The Diets Do Not Work Myth Exposed

You have probably heard this phrase below, and I’ve probably used it myself from time to time, but I was thinking about it over the past week or so, and I realized that these three words may be a myth.

Really.

The myth that diets don’t work is likely based in one of the following broad categories:

1) Most people who lose weight gain it back.

2) Those people who say diets don’t work often have an agenda to sell you an expensive product or plan that promises “real” results.

When you think about it, dieting is just learning to make healthy food choices in the right quantities. Dieting in a healthy way is 100 percent different than a fad diet or a starvation diet.

So in those simple terms, dieting does work. Nutritionists, physicians, and researchers have known for ages and ages that the only way to lose weight and maintain that weight loss is through a diet that involves a reduction in caloric intake and the continuation of those healthy choices once a goal weight is achieved.  Exercise always helps the dieting process and rarely hurts.

If you make a general statement and say that diets don’t work, that’s almost the same as saying the ocean doesn’t contain water.

I acknowledge that most reputable studies show that people who lose weight aren’t able to stick with their diet very long, nor are they very successful in keeping the weight off. This isn’t the fault of the healthy diet is it?

It wasn’t Weight Watchers fault that I didn’t keep my weight off when I was dieting. The diet would have worked if I had followed it. Same with some of the other healthy diets I tried to follow when I was morbidly obese. The diets were based on good nutrition, but I didn’t follow the diets long enough to lose a substantial amount of weight, nor did I change my eating habits in a way that was sustainable.

The bottom line is (and I’m talking about healthy diets for weight loss) is that the diet itself wasn’t the failure; the person who stopped following the diet and started slipping back into their old eating habits failed. (In my case, me.) This is a hard reality, but one that I had to face as I began to finally not only “diet” to lose weight, but also to consciously change my lifestyle.

Blaming the diet because the dieting person fell off the wagon is like blaming your elliptical machine that you use as a clothes hanger for not making you magically drop pounds and inches.

I feel that the statement that we hear all the time that “diets don’t work” is unfortunate and potentially damaging. With over 66 percent of Americans falling into the overweight and obese category these days, we need to promote the message that a healthy diet, when followed, does work for both weight loss and weight maintenance.

We shouldn’t encourage people to just give up because the perception that diets don’t work, but instead be encouraged that research and personal experience does show that a healthy diet does in fact work. The key is that you have to follow it and keep up with your healthy habits once you’ve reached your goal weight.

Any thoughts on this topic? Diane

30 thoughts on “The Diets Do Not Work Myth Exposed

  1. blackhuff says:

    I think that the word “diet” is a very lose word. Many throw it around like this way you said: “Diets don’t work.”
    But diet can also mean, healthy eating. And then, YES, diet does work. But when one starve yourself or some other bizarre way, then those don’t work for sure.

  2. vickie says:

    ” The diets were based on good nutrition, but I didn’t follow the diets long enough to lose a substantial amount of weight, nor did I change my eating habits in a way that was sustainable.”

    Very true. I would add one more:
    nor did I retrain my taste buds.

    I think getting off the too good to be true (which is almost always) non-food/junk and retraining taste buds to real food is a crucial part of the process too.

  3. Dr. J says:

    The short answer is that a kifestyle change works, but weight loss and a return to the past does not.

    However, different people respond better to different diets than others for a multitude of reasons. Humans are very adaptable though and anyone can adapt to most any diet given enough time.

  4. Emergefit says:

    I have had clients, hundreds of times, say to me, “Diets don’t work..” At this point, my ressponse proably sounds so canned and well rehersed. I will alwasy respond by saying, “Yes they do, if you stick with them.” True.

    Or better we just rephrase it: Diets don’t work, but commitment does.

  5. Karen@WaistingTime says:

    I think part of the problem might be the connotation of the word “diet.”

    That said, I have often said that my “diet” plan works, it is just that I didn’t always work the plan. The “failure” was always mine. Some plans are more effective for some of us, than others. Some plans easier to stick with. But seems to me that is is usually the dietER not the diet that fails to work. That might sound harsh. But it is putting responsibility where it lies – with us personally.

  6. Joe says:

    The word Diet has multiple meanings for different people. Diet to some people means going on a cabbage soup diet or a low carb diet. To me it meant taking my exisiting diet and make change to it to make weight loss possible. Bottom line though most “diets” based on healthy eating principles will work. If it doesn’t work its usually a user error!

  7. Caron says:

    I totally agree with this. I’ve had two WW leaders who lost and regained their weight four times but finally got to the place where they maintained the loss for years and years. I keep saying to anyone who will listen that a whole lot of this is mental. At least in my case it is. 🙂

  8. Karen P says:

    I’ve completely made peace with the word diet. I had a very different weight loss diet vs weight maintenance diet. ( medifast with a transition to paleo). Before that I had a SAD – standard American diet. I’ve had success on a low calorie portion controlled diet (WW ) for loss but not for maintenance. Now I follow a very structured food template for my diet to maintain.

    I consider all diets as tools and its up to us to find the right tools and use them for our goals. Great topic, as always. Karen P

  9. katie@thecarbmonster says:

    Great post! I totally agree! I feel like there is a stigma around the word “diet”, especially when I tell my mom about the latest one I’m going to try. I’m personally trying to avoid it because it’s an “on and off” thing for me. Instead I’m going to change how I eat and exercise. No “diet” involved.

  10. Kara says:

    Technically a diet should work; it certainly isn’t a myth that if I want to lose weight, I must eat less calories than used. However, it is the psychological impact of following a structured diet that can derail a weight loss journey by triggering overeating. The stress and resulting anxiety of structured dieting sent me into years of a perpetual state of dieting and overating.

    I focused on the psychological side and worked with a CBT to change my eating behaviours by tackling one eating trigger at a time. I no longer think about food all the time, I rarely have a strong craving and If I do have a craving, it rarely leads to overeating.

  11. C says:

    Diets work and dieter fails is way to simply put. It takes constant vigilance and continued pressure on yourself to eat healthy when you are in an environment of unhealthy eating. We do not live in a vaccum where you can control your environment all of the time. Chosing to live healthily is hard work in the world I live in and I have it easier than most of you as I live alone and can control what is in my house. Almost all social situations involve eating and even looking at the menu of a resturant and choosing the best option ahead of time is hoping that they make it right and at the right size and even then the sodium is unbelivable and yes you could eat first and just have water there but is that realistic for the majority of people? Diets work but so few people can stick to them because at every turn there is an attack on your willpower and an opportunity to stray. Is that a reason to just give in? Of course not but it is a reason to have places like this and expand the knowledge and fight for fair advertising and healthy lifestyles and education to make the people making good choices(not radical diets) more of the norm than the strange. Just my opinion and experience.

  12. Lisa says:

    That’s why I call what I did and currently do, a lifestyle change. Diet, to me, implies something temporary. What I did was change my eating and exercise habits to a healthy balance of “diet” and indulging.

  13. Janis says:

    The thing about people who eat whatever we want and not gain weight is that … it’s true. I do “eat whatever I want” and stay slim. But “whatever I want” often consists, say, of a chicken caesar salad and a cup of coffee at a restaurant, a steamed head of cauliflower and some asparagus and a SMALL bowl of ice cream at home, or a fruit plate and toast with a cup of tea as a hotel breakfast. I don’t WANT the chicken and biscuits in gravy for breakfast, the double burger with fries and a huge soda for lunch, and the gigantic dinner with loaded potato skins for a “snack” afterwards. I think I’d puke if I ate that much in a day. I indulge sometimes, but it’s not an everyday thing.

    So yes, I do eat “whatever I want” and not gain weight. That doesn’t mean I can eat whatever YOU want, rhetorical person who battles their weight, and not gain. I don’t WANT a half dozen doughnuts. I can’t imagine eating an entire pan of brownies or an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s; the concept makes me slightly nauseous. If I order a full-sugar soda in a restaurant, I’m only going to finish a third of it, and not because I force myself to stop. I don’t know why.

    That never seems to come across. Or it’s actively resisted. I’ve had the very occasional conversation with heavier friends about this, especially if there’s four of thee and one of me at the table. It’s as predictable as the tides and SO obvious: the minute I come anywhere NEAR saying this, they will actively laugh, chatter loudly over me, and do ANYTHING to keep from hearing it. They almost stuff towels in my mouth to keep up the myth of me having a magic skinny metabolism that lets me live on cake 24/7 while they can’t even look at a cookie without gaining a pound. (I don’t bother anymore; I used to try to say as nicely as I could, “No seriously, listen, this is what’s going on,” only to get pretty fairly ganged up on and hated. Fine. Complain for the rest of your life. You’re fat and it’s not your fault, you’re a poor victim, I’m skinny and can’t possibly understand your noble pain, whatever. And if I don’t want to deal with you anymore, then I’m shallow and don’t want fat friends. Fine.)

    Anyway, yes — there are people in this world who can eat whatever THEY want and not gain weight. They don’t eat whatever YOU want and not gain weight, rhetorical heavy person. If you battle your weight, I can guarantee you that NO ONE can eat what you want and not weight what you weigh.

    It’s just frustrating, even for people who tend to be thin. Friendships totally founder and sink on these rocks. I don’t think a genuine friendship between a heavy woman and a thin one is even possible, not really.

    So there’s your aimless ramble for a Friday morning. 🙂

  14. julie says:

    I think most say that because, as Lisa says, most think of it as a temporary exercise in will power where semi-starvation is mandated. Of course, there are people who think calorie balance has absolutely nothing to do with weight, and there are those who think that any sort of caloric reduction means being freezing, light-headed, obsessed with food (aka starving).

    The lifestyle change kind of diet is not understood. I’m never quite sure what to say to people when I don’t eat something in particular, or don’t overeat something else, and they ask if I’m dieting. Well sort of kind of a little bit, but not really. In the end, I just tell them I’m a previously obese woman and I can’t eat that much. Generally, that gets me blank stares, but whatever. It’s only me who has to live in this body.

    People are so into extremes, moderation is just not a concept that many will get. And if they don’t, they’re unlikely to succeed (as in, keep the weight off, even if they have the willpower and motivation to lose it).

  15. Taryl says:

    I liked this post and agree with your conclusions that diets DO work, in terms of what it takes to actually lose weight and keep it off. I think the word gets heavily demonized when in reality the daily diet is whatever we’re eating, and the results of that will vary depending on our bodies and choices.

    I took issue with some statements made in the comments and addressed them separately on my blog. It was a good mental exercise!

  16. Jody - Fit at 55 says:

    I have not read the comments but I am guessing some might have said what I will write, that the word “diet” takes on different meanings to different people. If by diet, one means going on something to lose so many pounds & then going off it & starting to eat the way uou did before, no. If by diet one means changing to a healthier way of eating & living that is a lifestyle change, then yes, they work. It has to be a diet that works long term OR as some do, use it for a starter & then adjust to meet their long term living style & goals. 🙂

    • evilcyber says:

      Yep. Essentially “diet” once meant one’s style of eating in general (and it still does in the clinical sense), not restricting food choices and amount for x amount of time.

      “Diet” is an ongoing choice, not a six week plan of action.

  17. Janis says:

    You know, I wonder if there isn’t some sort of way to do a personality test that could predict what sort of behavior changes would work for people. Ultimately, it IS about calories-in-calories-out in the end, after the food goes down your throat. Your thighs don’t care WHY you ate the cinnamon bun at 3am. The problem is further upstream. All the complexity lies in HOW the cinnamon bun got in front of your face at 3am in the first place. If you can get to eat-less-move-more, then yes, it will be reflected in your size, but different people arrive at that different ways.

    First off, there is obviously no way to do this so it’s easy. It will always be an effort, especially at the beginning.

    But I just wonder if there isn’t some way to do a Myer-Briggs sort of thing that will gauge people’s personalities and counsel them which path works best for them:

    Personality A: Count your damn calories. Just shut up and do it. Keep a spreadsheet.
    Personality B: Moderation doesn’t work for you. You’ve got trigger stuff that you will have to say goodbye to, period. DO NOT GET BARIATRIC SURGERY. IT WILL NOT WORK FOR YOU.
    Personality C: You will have to space out your indulgences. Half a chocolate chip cookie a week is something you can manage without going haywire.
    Personality D: You’re going to turn into a gonzo weightlifting marathon runner someday. Just push through the resistance right now, and eventually you’ll have black toenails and bandaids over your nipples, and you’ll love every minute of it.
    Personality E: Go get bariatric surgery. Do it now. It’s just the kick in the pants and major commitment you need.

    There are a variety of things people have done to get their brain to finally play ball on letting them get fit. As long as it ends up at eat-less-move-more, it might help to counsel someone as to what path would get them there for their personality.

    I don’t know how useful it would be in the end, though. I sense that for a lot of people, the method they are resisting the most is probably the best way for them. A person who goes back and forth endlessly and says, “I don’t do well with restrictions,” probably needs exactly that. A person who has been struggling unsuccessfully for decades and REFUSES to even consider surgery might do best with it.

    Sometimes I think that the best way to identify the optimal solution to a problem is to find out where the person is pushing hardest. The solution is guaranteed to lie in the opposite direction.

    I also don’t know how much I’d trust a test like that that was given to me by a surgeon or someone selling a certain kind of diet. People who eat paleo think that’s the ONLY SOLUTION for everyone, bariatric surgeons will tell you that everything but surgery always fails, athletes think that triathlons are all that will work, calorie-counters act like you have to do that or else … 🙁

  18. sabril says:

    I don’t have a study to back it up, but I have a strong feeling that of the 95% of dieters who try and fail, a large percentage are people who fall into one of the following categories:

    (1) people who have an unrealistic fantasy that they will get back into the shape they were when they were 20 years old; have a killer beach body; etc.

    (2) people who are mainly focused on getting into shape for a particular event like a reunion or a wedding;

    (3) people who unrealistically believe that all their problems in life will go away if they just lose weight;

    (4) people who fall for bizarro diets which promise to let you eat just about whatever you want;

    (5) people who believe (consciously or subconsciously) that once they hit their goal weight, they will be 100% normal and can go back to eating whatever they feel like; and

    (6) people who engage in unsustainable diets, for example eating no solid foods at all or eating only 500 calories a day.

    Also, I hate to say it but after reading a lot of fat acceptance blogs, the sense I get is that a small but significant percentage of failed dieters are mentally ill. For example, if you suffer from depression so that 5 to 10% of the time you feel so bad that you don’t care about your life all that much, then it’s going to be pretty much impossible to stick to a diet.

  19. Laura Jane says:

    I couldn’t agree more! So true. I get annoyed with “diets” claiming that this particular way of eating is a lifestyle not a diet. It’s not the method of eating or exercise that makes it a lifestyle – it’s the person employing. Any eating method can be a permanent lifestyle change or it can also be as temporary effort. That’s all up to the person following the “diet.”

  20. Stephanie G Travis says:

    The key is to find the right diet for your body and lifestyle. I’m beginning my weight loss journey and I’m trying to be aware of what I’m doing to drop weight. I then ask myself, can you keep this up for the rest of your life? If the answer is no, then I look for another way.

  21. evilcyber says:

    Oh yes. In my opinion, the phrase suffers from what all simple answers usually from: generalizations. It should read, “not every diet works for everybody”. I lost weight by meticulously counting calories, but for someone else that may be undoable. On the other hand, that person might find that Weight Watchers does the trick, which I personally never found an appealing solution.

    That being said, the prase is also nicely picked up as an excuse by people who are overweight but find it too troublesome to do something about it: I’m destined to be this way, because diets don’t work, so I don’t have to bother.

    It is therefore not only a message being sent out, sidetracking people, but also eagerly believed in by at least some.

  22. jessi says:

    I tend to think that the whole idea of being able to decide, ‘from the head’ what to eat instead of listening to one’s body and physical needs ‘does not work’.

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