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Healthy Living

Why Diets Fail

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 06/24/2010
Last Updated: 11/12/2018

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A regular reader sent me this plea for help. I'm sure that most of us can relate:

I've been inspired by your recent posts about learning new ways to eat; I'm especially inspired by the fact that you were actually able to lose a few pounds. I'm 48 and going through peri-menopaus. The weight is creeping up and despite my dieting, I'm not losing a pound! Any advice?

Well, I'm no expert, just a person who tries to weigh (no pun intended) all the conflicting information that's out there and look at it logically.

Personally, I dislike intensely the phrase "on a diet." Because basically, if you're not "on" one, then you're "off" one. And I've never liked extremes. They usually end up to bite you…you know where.

Instead, I prefer to look at it as changing your eating patterns or habits or simply adopting a new strategy or way of life.

I think when you diet you automatically set yourself up for failure. If this was not the case, there would not be the huge market there is for diet books and fads. Hi carb, low carb; high fat, low fat, eat just cereal, eat only chocolate (wait – I might like this one…) Our compulsion with dieting not only leads to deprivation and aggravation, but it leads to weight GAIN rather than LOSS. And the fact that everyone is different - with different likes and dislikes, habits, willpower, motivation – means to me that there is no one-size-fits-all formula out there.

I don't have the magic answer for my reader's frustration, except to say this: look at the reasons your strategy might not be working. And then try to address those, rather than the food itself. Take a holistic approach to see where you might be tripping up, both mentally and physically. How about asking yourself these questions:

  1. Are you fully committed to your eating plan? Sure, cabbage soup and bananas for 2 weeks straight can shed some pounds, but really, can you stomach this type of arrangement for more than maybe one day?
  2. Do you expect miracles? You need to be realistic, after all. You might be able to lose 10 pounds in 2 weeks, but chances are it's going to come back sooner than later. Remember, it took you a while to gain the weight…so it'll take a while to lose it.
  3. Is your plan sustainable? Or are you starving all day long, drooling on yourself until your next meal? Could you really eat like this forever? If not, it's not realistic. Tip: Make sure you have an ample amount of filling foods on hand so that your hunger is happily satisfied. Cut up a bunch of carrots and celery and other veggies and keep them in plastic zip-top bags that you can grab in a hurry, before your intense hunger makes you do something you'll regret the minute it's out of your mouth, heading south for your stomach.
  4. Can you get back on track? We all have slip-ups. In a moment of weakness (or hunger), you ate that gooey dessert, double-scoop ice cream cone, extra piece of bread slathered with butter. That doesn't mean all is lost. Think of it as a lapse rather than a relapse. And allow yourself a treat once in a while; this way the track won't seem so hard to follow.
  5. Are you exercising? So many of us think that diet alone will do the trick. But you need to rev up your metabolism to burn those calories throughout the day. Exercise will also get you out of the house, away from the focus on food or the refrigerator.
  6. Are you eating enough calories? Your goal may be to lose weight, but if you are starving yourself, you're slowing your metabolism and actually burning calories at a far less effective rate than you could and should. And you might be setting yourself up for bingeing because face it – starving people seek out food. Lots of it.

This matters> It is possible to lose weight. You might have to experiment to see what is most realistic for you and your lifestyle. Remember the old adage – calories in, calories out; or as I like to think of it: if you take in more than you burn, you end up wearing it.


Chances are, if you stay away from processed foods and eat lots of veggies and fruits with low fat portein (chicken, fish, tofu), you will lose weight. Nothing fancy, just plain old food in its most simple forms. The more 'stuff' that is done to food, put on it, packaged etc. the more likely it will make you put on some lbs.

Thanks for writing- nice to see a new "face" here :)
Yes, pure, pure foods. If you stay away from processed, I agree that you are way safer and less apt to put on the pounds.

Boy, do I relate to this post, and I think your tips are sound, Sheryl. I just signed up for Weight Watchers AGAIN. It really works as a lifestyle--and they very much emphasize that it is not a diet--but the difficulty lies in the fact that women can't eat that much (I only got 1500 calories a day when I reached my goal weight)if they want to maintain or lose weight, and they have to eat even less as they age.

I hope you find a lot of success with your new WW plan, Nancy. One good thing about their plan is that it does help you make choices.

I like your idea of a holistic approach. I have found that as I age, losing weight becomes more and more of a challenge. I proceed the same way as when I was younger, but the pounds simply do not come off. It takes much more time to see results.

Yes, the pounds are definitely more stubborn as we age...but not impossible to tackle!

I've found that it helps to automate my eating--working in a series of easy, low cal meals every day. It might be salads or shakes or breakfast cereal. But the key is that they are easy, that I don't mind eating them, and they are healthy (I feel good). It's hard to stick to any diet that makes you feel like crap.

I like the idea of EASY and HEALTHY at the same time, Alisa.

It's pretty simple, really, eat less and exercise more. And yet not so simple after all, as it turns out.

But I agree: "Dieting" is a word that should go away.

The focus should be on eating well -- which means lots of produce, a little lean protein, and some whole grains. Oh, and mostly unprocessed and unrefined foods you make yourself.
Following that script most of the time should work for most of us -- or is that wishful thinking as we age?

I couldn't agree more, Sarah... lots of produce (summer fruits are my very favorites), whole grains (love whole wheat pasta) and a little lean protein (I personally prefer the fruits and veggies to this, anyway).

These are great tips. I actually knew someone once who weighed 300 lbs yet said she ate next to nothing. Doctors said she had damaged her metabolism by starving herself.

Wow. Her metabolism must have been at quite a crawl. Hope she was able to turn it around.

I've never lost weight when actually setting out to do so, but by accident when, in retrospect, I simply changed my lifestyle for some reason or another in very simple ways (more walking, less junk food, more regular meals). These tips all make a lot of sense to me!

That's so true, Christine, by "accident." When you're not focusing on food and listening to your body's signals, it's amazing what happens.

Great advice, Sheryl! Exercise was one of the first things I thought of. Also, a lot of people don't realize all the little things that add up (the candies from a coworker's candy bowl, the sliver of cake at a friend's birthday), so it might be useful to keep a food journal to see if extra calories are slipping into one's diet.

So true - all those little "harmless" nibbles can really pack on the pounds without you even noticing.

Aaaah, diets - it's funny, since discovering I have a food allergy, it's interesting to consider all the different motivations for dieting beyond losing weight. Allergies, health conditions, just trying for optimal health. None of them are really easy.

I'd imagine food restriction because of food allergies has to be difficult and time consuming, Stephanie, just like watching what you eat for weight purposes.

Great advice, Sheryl. I relate to your letter-writer; I'm 48 also and ten pounds have somehow adhered themselves to my hips and thighs in the past year. The only 2 things (and I mean only) that have worked for me are upping exercise and trying to eat MORE fruits and veggies; the minute I start limiting myself or using the words don't or can't, I start obsessing and I'm sunk.

What I tell people is find some activity you like to do (yoga, swimming, walking fast with a friend, whatever) then do it every day, no matter what, even if only for 20 or 30 minutes. Keep a big bowl of fruit on the table and eat it whenever you want. Then eat everything else, but in moderation, paying attention to eating consciously and in smaller portions. So far only three pounds have come off, but I'm persisting; I'll let you know if it works!

three pounds is a great start! Hopefully your sensible tips will keep you on the path to taking off the rest of those unwanted pounds. Good luck.

I haven't been able to diet lately because I have a new baby and am breast feeding her. But I have noticed that I am getting slimmer (though I'm totally overeating). I think it's all the walking and exercising and carrying the heavy baby. So maybe your reader who is having so much trouble should stop trying to diet for awhile and just re-commit to MORE exercise? Just a thought.

Absolutely a valid and good point, Jennifer. Ramping up the exercise can't hurt - as long as you still watch those calories...


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