Why Diets Fail, By Katie Elliott, MS, RD


According to Business Wire, the weight loss industry in the United States is worth $72 billion. From commercial diet center chains to meal replacement products, the diet industry is big business. Yet most diets fail. In fact, most people gain the weight they lost back within 1 to 5 years. In some cases, people put on more weight than they lost in the first place.

Other negative consequences of fad diets

You would think the negative consequences stop at weight loss and regain, but they don’t. There is a plethora of negative physical, emotional, and financial consequences of fad diets:

  • Insufficient micronutrient intake

Fad diets often cut out major food groups or macronutrients, which can lead to micronutrient deficiencies. For example, low-carbohydrate diets often result in people not meeting their needs for B Vitamins, Fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and more. This often leaves people performing sub-optimally.

  • Unintended health consequences

Recent research suggests that following a long-term ketogenic diet may increase the risk of developing kidney stones and osteoporosis in addition to increasing levels of uric acid (a risk factor for developing gout).

In addition, daily nutrition should take into consideration pertinent medical history and even family medical history.

For example, if you have kidney issues, you wouldn’t want to be on a high protein diet. Likewise, if you have a history or family history of high cholesterol, a ketogenic diet may result in increased LDL levels. Sadly, people don’t put two and two together, which can lead to unintended health consequences.

  • Poor relationship with food

When people jump from one fad diet to another, they develop what I call an “on the wagon, off the wagon” mentality.  Either they are all in or all out on eating a healthy diet. They often characterize foods in two categories: “good” or “bad”.  What happens when foods are put into categories is another all-or-nothing proposition. Let’s say cookies are on the bad list and a person has a cookie at a birthday party.

This tends to equate to a feeling that they’ve blown their diet or completely failed. That makes it more likely for the person to eat an entire box or tray of cookies. It gives food a power over the person that it shouldn’t have.

This mentality can lead to added stress, decreased self-efficacy and self-esteem, more incidents of binge eating, and periods of major weight gain. This mentality, along with yo-yo dieting, can also lead to the development of eating disorders, which can be life-threatening.

  • The expense of it all

Let’s say you want to go on a diet (I won’t name names, but I’m sure you can think of a relevant example). You have to follow a certain pattern of eating, which you learn about from buying a book or magazine. Then the author recommends supplements, packaged foods, accessories for succeeding in the diet, and maybe even a subscription to an app.

You follow said diet like a religion. Statistically speaking, you are likely to gain this weight back within a fairly short time frame. Now you’ve spent a bunch of money, bought supplements (that aren’t nearly as effective as eating real food and will likely create clutter in your cabinets), and made yourself feel like crap in the process. So who profits here? It clearly isn’t you.

You don’t need to fall victim to these unfortunate side effects of diets. Instead, focus on lifestyle changes.

Why fad diets fail

When people make their New Year’s weight-loss resolutions, they tend to approach their diet and exercise routines as a temporary state of mind. The changes they are making are akin to a short period of suffering that [they think] will result in long-term progress. But it doesn’t work that way. If you are thinking of changes as temporary suffering, you are likely to go back to your old habits once you have seen that new number on the scale [and regain the weight].

Fad diets also tend to be a one-size-fits-all prescription. They are supposed to work for a diverse population of individuals, but they don’t take into consideration person-to-person variability. For instance, the changes you need to make should take into account your work schedule, your stress level, the foods you like or have access to, your exercise preferences, your medical history, the preferences of the kids you also make dinner for, and more. Since will power is a muscle, you don’t want to stress it too much with arbitrary changes that won’t make much difference for you personally.

Finally, fad diets can make it hard for you to lead a normal life and socialize. This often leads to more isolation, which is also not health promoting. If your diet is so strict that you feel like you will fail if you go out to dinner with friends or attend a holiday party, then you are not likely to keep it going for the long haul.

Lifestyle changes are the way to go

Lifestyle changes are different than putting yourself on a diet. First, they are based on trying to become healthier. Second, they are not a one-size-fits-all prescription with a ton of arbitrary rules. Finally, they are considered to be changes people want to make for the long haul that are associated with a value proposition. For example, one of my clients cut out soda because his blood sugar had become high and he didn’t want to develop diabetes or set a poor example for his kids.

How to go about bettering your health

Here are some preliminary ways to make good on the intention to be a healthier version of yourself:

  • Please understand it’s not you, it’s them

Realize that any past diet failure has more to do with the diet’s bad design than your character. You are capable of making meaningful changes that will be better for your health and happiness so long as you go about it correctly.

  • Make health [not weight] your top priority

It’s important to prioritize health and happiness first rather than fixating on a number on the scale. This will lead to process-oriented, meaningful change as opposed to fearful, outcome-oriented thinking. If you operate with the expectation that you will feel better and become healthier, this sets the stage for more sustainable change.

  • Create an individualized plan

No two people are the same. What works for one person may not work for another person.

You need to take into consideration your values, lifestyle, schedule, pertinent medical history, priorities, etc. when figuring out which changes will make you healthier and happier. For example, a triathlete might need more carbohydrate in her diet than a painter.

A person with a past history of high cholesterol may not do well on a diet with more fat. One person might be able to exercise first thing in the morning, where another may have to plan to go to the gym after work to bank enough sleep.

  • Don’t be afraid to get some help

If you don’t have a degree in nutrition, you may not really know which habits are best for you as an individual. You also may not know what nutritional interventions are research-based vs. hype. Finally, you might be unclear on what healthy looks like for you when it comes to foods and patterns of eating. Don’t hesitate to consult with a dietitian, who will look at the total picture of you and then create an individualized plan. Anyone you go to should take into account your overall medical history, lifestyle, and personal goals.

Examples of meaningful lifestyle changes

Here are a few examples of meaningful lifestyle changes that have worked for some of my clients:

  • Consuming only 1 glass of alcohol on weekend days and abstaining from drinks during the week to reduce the risk of breast cancer
  • Doing yoga on the peloton app once a week to reduce stress
  • Making half of a plate vegetables at lunch and dinner to meet micronutrient needs and feel better
  • Removing junk food from the house to add more nutrient-dense foods to the diet
  • Meal prepping every Sunday so that there are always cut up veggies and meals that support good health
  • Walking to school to feel better and improve academic performance (exercise improves learning and memory)
  • Blocking workout times in a google calendar so exercise and self-care is a priority
  • Switching soda for sparkling water to reduce the likelihood of developing high blood sugar
  • Making a triathlon club bike session part of the weekly schedule to garner more social engagement and to get more exercise (exercise reduces adverse health events)
  • Having at least 50% of friend meet-ups be non-food related (this results in more exercise, which is beneficial to health)

Bottom line: lifestyle changes are more likely to last for the long haul.

With a 95-97% failure rate, it really doesn’t make sense to invest your energy in a fad diet. Those just aren’t good odds.

Instead, look at how you can become a happier and healthier version of yourself. Take inventory of your habits and systems. Then identify ways that you can feel better and healthier for the foreseeable future. Then incorporate those lifestyle changes.

Katie Elliott is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She is the founder of Elliott Performance and Nutrition, based in Aspen, Colorado. Katie works with clients nationwide via tele-health and provides counseling and exercise testing at Achieve Health and Performance.

Katie’s specialties include sports nutrition, nutrition for the prevention and treatment of disease, weight loss, and worksite wellness. She has coached athletes to several podium finishes as a Triathlon Coach.

In addition, Katie attended IMG Academies as a junior tennis player. She played Division I tennis at Davidson College. She has competed on numerous amateur world triathlon teams. Since 2004, Katie has won numerous overall amateur titles. She has been on 6 World Championship teams and has finished 2nd at two National Championships. Furthermore, Katie achieved a 6th place finish at the World Championship in her age group.

Contact her here: Katie Elliott, MS, RD.  Follow Katie on Instagram and Facebook:

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