down and you end up failing at yet another diet.
And this is all why you need to stop restrictive and complex dieting, and start living.
DITCHING THE RESTRICTIVE/COMPLEX DIETING MENTALITY
If overly complex or restrictive diets worked, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. If they worked, we’d all be at our goal weights.
But such diets do not work. They don’t work because they make people miserable. Not just the people on the diet, but those around them. Never mind that many of these diets often don’t lead to long-term weight loss. Never mind that many of these diets can cause health problems, disordered eating, low energy levels and mood problems.
The biggest problem with such diets, and why people can’t stay on them, is hunger. It’s all about that most primal of desires. You can’t disregard your desire to eat any more than you can ignore your desire to breathe.
Eating is life, and it is something that should be enjoyable. Enjoyable, and flexible, so it’s something you can do without stressing out over it from now until the day you dirt nap.
Find a way to focus on healthy eating with the occasional treat that you really enjoy. Realize that you don’t have to stuff yourself to be satisfied.
And get some exercise, even if it’s just walking. You’ll do fine.
James S. Fell, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and AskMen.com. He is the author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada.
- National Center for Health Statistics, “Health, United States, 2012: With Special Feature on Emergency Care,” Hyattsville, MD. 2013. Table 23, p. 205.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Surveillance of Certain Health Behaviors and Conditions Among States and Selected Local Areas — Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, United States, 2007,” February 5, 2010. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5901a1.htm (Accessed February 9, 2014.)
- Juta Mata et al., “When weight management lasts. Lower perceived rule complexity increases adherence,” Appetite, 54, no. 1 (2010): 37-43.
- Alan Delamater, “Improving Patient Adherence,” Clinical Diabetes, 24, no. 2 (2006): 71-77.
- Leslie Martin et al., “The challenge of patient adherence,” Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management, 1, no. 3 (2005): 189-199.
- Jutta Mata et al., “Keep it on: How complex diet rules prevent weight loss,” Appetite, 50, no. 2-3 (2008): 562;
- Dulloo et al., “Poststarvation hyperphagia and body fat overshooting in humans: a role for feedback signals from lean and fat tissues,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 65, no. 3 (1997): 717-23.
- Leah Kalm and Richard Semba, “They Starved So That Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment,” The Journal of Nutrition, 135, no. 6 (2005): 1347-52.