Why Diets Fail (and what to do about it)


Do you have a health goal?

What is it? Weight/fat loss? Building or maintaining muscle? Eating healthier? Maintaining a healthy brain? Feeling better? Having more energy? Looking good naked?

What are you currently doing about it? Is it working? Is it sustainable for the long-term? Forever?

I’m sure the majority of folks out there (and most likely anyone who’s actually reading this) have some specific answers to these questions. That’s good. What about your answers to the last two though? Have you even considered those questions…if not, why not?

In my opinion those are, by far, the two most important questions you can ask yourself (and answer honestly) if you want to actually be sustainably successful in whatever goal(s) you have for yourself.

As I write this we are in the middle of “gorging season”, otherwise known as “the holidays” here in the US. When we all give ourselves permission to eat whatever we want (independent of whether we’ve actually deprived ourselves of it for the rest of the past year or not). We also tend towards lazier than usual behaviors; lots of “sitting around” chatting, watching TV, “relaxing” from all that taxing, stressful work we do on a normal day sitting in our offices.

But, of course, we’re going to make a “resolution” here in about a month anyway right? Join that gym, start that diet, eat “better”, start meditating…


How about a dose of reality…

New gym memberships generally increase by about 20% in January each year. On average 70% of the folks who sign up for a yearly membership don’t go…ever! And of those who do, another 45% or so only go 3-4 times/month. The average gym membership costs $58/month. Gyms and fitness centers actually rely on this business model to be profitable and most shoot for 10 times as many members as they can actually accommodate. In fact, one of the largest chain gyms in the US has an average, per location membership of 6500 people but an average gym capacity of only 3oo!

What about diets? Depending on who you talk to only about 60% of people who make a new years resolution around weight loss and diet make it past a month (some studies show 80% of people don’t even make it a week) and only 46% make it 6 months. After that the vast majority of folks will gain back ¾ to 100% of the weigh they lost, some even exceeding that starting weight.

What is happening here? I’m quite sure that a poll of everyone who fits these profiles would show that 100% of them actually want to accomplish what they set out to. People want to be healthier and eat better and work out and feel better and have more energy. Why then is it so difficult to pull that off?

In my mind it boils down to two things…

#1 Starting with an intention of creating habits and lifestyle change rather than a quick, short-term fix and…

#2 Self responsibility

These, I believe are two things lacking in virtually every diet, plan, resolution or goal that most folks start out to do or attain.

Let’s dig into those a bit.

The photo at the top of this post shows a fraction of the different diet programs and protocols available these days. Diet and weight loss is a huge industry in the US (and worldwide). It’s no wonder, when about 72% of adults in the US are either considered overweight or obese and over 20% of adolescents (ages 12-19) are obese….and the rest, to varying degrees, just want to lose a few pounds for aesthetic reasons.

So, if everyone wants to lose weight and there’re so many resources and programs available to help…why do so many fail? What’s missing?

For every single one of those diets you see in bookstores and online…no matter how outlandish…there are many, many people for whom each of them would work well (at least for a time); people who could lose some fat with the cabbage soup diet, the cotton ball diet or the sleeping beauty diet.

There are some good ones out there as well. For some, low carb or cyclical keto works really well. Intermittent fasting has a ton of researched and proven health benefits even beyond losing some fat. And I don’t think anyone would argue that eating a few more veggies or other nutrient dense foods would not be beneficial.

So what’s missing from all those diets? Sustainability.

Why do so many people succeed in losing fat in the short-term only to fail spectacularly in the long?

It’s because we get so fired up and psyched that this time…this time it’s going to work. This time I am going to lose the weight, eat healthier, go to the gym and it’s going to work!! And then we go to the bookstore or online and find the greatest, surefire diet that we like the sound of, sign up for that year long gym membership and hit the ground running. 3 or 4 months later….Wow, we’ve lost some weight, feel great and are so proud and happy with ourselves that we decide to celebrate by treating ourselves to wine, pizza and ice cream cause, dammit, we’ve “earned” it and life is just too short to not enjoy it!!

Then a week later after realizing that pizza and ice cream taste so frickin good and we really can’t live without our glass of wine a couple (few) nights a week and we can always start that diet again tomorrow…we find ourselves not feeling quite as good and maybe our muffin top is starting to peek out over our belt again and we start feeling just a little bit sorry for ourselves so…screw it, lets have a glass of wine. WTF?!?

There is one, huge, glaring problem with going about it this way.

You are relaying on willpower and willpower is a finite resource.

Read that again…

Then think about it. You’ve got a bag of chips in the pantry or a pint of ice cream in the freezer…you might resist the urge to grab it several times…then, in a “weak” moment…maybe you’re feeling more stressed than usual or you’re in a hurry…you grab it and…

Yet when we make our New Years resolution or, in fact, set any goals for ourselves, we tend to jump in with both feet and rely on our willpower to get us through the hard parts. For some people this works. But for the vast majority it might work for a period of time then…BAM, willpower runs out and we’re back to square one…or worse.

Diet and health programs aren’t all that helpful in this regard either. Most require us to follow “the Plan” exactly as it’s laid out or it won’t work. And if it doesn’t explicitly say this we actually tend to dogmatize them anyway…telling ourselves we need to do it exactly as the book or website tells us to or it won’t work. Why do we do this?

That brings us to #2…self-responsibility.

This is a tough one. This requires some honest introspection and thought.

We are driven and conditioned in many ways both internally and externally to absolve ourselves of responsibility. I’m going to oversimplify it here…

Internally, it’s an ego thing. One of the main jobs of our ego is to keep us safe. The status quo is safe…we are alive and breathing as things are now. Change is “dangerous”…if we change anything we stand the chance of coming to harm or dying. To our ego it’s that simple. Ego hates change.

Externally, and more superficially, we don’t want to take responsibility. We want someone or something else to blame when things don’t go as planned. It’s much, much harder to offer a mea culpa than it is to blame someone or something else…external circumstances. When we dogmatize a diet program even when that is not the intent of the program itself, this is what we are doing. We are avoiding responsibility if it fails. We can say, ”Well, I did what it told me to and it didn’t work so…must be a bad diet.”

Both of these processes, the internal and external are sneaky. They generally happen well below our level of consciousness. And, by virtue of their embedded nature in our subconscious and our daily conditioning to them, are very powerful.

There are, however, ways to circumvent these things and actually create a sustainable lifestyle shift that will help you reach and maintain your goals. It takes some forethought, planning and patience and maybe just a little willpower.

This is assuming, of course, that you don’t just want to lose that 20lbs for 6 months or a year but you really want to lose it and keep it off…as in forever.

Most diets, within reason, will work to help you lose some stored body fat. Doing some reading and research is always a good place to start. Find (or create) something that resonates with you…that sounds attractive, that’s not overly restrictive, that includes foods you enjoy (and yes, maybe excludes a few that you know aren’t that good for you anyway). Don’t be afraid to pick something a bit challenging but really, try and stay away from things that just sound crazy (yeah, the cotton ball diet it a thing).

Read the program then read it again with an eye towards how much you’ll need to modify your current habits to fit within the parameters of the program. Can you imagine doing this for the rest of your life? If not, move on.

Because that’s what it boils down to. And that’s why so many people fail at these things…they do it for a very brief period (6 months is nothing in the context of your entire life), get some results and then fall right back into old habits.

The key is to create new habits that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Think of it this way…however and whatever it is you eat right now…you got to this place, these habits (and yes, what you eat is generally a habit…my guess is most folks eat the same 8-10 meals week in, week out with maybe a few semi-adventurous restaurant visits thrown in) via whatever conscious, or more likely unconscious path you took…what your family ate, whether or not you learned to cook, availability of various foods, etc.

Here is where you add in what’s missing from most diet programs…intentional and incremental steps. Don’t just read it through once, go to the store and buy everything the book says you need and then…start. This is the perfect way to ensure that you will need to use every ounce of your willpower to get you through the first several weeks and then quit.

If you really think through going from eating fast food 5 times a week to a well designed, full ketogenic diet cold turkey you’ll almost certainly understand what I’m getting at.

Just hold on…

First, remember that you got where you are now over what has very likely been a looonng time and very little thought. You eat what you eat right now because you are used to it. It is habit, it is comfortable and it tastes good.

Creating habits takes time and patience and intention. It takes small, incremental, easily achievable steps…this is what is missing from most diets. This is what is essential for success.

So, slow down, read the program, read it again. Think about it. Is this something that you see yourself being able to do for the rest of your life? If so then what is one thing and one thing only that you can do right now? In the next day? The next week? Maybe it’s choosing water over a soda one time this week. Maybe it’s choosing to forego the donut or the Starbucks triple caramel mocha latte for breakfast one day this week. Do that one thing until you don’t need to think about it any more. Until you get past the point of worrying about it or needing willpower to accomplish it. Here’s the trick…if you break things down like this into more manageable steps, not only will you conserve your willpower, psychologically it just isn’t as difficult. How much easier does it sound to forego that coffee one morning per week rather than going cold turkey?

Yes, I know…this sounds like it will take forever. That’s something you’ll just need to get over though if you really want to make a change. You didn’t become unhealthy, tired, stressed or heavier than you want to be in 6 months or even, most likely, a year….you became this way slowly, over years of neglect and unconsciousness. Why would you think reversing it would be so quick? Diet marketing claims notwithstanding.

It very likely won’t take years to reverse either. If you continue to create these small steps and incorporate them slowly you will tend to build momentum. One of the most powerful drivers of motivation is success. And this is something else that is missing from diet programs…pay attention and celebrate successes along the way. Give yourself permission to be happy, excited and proud.

Throw out your bathroom scale…it is virtually useless. It cannot differentiate between fat, muscle, water or anything else that comprises your body at any given moment. You will weigh a certain percentage more or less every day. It doesn’t matter…this is even more important if you are creating habits around using that gym membership and working on gaining some muscle. Muscle does, in fact, weigh more than fat.

The better indicator of getting closer to your fat loss goal is how your clothes fit. That waistline of those awesome jeans you love so much getting a bit easier to slip on? Muffin top receding into the distance? Yep, win! Pay attention…take a few minutes every day to check in with yourself…how do you feel physically? How does your brain feel? Thoughts clear? Remembering things? How’s your stress level? Energy level?

Depending on your answers to these questions you can modify what you’re doing and either stay the course, step it up a bit or pull back and give yourself a break. Remember…you are creating habits that will stay with you for the rest of your life. If you make a “mistake”, start again. Maybe start smaller.

This way of thinking about and reaching goals may sound slightly daunting to begin with. If practiced regularly and with intention though it becomes second nature and will actually allow you to be more successful in reaching whatever goals you set. It may also seem like taking personal responsibility for outcomes in your life is just too difficult. The question at that point becomes…how has absolving yourself of responsibilities in your life worked out for you thus far?

When you go to a doctor for a health issue and give over responsibility for helping you over to him or her, how has that worked out? Did they cure your problem or resolve it’s root cause? Or did you get a prescription (that you then filled and maybe took semi-consistently), which only masked the symptoms all the while eating and drinking crap, allowing stress to run your life and trying to get to sleep by scrolling Facebook on your phone for hours in bed?

See what I mean…

If you’ve been down this road before, if you’ve made resolutions that you haven’t kept or signed up for gym memberships that have gone unused or have yet to figure out how to lose that 10, 20 or 50 pounds or more…If you’re sick of things just not working for you. There is always a way to do it differently.

A quote that I am presently enamored with (and for which the attribution is a bit muddy but it’s in a book I’m currently reading by Ryan Munsey).

“Your life is perfectly designed for the results you are currently getting.”

And all this, by the way, does not mean you cannot have wine pizza or ice cream ever again. It just means it should be an occasional and conscious choice rather than a “reward” or habit.

If this sounds interesting to you I’m happy to have a short conversation about it to answer questions, give guidance or see if there is anything I could further help with. Just use the link for a Free Consultation at the top of the homepage.

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2 Responses to "Why Diets Fail (and what to do about it)"
  1. In Asprey’s food categorizations, many of the items that rank as most healthy are his own branded products: Bulletproof Brain Octane, Bulletproof Chocolate Powder, Bulletproof Ghee, Bulletproof Whey, et cetera. Alarm bells should go off any time someone claims that you should buy their expensive products for your diet. Especially when the products come with miracle promises, like Asprey’s Unfair Advantage, which he suggests will help your body grow new mitochondria (the energy powerhouses of the cells). Lisa Dierks, a dietician at the Mayo Clinic, said, “No matter what the diet is, when all of a sudden there are all these things you’re encouraged to buy to make the diet more successful, to me that’s always a flag.” She offered an alternative: “If a patient came into my office and said, ‘I want to follow the Bulletproof Diet,’ the first thing I would ask is ‘What attracts you to the diet?'” Then she tries to figure out a more reasonable and sustainable approach, since, she said, she has seen highly-restrictive fads fail patient after patient. She likes to remind her patients that what we know about healthy living is rather simple and very difficult for diet gurus to make money off of: eat mostly plants, do some exercise, don’t smoke, and don’t drink too much. These recommendations have survived study after study, and worked for generations of people all over the world. They’re pretty much bulletproof.

    • Couldn’t agree more. I ALWAYS provide my clients with alternatives to those branded products and more often than not dissuade them from using them altogether. I work with clients to find what “diet” or eating paradigm will work best for them…I never try and talk them into doing anything specific. I only provide insight, knowledge and options. Thanks for your comment.