Gavin Guard, Medical Director
Why don't diets work?
Updated: Jan 22, 2022
Humans are designed to eat energy-rich food
But this often leads to obesity and other health problems given our current environment
Habit-based practices are a much better approach to looking, feeling, and performing better
Does this sound like you?
Carnivore, vegan, Adkins, keto, low carb, Paleo, vegetarian, South Beach, Mediterranean, Weight Watchers…. This list goes on and on of the number of diets that are available on the internet.
Maybe you’ve tried one of these. Chances are that it didn’t last long. Or perhaps you did find success with a popular diet. If that’s you, I encourage you to keep it up.
But if you are one of the millions of people that set their mind on losing weight for the New Year’s resolution only for it to last a month or two, keep reading.
Let’s face it, many of these diets are selling quick fixes for a much bigger problem. In this article, I will review the reason why diets often don’t work and a better approach to look, feel, and perform at your best.
“Why do I have food cravings?”
Who doesn’t have some level of food cravings? For me, it’s chocolate chip cookies. What is it for you? Is it the salty chips late at night, chocolate after dinner, or perhaps you can’t keep your hands off the donuts that your coworker brought in. Whatever it is, why do you feel these strong urges to eat these types of food?
The answer comes down to the fact that these energy-rich foods help us survive.
Humans have lasted a long time on this Earth. As a species, we had to survive through droughts, famines, war, and interactions with the natural world. So how did we make it this far?
Up until now, food has been relatively scarce. This led our ancestors to work for important things (e.g. build shelter, gather, hunt) and otherwise, conserve energy as much as possible.
Now, we still have those primal instincts to conserve energy but are in an environment where we have abounding food choices.
Our cravings typically are for calorie-rich foods like donuts, cupcakes, sweets, and sugary beverages. Who craves roasted broccoli, right? In fact, the average American eats 1.3-2.1 servings of vegetables per DAY (1). Get this- this includes the potatoes in your french fries and tomatoes found in ketchup. On the contrary, up to 84% of the calories of our food comes in ultra-processed foods and beverages.
These cravings are a survival mechanism that has allowed humans to survive throughout the ages. However, our brains have a hard time evaluating energy-dense foods (2). Research points us to the fact that signals that normally tell your brain that “I’m full” don’t typically get conveyed to the brain when we eat processed foods (3).
In other words, humans have not adapted to make proper food decisions when it comes to the calorie-rich foods we find ourselves next to everyday. This is why 1 Oreo turns into a whole sleeve of Oreos before you know it.
By having a natural predilection to these calorie-rich foods, we prepare our bodies for the droughts, famine, and natural disasters that our ancestors inevitably faced, but we ourselves are usually free from.
Why do all diets turn into cupcakes?
The truth is that you most likely make many choices about your food subconsciously (4). In other words, you don’t even think about it. That’s because much of our behavior around food is highly habitual.
One reason many people struggle with their weight and have problems with their nutrition is a hypothesis called “Optimal Foraging Strategy”.
The Optimal Foraging Strategy points to the fact that we are wired to eat! If we were to put this idea into an equation, it would look like this:
For example, if given the option right now, would you rather eat a glazed donut or kale chips? I bet about 99% of us would pick the former. Why is that though?
Well, a donut has a high amount of calories and doesn’t take much time nor energy to “harvest” and eat it. On the other hand, kale chips don’t have many calories and take both time and energy to prepare and cook them. Therefore, donuts are a better subconscious choice for our brain to choose.
Another example of the Optimal Foraging Strategy is found in comparing children and adult dietary habits.
The top 6 sources of calories for children are:
For adults, the top 6 sources of calories are:
As you probably see, adults generally eat similarly to children with the swap of pasta for alcohol.
What this example shows us is that despite being able to build rockets, discover new medications, and engineer nano-robots, adults generally eat similarly to our younger counterparts. In other words, it’s hard-wired in us to conserve energy and ingest as many calories as we can find.
But, are these food choices wrong?
We can probably agree that these are not the healthiest of choices but this is perhaps the correct choice for us to make given our primal nature.
Again, the Optimal Foraging Strategy describes why we eat so much and can eventually suffer the consequences of being overweight such as heart disease, blood sugar imbalances, high cholesterol, and shorter lifespans. But, “our ability to find sources of energy-dense food over large foraging ranges in almost any climate is the reason that there are more than 7 billion humans on this planet” (5).
UberEats and blueberry pies
The Optimal Foraging Strategy explains one part of our problem with dieting. Our modern environment explains the other part.
The popular taxi service, Uber recently rolled out with their new fast food delivery called UberEats (6). Within 30 minutes, a driver will deliver food from some of the largest fast food companies such as McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Wendy’s, and Burger King for just a $2.49 delivery fee. We’ve gotten to a point where we don’t even have to physically go to a fast food joint.
In our current environment, people travel an hour to work in heavy traffic, hustle all day at work for digital money to buy a hamburger that they don’t even need to leave their house for.
Furthermore, take the example of what it takes to make a blueberry pie in 1900 compared to now. In 1900, you would have to buy some berries. You would then have to have to buy flour, sugar, and butter (maybe you got this from a dairy cow on your own farm) in order to make the crust. It would then take another 30-60 minutes preparing and cooking the blueberry pie.
Now, you could probably buy 5 different blueberry pies within a couple mile radius of where you are at right now.
In other words, it’s much easier to access energy-dense food in our modern environment compared to just 100 years ago.
“Why can’t I stick to this diet?”
Many diets don’t last long. It’s because of our hardwiring to eat energy-dense foods and the fact that there are cupcakes and donuts at every street corner that diets often don’t work.
UCLA researchers found that people usually lose 5-10% of their starting weight in the first 6 months, but at least 1 in 3 regain MORE weight than they lost (7).
Furthermore, up to 80% do not maintain their weight loss for 12 months (8).
Why diets usually fail
Is this you? You set out to try a popular diet you may have heard about in a magazine, on a podcast, or on a T.V. show. You are all excited to give it a try; you go grocery shopping, find recipes, and tell your family and friends all about it. Day 1 or 2 are a little hard but then by week 1 or 2, you are getting a hang of things. Perhaps you start losing weight and start feeling better.
But then life happens. Kids need to go to soccer practice, your spouse is working more hours, and you seem to have more responsibilities than you can handle. Suddenly, your diet goes to the wayside and progress comes to a screeching halt.
The problem is that many of these diets only teach you non-transferable skills. In other words, they only teach you how to eat when life is easy.
But let’s face it, life is rarely easy. That’s why many diets don’t lead to lasting change.
A better approach to nutrition
It’s time for a different approach. We spent a great deal of time talking about why diets often don’t work. So what’s a better approach?
Instead of radically overhauling your diet, it’s better to implement strategic, yet simple practices into your routine.
Just like a basketball player practices dribbling before performing slam dunks, your nutrition program needs to be progressive and build on itself over time.
An effective strategy to optimize your nutrition should evolve a program that implements good coaching and simple habits where you can work on one thing at a time without totally changing your lifestyle overnight.
This approach leads to small wins that cumulate to big changes that actually LAST over time.
The bottom line
It’s time to ditch your diet. Instead, take a different approach.
An approach that utilizes coaching to help you make small changes over time that actually feel easy. Over time, these changes become automatic for you.
The truth is that you can look and feel better without having to count calories and turn food into math equations. You shouldn’t need to follow a popular cult diet in order to see results.
Every time I read the book, “The Tortoise and the Hare”, the tortoise always wins. In order to find a lasting solution, take the same approach as the tortoise.
I hope you found this information useful and helpful in your journey back to a healthier and happier life.
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