Diets Really Do Work, You’re Just Doing it Wrong

by | Nov 19, 2014

Photo by JD Hancock

If you ask someone point blank if diets work in just a split second they’ll remember the obesity epidemic and the number of celebrity diets they heard about last week, look you in the eye, and confidently reply, “No, they don’t work.”

But if you tell that same person about a new weight loss plan where you can only eat egg whites, chicken thighs and broccoli four times a day, and enthusiastically inform her that Jenna has been doing it for 3 weeks, has lost 15 lbs and feels amazing, that same person will head to her computer at the next convenient opportunity, read a few testimonials and start first thing in the morning.

Why do we do this? Is there something about weight loss that short circuits our logic?

The problem is that the strategy we’re given to get healthy and lose weight is inappropriate for the situation.

We tell ourselves that diets don’t work, but they do work. That’s why we keep going back to them. If they didn’t work at all we’d just give up after our first attempt and eat ourselves to the grave.

The issue is that dieting is a short-term strategy and health is a long-term problem, and the two are incompatible psychologically.

For short-term goals, willpower and self-control can work wonders. With fabulous willpower anyone can do well in school, crush it on a work project, or even lose 10 pounds in time for your high school reunion.

But restriction and willpower will not help you save for retirement, be kind to your spouse, or keep you healthy into your 80s. These are long-term goals. And because willpower is limited, it isn’t enough to help you achieve them.

If you want to tackle a long-term goal you need a long-term strategy––something you can actually do day after day, and year after year.

If you want to save money you need to set up automatic transfers to your savings and retirement accounts after each pay check, not hope for the best at the end of the month. If you want a stronger relationship you need to pay attention to what triggers your temper, and come up with a different response that is kind, yet still lets you communicate your displeasure. If you want better health, you need to build a series of home court habits that fit into your daily life.

Habits work in the long-term because they do not rely on self-control. Just like automatic transfers into your savings account free you from having to worry about your financial security, habits automate your behavior so that healthiness is your default.

Turning an action into a habit requires only two things: a trigger at the beginning and a reward at the end. The reward reinforces the trigger, and with enough repetitions of this loop a habit will be born. Once formed, habits occur automatically so long as there is a consistent trigger.

The secret to long-term health is understanding that relevant triggers and rewards are necessary for success. Because there is no immediate reward from going hungry, eating diet food, or working out beyond your fitness level, dieting can never work as a long-term health and weight loss strategy.

Best news ever, right?

Originally published Oct 21, 2013.

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6 Responses to “Diets Really Do Work, You’re Just Doing it Wrong”

  1. Johan von Lindeman says:

    Exactly what changed my life. I was 190 6 months ago, started changing my eating habits, and running. It is the rewards that keep me going. that extra mile, those pounds I lost without noticing, etc. Now I weight 165 (still 10 more to go) and can run a 5k without stopping (I couldn’t even run for 2 minutes before)

  2. Sue W says:

    Have you ever read Habits of Health by Dr. Wayne Scott Andersen? That book is a big reason I was able to lose over 70lbs and learned how to keep it off by forming habits and monitoring them.

  3. Kara says:

    Yes! Focusing on changing behaviour is the way to go. Loving your blog!

  4. Cactus Wren says:

    Peg Bracken, in one of her cookbooks, included a list of highly restrictive 1950s-60s word-of-mouth fad diets: the steak-prunes-coffee diet, the poundcake and vanilla ice cream but nothing else diet, the lamb chops and pineapple diet, the stuff she calls “fatrecal”, the cabbage soup diet, the wolf-anything-you-like-for-two-minutes-three-times-a-day diet, and so on. She points out that all of these diets do work, for certain values of “work”: every one of them will help you take off five pounds in the three days before the wedding or the reunion or the awards ceremony. And they’re also good, she says, because no one in her right mind could stay on one of these diets for more than three days! (Although she mentions an acquaintance — “not in her right mind” — who lived on cottage cheese and pears for ten months and lost forty pounds. Sadly, the forty pounds included her gallbladder, and the gallbladder was the only part she did not regain.)

    • Vivian says:

      I read your post over five minutes ago and am still laughing. Your point of what some are willing to put them self through to loose a few pounds is true but it’s your witty delivery that’s so entertaining. Thanks for starting my day with a laugh!
      Missing Gallbladder Foodist

  5. Great insights. I also think that another big reason that people aren’t successful with diets is that there is no one size fits all. The same diet won’t work for everyone and people forget to take that into consideration. You need a diet customized for your body, blood type, food sensitivities etc.

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