Why Diets don’t Work – and what does

Just over a year ago I closed down the weight management ‘offer’ in my coaching business. This was the right decision all round but I have remained interested in eating problems.

Now I find that the latest diet craze, the one that involves fasting for two days and eating normally on the other five, has swept up many friends, regular coaching clients and colleagues.

The only way to lose weight, as every dieter knows perfectly well, is to eat less and exercise more, but especially to eat less, as moderate exercise alone will make a difference to your overall health but none to your weight. Every single diet of the thousands that have come and gone is just a structured way of consuming fewer calories, whether it is the plain silly, the plain dangerous, diets that promise to reduce some specific part of your body (impossible) or club approaches like Weight Watchers. Sometimes there is an allegedly magic ingredient such as not mixing protein with carbs (no scientific validity whatsoever) or eating grapefruit (pointless). Every despairing and ashamed overweight person wants quick results so the diets that offer rapid shedding of pounds have always got a commercial advantage over the more sensible ones that are steady and slow.

One reason that diets don’t work is that they involve deprivation in ways that are incompatible with normal living and most dieters are telling themselves subconsciously that once some symbolic lower weight is achieved, their old-style eating can resume. And this is what gradually happens, and it can take several years, despite the promises of almost every diet system of a ‘maintenance’ phase. By the time that the maintenance stage has been reached the dieter is mentally saying, ‘Phew, glad that’s over, now I can eat what I like’. And so the cycle eventually starts all over again.

Diets also trigger the human response to starvation. When there is a big gap between your basal metabolic rate and the number of calories you consume, which is what almost all diets encourage – and the bigger the gap the more quickly you will lose weight – your body believes itself to be starving. In the wake of starvation the body’s overwhelming instinct is to eat enough to make up for it, so this is what ultimately happens.

Diets don’t work because that they position food as your enemy, something to be feared, whereas it needs to be embraced as your friend. How many times do you hear people soulfully regarding food of some kind and pronouncing it ‘wicked’? Seeing anything as ‘forbidden’ instantly makes it more attractive, as every teenager knows.

There are three reasons that we gain weight. One is unaware over-eating, consuming just a little more than we need which slowly but steadily adds pounds that creep up without us noticing – until the day when we find that for some unaccountable reason, a favourite pair of trousers is too tight. This is what has happened to people who find that they are now two clothing sizes bigger than they were in their twenties.

Then there is eating that is designed to solve serious emotional problems.  You can be pretty certain that anyone who is morbidly obese will fall into this category. Being very fat is truly tragic: such people are wearing their misery on the outside.

Underlying both these causes of weight gain is that for the first time in human history, there is a superabundance of food. We evolved to do the summer eating that would see us through winter shortages. Now it is ‘summer’ all the time but our Stone Age brains are programmed to eat whatever we see, and this includes not only cheap food laden with sugars and fat but super-sized plates and portions to put it on. I still have some of the dinner plates given to me as a wedding present many decades ago and these are a good 30% smaller than their more recent replacements.

Essentially the secret of weight control is to ban the word ‘diet’ from your thinking. It’s about doing your own cooking, eating when you are genuinely hungry, eating slowly, stopping just before that over-full feeling, savouring food and making a lasting commitment to healthy eating. Excess pounds will fall away, but very very slowly. In fact the more slowly the better. Weight loss will stop and will be easily maintained when you reach your optimum weight. This doesn’t need elaborate systems of points and calories, red and green categories, supplements, clubs, meal substitutes, nasty diet drinks, books, lo-cal ready meals, ‘health foods’, fasting days or special recipes, so it is too simple to be a commercial proposition because there is no lucrative roundabout for people to get on, get off and then get on again.

There are two questions to be asked when considering a diet. Is it healthy, meaning does it have the right balance of food groups and nutrients and in the right quantities? Is it sustainable, meaning can I make a 100% permanent commitment to eating this way? If the answer to either or both of these questions is no, then think again.