7 Reasons Dieting Makes Losing Weight Harder (NOT easier)

by | Sep 8, 2014

Photo by lydia_shiningbrightly

People rarely argue that eating healthier isn’t a good idea. Of course it’s the right thing to do. Duh.

In the backs of their minds, however, people who want to lose weight are often skeptical. I know, because I’ve been there. The argument goes something like,

“Healthy eating is great and all, but I really want to lose this weight as soon as possible. I’ll just do this ___(insert latest diet)___ plan for awhile until I get to my goal weight, then I’ll start with that whole healthy eating thing.”

It sounds like a great plan. Lose the weight quickly, then when you’re happy shift to a more “sensible” eating plan for maintenance.

The only problem is that it doesn’t work.

For people who want to lose weight one of the hardest things to understand is that dieting really, seriously isn’t the answer. Not even for a little while. Dieting isn’t some temporary outfit you can just try on for a few months then discard. Dieting changes you, both physically and psychologically, and it’s not for the better.

In the long-run dieting does more harm than good, and actually promotes weight gain, not weight loss. By rationalizing a new diet as something that’s temporary, you are wasting time and energy, and ultimately making it harder to achieve your goals. Here are seven reasons why.

7 Reasons Dieting Makes Losing Weight Harder (NOT easier)

1. Dieting teaches your brain to ignore your body

Dieting is restricted eating, plain and simple. To be successful at losing weight on a restricted eating plan you need to train yourself to ignore feelings of hunger and desire. The problem is that dieters who do this also appear to lose awareness of when they are full, and have a tendency to massively overeat once the restriction has been lifted. Not being able to recognize hunger and full (aka satiety) signals is a serious problem if long-term weight regulation is your goal.

2. You rely more on environmental cues to decide what, when and how much to eat

Without internal body signals to guide your eating habits, dieters rely almost exclusively on external cues for determining when, what and how much to eat. When you are successfully dieting this isn’t a problem, since you just follow the rules of the plan. Once you give up the diet though (and you inevitably will), you become subject to hundreds of cues from your surroundings telling you to more, and eat worse.

Thanks to advertisements, ballooned portion sizes, and lack of traditional eating culture and norms (believe it or not, it used to be faux pas to eat while standing or driving), we are constantly getting signals that we can and should eat more. These are tough for even a normal, non-dieter to resist (this is one of the reasons so many people are now overweight). But for a dieter who lacks the internal guidance the rest of us rely on, navigating this environment without overeating is nearly impossible.

3. Dieting drains your willpower

When you are reliant on external cues instead of internal ones to dictate your eating, and especially when you’re trying to lose weight and resist those cues, every mental refusal you make drains a little of your willpower. Remember that willpower doesn’t have an on-and-off switch. Instead it works more like a muscle that when overused can become fatigued, no matter how strong it may start the day. Not only does this make you more likely to break your diet and overeat, it also steals the willpower you need to be successful in other aspects of life.

4. Dieting promotes the what-the-hell effect

Once you run out of willpower for the day, as a dieter you are likely to give in to the what-the-hell effect and go nuts on that bag of cookies, leaving the virtuous behavior for another day. These binges can undo days of restricted eating. They can also be habit forming.

5. Dieting encourages nutritionism

Dieting in the 21st century is rarely just about eating less. Most weight loss plans nowadays emphasize restricting certain types of nutrients––sugar, carbs, gluten, fat, etc.––over others. Dieters love to bin foods into either “good guys” or “bad guys,” and forget that too much of either is a problem.

6. Dieting slows your metabolism

Rapid weight loss slows your metabolism, since it is very difficult to lose fat quickly without losing a substantial amount of (metabolically active) muscle as well. The subsequent overeating that most dieters experience then encourages more fat than muscle to be added back. Eating like a foodist takes the opposite approach, encouraging behaviors that increase instead of reduce metabolism. Slow but steady weight loss is then a happy consequence of these metabolic improvements, so you are working with your body instead of against it.

7. Dieting distracts you from what actually works

Dieting doesn’t work in the long-run, but building a healthstyle around a set of enjoyable habits does. When you diet not only are you making it more difficult to reach your goals, you are also wasting time and energy that could be going toward the actions that will actually help you. Focus your efforts on forming 2-3 enjoyable habits at a time until they become automatic. If you can get to a point where the majority of your high-impact habits are healthy (e.g. breakfast, lunch at work, snacks and weeknight dinners), then you no longer need to worry about occasional indulgences here and there. When you stop dieting, you win.

Are you still dieting?

Originally published August 13, 2013.

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45 Responses to “7 Reasons Dieting Makes Losing Weight Harder (NOT easier)”

  1. joe says:

    I’m wondering about # 6. Is there evidence that slow weight loss conserves more muscle than rapid weight loss?

    Weight loss is never pure fat loss. And, a search on google scholar confirms there is much research that weight loss of more than 10 percent of body weight causes DISPROPORTIONATE slowing of metabolism, whether or not it is rapid.

    • Darya Rose says:

      For sure. Weight loss reduces metabolism regardless. But my point is that doing things that improve metabolism as a means to more weight loss is a better tactic.

    • Andrew says:

      Yes, I have seen multiple studies demonstrating athletes losing fat with a 500 calorie per day deficit without losing any muscle. In fact despite what the internet says, pubmed has studies showing athletes GAINING muscle while losing fat. They might not being gaining as efficiently as someone eating at a calorie surplus, but muscle loss is not inevitable with a small calorie deficit.

      Whereas, large calorie deficits (eg 1000+ calories per day) will cause LBM loss in addition to fat loss.

  2. Matt Soreco says:

    “Dieting” can be kind of a broad term, no? Do you mean strict calorie deficit? Mindset?

    • Darya Rose says:

      I mean intentionally restricting your food intake for the sake of weight loss and the mindset that comes with it. I wouldn’t consider, for example, being vegetarian as a diet.

      • Matt Soreco says:

        Thank you for the clarification.

      • Dee says:

        Nice way to put it Darya. Right now I’m still trying to overcome the psychological change… I think of my way of eating the same way a vegetarian thinks about his.

        Now that I’m writing this and thinking about it, I need to say I don’t……, I never……. And keep my integrity!

  3. Charlotte says:

    You say that mainstream diets encourage nutritionism and cut out groups of food like fat, gluten and sugar. However, much of what you discuss also encourages limiting sugar. How do you differentiate the two?

    • Leanne says:

      I don’t mean to speak for Darya, but I think the point is: sugar has many negative effects on the body, but it’s not necessarily evil. You can and should eat it if you really want to, but you have to moderate your intake to modify the bad effects. She’s always said that for a food that has those kind of bad effects it should really be worth it. So, a supermarket birthday cake might not be a great idea, but if you go an bake a couple kickass cupcakes to satisfy a sweet craving, or maybe, like me, pick up a gorgeous pasti de nata at the Portuguese bakery, that’s a better indulgence and “worth it”.

      By the same token, many people suffer bad effects from gluten but it doesn’t mean gluten is across the board bad (and the replacements I’ve seen are even worse, sometimes). But, if you are going to go and eat a bunch of wheat, make sure it’s in the form of a gorgeous bit of French bread or a wonderful plate of pasta so that you really love when you eat it instead of using it as the bulk of your food intake and not even really enjoy the process of eating it.

      It can come off sounding like semantics, of course. But I think there’s an important distinction between identifying the problem foods for you personally and moderating your intake of them and just declaring, because you’ve read a few compelling articles, that all of food type A is toxic to the body and then wiping it out of your diet. Then, when you do have some, it’s a slip and you feel horribly guilty, which can in turn lead to even worse eating choices.

    • I feel like the main difference here is that The diets extremely make you cut off certain nutritions almost completely if not all the way. Doing so can do different things to different bodies. One main thing is a defincey and soon after potentially causing extensive craving, then over eatting. when eatting ‘healthy’ in a healthy life style you just cut down from the over indulgence that you used to partake in. You aren’t nessasarly cutting these out but limiting them to a more reasonable amount that your body can work with and not turn around and use for bad. Hope this helps :)

    • Darya Rose says:

      That’s a really great question that probably warrants its own blog post. But briefly, as Leanne mentions, it’s a question of value. I encourage reducing unnecessary sugar, refined carbohydrates and other foods that are well known to not be healthy and are overabundant in the Western diet. That said, I never call them evil and I never say they are off limits. I just encourage creating habits to minimize exposure, so you can be very intentional and enjoy it when you decide to have them.

      Make sense?

  4. Visitor says:

    Yes, I diet. I’m at a normal weight (100 pounds, up from the 90s in my youth) and if I want to lose some vanity pounds I need to do something dramatic. I incorporated many healthy habits of eating long ago, such as not drinking coffee with sweetener and always using skim milk. There’s not much more I can do, other than eliminating all sweets, alcohol, and almost all carbs, which I am not prepared to give up.

    I have little room for error and it’s far easier to stick to a streamlined, low-calorie plan. I generally eat more or less the same thing every day as I don’t like researching diets, preparing food, and variety means I eat more. I usually don’t diet for more than a week or two, if that.

    I don’t find that on a diet I have more trouble distinguishing between hunger and satiety; my key problem at all times is my desire to eat when I’m consciously not hungry.

    I’ve also read articles that said the metabolism is slowed somewhat by dieting or Intermittent Fasting, but not to the point where you stop losing weight. I’d rather have a slower metabolism and lose weight with a relatively high calorie deficit than have a normal metabolism and not lose weight because I strayed from a more varied eating plan. It helps me to be in a dieting mindset. It resets my approach to my weight and I usually maintain my new weight until the winter holidays or a series of high-calorie food events.

    Losing weight by dribs and drabs doesn’t work for everyone.

  5. Perfect examples for the people that are in need of this type of plan. Also in co-reply to the above comment, I feel this goes out to the people that are in need of a healthy lifestyle and are looking for the way to actually be able to want to cut out those potential bad habits. Over weight, or health problems that make those that need to, to choose whether to go on a strict diet to quickly fix there current issue or take the time and be patient to be able to find out how to eat healthy and life a healthy lifestyle. I’ve changed a few things in my cuboard and fridge. I’ve changed to wheat pasta, 100% whole wheat bread (but at the same time have cut down on those carbs that I intake), unsweetened almond milk, raw almonds, more veggies, and fruit, less processed foods, and forzen entrees/pizzas, and less sodium. Oh ya and I just recently changed to whole wheat flour which is amazing when making cajun breaded foods! yum!

    • Visitor says:

      I have no problem with some people needing a “slow and steady” plan, what bothers me is that nearly every weight-loss oriented site I see assumes that’s the ONLY way to lose weight is slowly. I guess I need to find a site oriented to people who are normal weight who aren’t obsessed with nutrition or body building.

      In January, the New York Times ran a blog post on myths of dieting. One was that losing weight slowly was the best way to lose weight. The interview was with health researchers, but there were no citations to studies.

      Some of the statements in the article confirmed my intuitions.

      http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/30/myths-of-weight-loss-are-plentiful-researcher-says/

      “Here is an overview of the obesity myths looked at by the researchers and what is known to be true:

      MYTHS

      Small things make a big difference. Walking a mile a day can lead to a loss of more than 50 pounds in five years.

      Set a realistic goal to lose a modest amount.

      People who are too ambitious will get frustrated and give up.

      You have to be mentally ready to diet or you will never succeed.

      Slow and steady is the way to lose. If you lose weight too fast you will lose less in the long run.”

  6. Tami says:

    One of the greatest advantages of not dieting and becoming a Foodist is that your body starts to crave yummy whole foods and your desires for all the foods you typically restrict on a diet go way down and can completely leave.

  7. Mary says:

    Hi Darya! I have been a pretty dedicated Foodist for quite some time now, and I thoroughly enjoyed your book. I focus on whole, unprocessed foods, and I am working on eating more intentionally. I feel amazing; I’m never hungry; I know that this is a lifestyle for me. The problem is my fiance. He wants to lose a significant amount of weight (around 45 lbs) before our wedding on February 1st, but his attempts at just “eating better” over the last three months or so have not resulted in any actual weight loss. After much pleading, he finally agreed to give me two weeks where I can decide everything that he eats and drinks during that time period. Although we typically eat out A LOT, my plan is to cook all of our meals at home and focus on whole foods with no added sugar. To me, this is not a “diet”. Unfortunately, he typically drinks tons of soda and has a raging sweet tooth, so for him, this is not just a “diet” but a CRAZY one! I want to maximize the two weeks that he has given me. My hope is that he will get excited about the inevitable results and want to keep this up in order to reach his goal.

    This is getting super long, but I’d love your thoughts on this. Am I trying to do too much too soon? How do I make him see that this is not a diet but simply the way we should be eating? He claims to really want to lose weight, but he seems so unwilling to put in the work to make it happen. I tell him all the time that he will be so upset come our wedding day if he doesn’t do it. Thankfully, he has no problem eating the foods I make. He loves veggies, but he is really missing his soda and sweets! Thanks for any help that you can give me!

    • Darya Rose says:

      Hi Mary,

      That’s tough for sure. The important thing you can do is increase the real, healthy foods he eats. He might need to go slower on cutting down on sweets–though this is the only thing that will really help him lose weight in the long run, he needs to be satisfied with the rest of what he eats in order for it to stick. Foodist audiobook will be out in a month, maybe you could convince him to listen to it…. Good luck!

      • Mary says:

        Thanks for your response! Just an FYI…he is an internet entrepreneur and a huge fan of your husband’s, so I’ve definitely been name-dropping you quite a bit. “But Kevin Rose’s wife says…” Whatever works, right???

  8. Greg says:

    What do you say to those dieters in the National Weight Control Registry – you know the ones that diet and have kept weight off for 6 – 7 years. I think James O Hill has written about them. Thanks!

    • Darya Rose says:

      It’s about 5% of the people who attempt weight loss. Typically they’ve made lifestyle/habit changes.

      • Greg says:

        Thanks – I hit send and then thought – maybe they don’t really diet they just have new habits – like you talk about – best – Greg

  9. This was by far the best article I’ve ever read on diets and weight loss! Thank you!

  10. Alexandra says:

    I used to diet all the time, I started when I was at a normal weight actually, and all it did was add more and more weight during the years. Recently I started reading about intuitive eating and I have been following your blog for a long time. My problem is that I have a very troubled relationship with food. I just want to be normal about food, not obsessed with it. I do actually enjoy lots of healthy foods but I also like some very unhealthy things. I want to find some balance, I do not want to diet, I want to learn how to pay attention to my body, what actually craves. I find that quite difficult.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Building a healthier relationship with food is a process, but it is possible. Have you checked out Foodist? It’s designed to walk you through the steps of making changes that last.

      • Alexandra says:

        Hi Darya,
        I just got your book yesterday.
        Your are a really good writer, I could not put it down. (I am a book hound)
        I did the roasted cauliflower but with different spices, ( I have nothing against curry powder, I was just not feeling it at the moment) But wow, that really was like french fries, I felt like it satisfied my craving for the bad salty stuff.
        I was wondering what do you think of my fitness pal? I joined today and did not like it. Too restrictive I thought.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Awesome, glad you liked the recipe. I think MyFitnessPal is ok, but I am not a fan of calorie counting. I do think there is value in tracking your food for awhile though. Here’s a description of why:

      http://summertomato.com/7-reasons-keeping-a-food-journal-is-better-than-counting-calories/

  11. Natalie says:

    Hi Darya! I love your site and thoroughly enjoyed your book. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on eating Paleo (there are some excellent articles out there on lectins etc that I’ve enjoyed sorting through). Any input from you would be wonderful. Thanks!

  12. Robert J says:

    She’s right, dieting doesn’t work for the majority of people. Changing your lifestyle to one that’s healthier, eating healthier, moderate exercise and other habits (like not sitting too long) are all good for a person’s body and mind.

    Back in the 80’s there was a book called ‘Fit or Fat’ that opened my eyes and within a year I had gone from 270 lbs to 195 lbs (at 6’3″) and was in the best shape of my life and stayed that way until I was in a car accident in the mid 90’s. Still trying to follow his advice though.

    • Robert J says:

      Covert Bailey was the author’s name if I remember. I still have two of his books around that I’ve been looking for to lend to a friend.

  13. Rita Brooks says:

    Thanks for posting this. I especially like the “dieting teaches your brain to ignore your body” point. It seems like the entire “dieting” industry is based on this one way or another. Great post.

  14. Philip says:

    I started running again at 60 years old (male) about 18 months ago and have built up to over 100 miles per month because of half marathon training. My mileage will be reduced after the race by about 20%. We have been reducing our fat consumption and eating more protein and fewer carbs. Lots of veggies and poultry but now I’m confused. Am I dieting or eating healthy by habit? We do eat whatever we want within reason but it doesn’t feel like a diet. I am down to 145lbs from 180 lbs.

    • Darya Rose says:

      If you aren’t depriving yourself psychologically, then I don’t think it’s a diet. Dieting is a state of mind. I eat very healthy, but I love what I eat so I call myself a foodist and not a dieter.

      Be careful with “nutritionism” though. Try not to focus on “fats” and “protein” so much as Real Food. Nutrients aren’t the bad guys, processed foods are.

  15. caro says:

    there’s some doom and gloom buried beneath your message. i’ve been eating healthfully and intuitively for years and lost bupkiss (although I appreciate the sanity). and, yes, i’m obese. so, if diets don’t lower weight and sane eating doesn’t lower weight, the answer is obesity forever. a sad message.

    • Darya Rose says:

      That’s not the message at all. You can be intuitive eating and still not getting it right. You need to measure your habits and track your progress, and troubleshoot until you solve each individual problem that’s holding you up. My point here is that RESTRICTION isn’t the path. That doesn’t mean there is no path.

  16. Samantha says:

    Yes, I’m still dieting. I know it’s bad for me in the long-term but still at the end of the day I always rationalize short-term goals over the long-term ones. So far I’m unable to break the cycle.

    • Darya Rose says:

      You should download the free chapter of on The Myth of Willpower from my book (enter your email at the bottom of this post–top of comments). It goes a long way toward showing the damage being done by that line of thinking.

  17. Cactus Wren says:

    In one of her books Peg Bracken included a two-page list of 1950s-60s fad diets: the steak-prunes-coffee diet, the lamb-chops-and-pineapple diet, the pound-cake-and-ice-cream diet (all the pound cake and vanilla ice-cream you want, but nothing else), the wolf-all-you-want-of-whatever-you-like-for-two-minutes-three-times-a-day diet, the stuff she calls fatrecal, and so on. She pointed out that these diets do in fact work, for very limited values of “work”: they’re great if all you want is to get rid of five pounds to fit into a dress for the wedding or the reunion or the Nobel ceremony: on any one of these you can lose five pounds in three days. And, as she also pointed out, no one in her right mind could stay on one of these diets for any longer than three days! (Although she cited an acquaintance, “not in her right mind,” who lived on pears and cottage cheese for ten months and lost forty pounds … including her gallbladder, the gallbladder being the only part of it she did not regain.)

  18. Corne says:

    Hi Darya…I agree with you that dieting is a thing to be avoided. The way I see it(and you mentioned it) is that losing weight is just about creating the correct habits.

    When you start changing small things in your diet it can make a big difference in your weight. The problem with weight loss, and many other things in society, is that people want results immediately. That is why fad diets are so popular and dangerous. Losing weight is not an overnight thing just as it took many months/years to put on that weight. Healthy weight loss is a process and in the end it will benefit the person more. When habits are formed to lose weight, chances are it will remain and the weight will stay off.

    Corné
    [link removed]

  19. Tim says:

    Great article. As someone working in the obesity intervention area, this is a good barometer to evaluate a program that doesn’t just provide an intervention, but also a realistic plan for long-term therapeutic lifestyle change. The challenge is with most people today, you can’t just skip intervention and go straight to lifestyle change… you will help a few, but these are the few who decided they’ve had enough and figure out how to make changes on their own… a incredibly small portion of people that doesn’t even put a dent into population health initiatives in a practice setting. Maybe in 50 years… education, government policy and culture will catch up, but until then we need more health care professionals to intervene.

  20. Daisy Green says:

    Excellent article! I still go on a diet from time to time whenever I feel that my body feels a bit heavier or bloated than usual. I usually lacks discipline to go dieting for a whole round year, so I just take time to exercise two to three times a day, as much as I could.

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