Why Do Diets Fail? Top 7 Reasons Behind 95% Failure

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why do diets fail

We all know that diets don’t work for 95% of people. But why do diets fail?

Here is a quick video with Melainie Rogers, Registered Dietitian and founder of the largest nutrition therapy group in New York City, who explains why diets fail:

YouTube player
Listen to the full podcast conservation on iTunes here

1 – Body Image And Social Media

In 1950 Marilyn Monroe was considered to be the ‘most beautiful woman on the planet’. 

Yet nowadays if Marilyn tried to work as a Victoria’s Secret model her body size would be considered too large.

The body image standards have changed considerably over the past decades. 

Nowadays body image and social media are combining in several different ways:

  • More access to images on phones
  • Algorithms select for images of thin people to be seen more frequently
  • Filters and photo editing allow for impossible beauty standards

Overall, today’s thin body image for both men and women puts tremendous pressure on people to lose weight and diet. 

So men and women spend their hard-earned money on weight loss products which don’t work in the long term! 

We can see this disturbing trend which shows a strong correlation between money spent on weight loss products with rising obesity rates:

So we’ve seen a 22% increase in obesity in 50 years.

  • Back in 1974 the weight loss industry was worth 4.7 billion
  • Today the weight loss industry is worth around 72 billion, according to Market Research.

2 – Fat Cells Deplete Due To Dieting And Cause Signals To Eat More

One of the most common myths that the weight loss industry likes to perpetuate is ‘individual responsibility for weight loss’. 

This means that if you ‘fall off the wagon’ it’s your fault. It’s not the diet’s fault, it’s your fault.

However, science is telling us a different story. 

Cynthia Bulik, the director of an Eating Disorders program at University of North Carolina, says that “environmental factors like dieting … can lead to long-term changes in gene expression that themselves may influence eating habits”.

When you diet and restrict food intake, your fat cells become deflated. Then when a fat cell becomes depleted, the genetic expression of the fat cell changes.

A fat cell is programmed to store fat. So the genetic expression of the fat cell changes and the cell signals your brain that more food needs to be eaten.

This change in genetic expression results in food being perceived as more valuable. 

The genetic expression changes your perception of food!

Impossible to ignore food cravings are a natural byproduct of the altered genetic expression. 

This is a very important concept to grasp!

This means that cravings and finding it difficult to stay on a diet are NOT issues of willpower. 

They are issues of perception based upon changes to genetic expression.

3 – Diets Make You More Susceptible To Stress

stress eating dieting

Why do diets fail?

So far we know that our culture puts pressure on us to look impossibly thin. 

Then in our attempts to become impossibly thin, our genetic expression changes and we end up wanting more food all the time!

The changes in our genetic expression also make us more susceptible to stress.

Tracy Bale, another neuroscientist but this time at the University of Pennsylvania, studied this ‘dieting-enhances-stress’ phenomenon in 2010.

The study had several parts:

  1. Mice lost 10-15% of their body weight on a low carb diet, by basically eating less.
  2. Mice on this diet were exposed to minor stress like loud noises
  3. Mice on the diet had  higher cortisol levels even with NO stress.
  4. This suggests that weight loss from the restrictive low carb diet increased baseline levels of stress under all conditions!

The suggestive conclusions of this study were powerful:

Losing a significant amount of weight through restrictive measures can result in long lasting changes to genetic expression.

Not only do fat cells become programmed to see food as more valuable and to emit chemicals that result in food cravings …

But one becomes more likely to feel like they are under more stress, too.

4 – Diets Are Structured With Short-Term, Unsustainable Goals

  • Burn 10 lbs in 2 weeks!
  • 10 Day Detox!
  • Whole30

See the pattern?

None of these programs call themselves ‘diets’. Yet diets they all are!

All these programs promote the idea of following a plan for a certain amount of time to reach a short-term goal.

But what happens once the program is over?

Unfortunately, most people revert to their old ways of eating because of the original assumption that diets were rules to be followed for a certain amount of time. 

Nowadays the Academy of Nutrition in Dietetics is promoting the opposite approach:

“Focus on the overall pattern of eating … instead of targeting a specific number of nutrients or foods.”

Basically, stop calorie counting and other superficial techniques or a diet fail will result!

5 – Diets Promote Unhappy Ways Of Living

Let’s be honest:

Diets, for the most part, encourage restriction, deprivation, and the idea of sacrifice.

For a temporary amount of time, you’ll ‘give up the good stuff’. 

For example, most diets encourage:

  • Ignoring hunger cravings
  • Not eating enjoyable foods
  • Exercising to burn off the weight 
  • Counting or recording calories and food types

Unfortunately, these behaviors/activities are unsustainable and don’t bring the participant much or any pleasure due to the accompanying food restrictions.

For example, let’s compare high fat versus the low fat approaches to weight management.

Both of these are restrictive!

  • With the high fat approach, you restrict carbs, and therefore crave more carbs
  • With the low fat approach, you restrict fat, and therefore crave fattier foods

Both fat diet approaches just lead to more food cravings and more misery overall.

Here are other reasons why diets are unsustainable for a variety of social reasons:

  • A person is likely to find it more difficult to go to social gatherings if they have to avoid certain foods
  • ‘Healthy’ foods ignore a person’s food heritage, or the cultural foods a person is familiar with

6 – Culture Promotes Body Shaming Which Increases Risk Of Obesity

weight stigma and fat phobia quote by julia fanning - fat phobia is such a part of our society many people don't realize they really judge negatively individuals with added weight

There is tremendous pressure on overweight people to lose weight.

This pressure comes in large part because of the many negative biases held against people who are bigger, biases that are blatant in the body images typically shown on various media.

There is robust research on weight stigma showing that people who are bigger are perceived as:

  • Lazier than thinner people
  • Less intelligent than thinner people
  • Morally inferior to thinner people

And these perceptions are major. 

Daniel Hamermesh is an economics professor at the University of Texas in Austin. 

Daniel’s research demonstrates that thinner people earn an average of 3-4% more than their heavier counterparts – and this is after accounting for other variables.

This can come out to several hundred thousand dollars over a career!

Most people who are overweight want to lose weight

That’s why the weight loss industry is worth $72 Billion dollars annually!

Of course there are health impacts associated with being overweigt:

  • Fatigue
  • Increased risk of heart attacks
  • Joint pain

However, equally important is the social pressure and discrimiantion that comes with being bigger.

People who are overweight routinely report acts of discrimination against them:

  • From obvious bullying at school during childhood because of weight
  • To not having the right clothing sizes at clothing stores
  • To getting worse customer service

Ever wonder why most people begin a diet?

It’s because this pressure from both a health perspective and social perspective is incredibly intense.

But weight stigma only leads to more obesity!

Unfortunately, the pressure to lose weight typically backfires incredibly.

There is a growing amount of weight stigma research showing definitively that weight stigma leads to obesity.

Body shaming doesn’t help.

It just puts more pressure on people to lose weight.

7 – Sugary “Convenience” Foods Easily Available Everywhere

It’s hard enough to be healthy in a Western culture with an environment filled with negative health factors:

  • Impossible body image standards
  • Preponderance of short-term diets
  • Tons of stress 

These are not isolated factors. 

These factors combine in extremely nasty ways!

  • For starters, short-term dieting encourages genetic changes. 
  • Then genetic changes worsen stress
  • Diets also make people unhappy, which leads to more stress!

In the face of all this stress, sugar often becomes like ‘kryptonite’ to your body. 

Your body in a state of heightened stress will have increased cravings for sugary foods for several reasons:

  • Sugary foods release ‘feel-good’ chemicals to temporarily counter stress
  • Under stress, your body ‘wants’ more calories in order to feel safer, because more body fat from an evolutionary perspective was considered to be healthy

Compounding these problems is the availability of sugary “convenience” foods.

Here are some examples of sugary “convenience” foods that are easily available:

  • Sodas at every restaurant
  • Processed candies at every grocery and convenience store checkout line

These convenience foods make dieting nearly impossible. 

The combination of factors such as weight stigma, stress, and availability of short-term unhappy diets …

All put tremendous, tremendous stress on people …

And then sugary foods become more desired to relieve stress.

And these sugary foods are readily available!!!

Summary: Why Do Diets Fail Psychology

There are physical factors which lead to the failure of dieting. 

For example, restrictive eating leads to genetic changes.

However, it’s my opinion that to really understand why diets fail, one must not underestimate the psychological factors: 

  • Weight stigma
  • Increased stress
  • Short-term goals
  • For-profit multi billion dollar industry

What Percentage of Diets Fail?

Let’s look at the research:

Tracy Mann and her team at UCLA, analyzed every single long term weight loss study over two years.

Here were their results:

That’s a damn high failure rate!. 

The majority of people who experienced ‘weight loss’ found out that their weight loss was temporary.

But perhaps most surprisingly is the weight gain that happens due to dieting failure.

Not only do people fail at weight loss …

But at least 33-66% of people experience weight gain due to dieting!

Not only that, but tons of other research on fad diets shows that dieting for weight loss:

  • Slows down metabolism
  • Puts strain on the heart
  • Increases appetite
  • Messes up hormones

Those are the facts. 

Stop dieting.

About the Author

Jared Levenson is a former binge eating wrestler turned Zen Buddhist Monk, Internal Family Systems counselor and nutrition wellness coach. He's helped hundreds of people through universal meal principles and internal family systems to make peace with food, stop binge eating, and find true health and wholeness.


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