It’s the time of the year when magazines, newspapers, websites and social media content lure you with quick fixes to lose weight. They come with promises of making you look your best in three months. Many of us have followed such diets and most of the times, they’re difficult to stick to long term.
To clarify, in this context, 'diet' refers to the conscious decision to follow specific food rules and restrictions, distinct from medical diets tailored for conditions such as diabetes or gluten sensitivity.
A study published in the American Psychologist journal indicated that one-third to two-thirds of individuals on diets regain more weight than they initially lost within five years. While the “95% of people who lose weight regain it” used in all articles highlighting the negative aspects of diets has no solid research backing it, and we don’t know the true figures, there is truth to the fact that most diets are set to fail.
There are several popular diets, usually made popular by celebrities such as eto, paleo, Atkins, Zone, South Beach, raw food, vegan, Mediterranean and 5:2 diet. They’re usually based on health goals, food group restrictions, beliefs, and cultural traditions and each one has its principles and guidelines.
Restrictive diets also bring with them a host of bad side effects such as binge eating and fostering an unhealthy relationship with food. They often lead to feelings of low energy and irritability. It makes one feel stressed at social and family gatherings that often tend to revolve around food. A lot of mental energy gets drained by strictly following a diet.
But why exactly do diets fail?
The restrictive nature of diets makes us feel deprived and short-changed. Food is something we indulge in and seek comfort from two to three times a day or more. Having to feel restricted as many times day in and day out is mentally challenging. Foods get labelled as good and bad food. Calories must be counted and controlled, and food groups must be eliminated or cut down.
Each diet comes with its set of rules, where you have to do one or more of the following — shopping for ingredients, following the meal plans, cutting out social outings, changing routines and behaviours, all of which people end up doing for a while by convincing themselves that it’s only for the short term. These drastic changes in the way we eat and our daily routines cannot be sustained in the long term.
Diets often promise rapid and dramatic results. Clickbait headlines and “before” and “after” photos, all aim at shock value. Influenced by societal norms, media portrayals, and the all-pervasive culture of instant gratification, many embark on diets with the unrealistic expectation of achieving a "perfect" body in a short time.
Crash diets and extreme weight-loss programmes promise quick fixes, contributing to the misconception that shedding substantial weight within a brief period is both achievable and healthy.
When the swift results one envisions fall short of expectations, it leads to frustration, disappointment, and a feeling of failure. This often results in abandoning the diet and reverting to previous habits, perpetuating a cycle of disappointments in the realm of dieting.
Lack Of Personalisation
Most diets are usually set in stone, hardly leaving any room for personalisation. Many diet counsellors do make small changes to the template depending on whether you are vegetarian or you hate karela, but that’s about it. Several factors affect weight such as genetics, metabolism and gut microbiome.
Diets that involve blindly following the rules which may not integrate into your life and routine are set to fail.
Food is more than just nutrition; it's joy, connection, experience, culture, and family time. Dieting turns mealtime into a set of rules, taking away the pleasure of eating. Dieters often struggle with emotional challenges tied to food, like stress-induced eating, emotional triggers, and feeling deprived of restrictive eating plans.
Diets revolve around making drastic short-term changes to achieve goals in record time. This often leaves individuals unsupported afterwards. This is why the weight shed quickly tends to return with a vengeance. Diets fail to instil a focus on long-term habits or learning life-long skills. The inherent short-term nature of diets contributes to a cycle of yo-yo dieting, characterised by fluctuating weight patterns and challenges in sustaining a long-term commitment to healthier lifestyles.
If diets (almost) always fail, what is the alternative?
The Alternative – A Mindset Shift
Focus on your ‘why’. What is the deeper reason behind your wanting to change your lifestyle? This makes weight loss or health gain into a journey of self-awareness. The alternative to dieting is doing the very opposite of what diets do.
Don’t Restrict. Embrace a liberating approach to nutrition by avoiding rigid restrictions. Instead, prioritise eating more home-cooked meals made from whole ingredients. Release the need for excessive control around food and adopt a more flexible attitude. Abandon the all-or-nothing mindset that may have hindered your past efforts. Discard rules imposed by failed diets that compelled you to restrict certain foods or entire food groups, disrupting your ability to trust your own intuition and body signals. This shift away from restrictive practices not only fosters a healthier relationship with food but also grants you the freedom to enjoy a diverse and satisfying array of nourishing options.
Realistic goals and gradual approach. If, for instance, you currently order food five times a week, consider reducing it to four times initially. If you typically enjoy three cups of tea with sugar, begin by cutting the sugar in half for at least one cup. Embrace a "baby steps" mentality – if your goal is to enhance protein intake, incorporate a bit of extra protein into one meal each day. Avoid making drastic changes overnight; instead, focus on making small, manageable habit adjustments, building upon each change progressively.
Keep it personal. Follow a plan that works for you and is sustainable. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, the keto diet is a restrictive nightmare. If your diet is predominantly meat-based, moving to a fully plant-based diet will suck joy out of your life. The best diet plan is what you can stick to for life. Food must be enjoyable and not a punishment.
Emotional wellbeing. Food is not just for nourishment but also for pleasure. Make space for food that brings you joy and eat them with mindful moderation. Identify stress-eating triggers and create mechanisms to deal with these triggers that don’t involve food. For example -when anxious, do a breathing exercise. When bored, watch a funny video, etc. Build support systems and accountability partners to help form healthy habits.
Think long term. Focus on a healthier way of life and not a temporary diet. Learn recipes for dishes that you will love to serve and eat. Organisation and planning skills like meal prep help prepare more meals at home. Shopping for quality ingredients, researching for good places to eat, searching, and trying out new recipes can all be part of an enjoyable process for life. Embracing a healthy lifestyle is a marathon, not a sprint.
The next time you see a ‘Lose 10 kgs in 3 months’ headline, you know better than to click on it. Instead of wasting your physical and mental energies and resources on quick fixes, invest that energy into forming long-term habits that will work towards your good health.