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Why Diets Don't Work


We don't often think about what the word "diet" really means. For most, it conjures up thoughts of the measures people take to lose weight. It's also a term used by food manufacturers to indicate that something is supposedly healthy or has less of some seemingly undesirable ingredient--usually fat, sugar, or total calories. But the word "diet" itself simply refers to what you eat. We always hear people say they're "going on" diets, but your diet is what you eat day-to-day.

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However, most people think of a diet as a temporary plan someone goes on to lose weight. Many times, these diets will have a certain gimmick or theme. Some have certain percentages of macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrate) that you should consume, some assign points to specific foods, some eliminate certain foods, and several drastically limit or eliminate entire food groups altogether. Some diets can be downright dangerous--such as "cleanses" or any diets that are extremely low in calories or essential nutrients.

Long Term Success

The main problem with diets is that many simply don't work long-term. People often find that they can't stick with a diet for a long period of time. This is likely due to the fact that many diets aren't realistic, are too restrictive, too costly, too complicated, or too inconvenient to maintain. Additionally, we're hard-wired to like foods that are high in fat and carbohydrates. Simply put: our taste buds and our brains enjoy fat and sugar.

Not Feeling Full

Fat in food slows down stomach emptying, which helps increase the feelings of fullness and satiety after a meal. Many popular diets are too low in fat, leaving you hungry soon after eating. These extremely-low-fat diets don't work because you eventually overeat to compensate. On the other hand, some diets advocate going very low-carbohydrate. Again, these diets usually aren't successful because our bodies need a certain amount of carbohydrates to function properly. Diets that are too low in carbohydrates leave you feeling fatigued and moody. This happens because carbohydrates are the body's preferred form of fuel needed for immediate energy (particularly for the nervous system). Additionally, carbohydrates stimulate the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps boost mood.

Calorie Count

Another reason some diets don't work is due to the fact that they're way too low in calories. Your body needs a certain number of calories each day just to maintain normal metabolic functioning. Your lungs, brain, heart, muscles, digestive system, nervous system and cardiovascular system all require calories to work properly. If you drastically cut calories--as people often do when they diet--your body thinks it's starving and it downregulates how many calories it needs at rest because it's trying to conserve energy. Also, when you lose weight as a result of severely cutting calories, you're likely losing lean muscle mass rather than fat. Because muscle burns more calories at rest, your body wants to rid itself of that and hold onto fat for energy. Then, as soon as you return to your old eating habits, the weight quickly piles back on.

We need to reconsider the way we think about food. Rather than thinking about temporarily going on some hot new diet to shed excess weight or achieve some other aspect of wellness, we should be thinking about making achievable, realistic changes that we can sustain for a lifetime.

Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. If you would be interested in working with Kari one-on-one, sign-up for FitDay Dietitians.

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