January 12

Why Diets Don’t Work… and What Does

It’s January, a.k.a. National Dieting month after enjoying our festive indulgences. Think back to the last time you went on a weight loss diet. Maybe you’re thinking of starting one right now and this post caught your eye.

Well, before you do, please stop and ask yourself – Did you lose the weight permanently? Did you feel balanced and satisfied? Or did you gain it all back again and then some once you went "back to normal"? You are not alone, the majority of people experience rebound weight gain. (2007 study)

Before you embark on a diet, I want to delve into why dieting works directly against our biology, psychology and our inborn need for pleasure. I'll tell you what to focus your precious time and energy on instead to more mindfully care for your body and get off the diet roller-coaster.

For lifelong weight loss, lose the diet.

"Diet" can mean different things. It can mean "the customary food and drink of a culture, a person, or an animal". There are also diets prescribed for medical reasons, like the DASH diet, the FODMAP diet or a diet to control diabetes. These are necessary tool for those who need to improve specific health conditions and should always be undertaken with the guidance of a Registered Dietitian. The kind of diet that I'm referring to in this post is "a temporary and highly restrictive programme of eating in order to lose weight".

Diets Lower Your Metabolism

Luckily for us (yes!), our bodies evolved to conserve fat and do not like to sustain significant weight loss for an extended period of time. This is protection against death by starvation as our ancestors had to hunt for food and survive famines. Remember, this is a good thing, if our ancestors couldn't survive food shortages, we wouldn't be here. This protection is still within our DNA.

To lose bodyfat, you need to burn more calories than you consume, but overdoing a caloric deficit will lower your metabolism (2006 study). It is often touted that adults require at least 1,200 calories per day for basic bodily functions and to stay out of this starvation mode, but that amount is actually too low to maintain long term.

The metabolic effects of chronic dieting can last years later (8). Consider the Biggest Loser Study, published in 2016. Six years after being after the show, the mean decrease in metabolism for 14 of the participants was nearly 500 calories a day! With those who lost the most weight, and maintained the loss having the lowest metabolism! 

Low calorie diets generally cause a person to lose lean muscle mass. The more lean mass we have, the higher our metabolism. So, harsh dieting not only makes it harder to lose weight due to our body's innate protection but post diet, our reduced metabolism due to lost muscle mass makes it much easier to regain bodyfat and as we are down lean mass, if we reach the exact same weight as just before the diet, we are actually fatter overall! (study)

When you are aiming to lose weight, in order for this to be from your bodyfat stores rather than muscle mass, don't go overboard with the calorie deficit, eat enough protein for your body's needs and add in some resistance training such as Pilates or weights. (study)

Dieting Increases Your Hunger Cues

Have you ever wondered why you can't stop thinking about your favourite foods once you begin your diet? I always had. Weight loss through dieting causes levels of leptin (the satiety hormone) to decrease (1). At the same time, it causes levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) to increase (1) (2). One study found that for every two pounds you lose, your body will try to get you to eat 100 more calories than usual. The steeper the caloric restriction, the higher the levels of these hormones.

Dieting also increases another hormone called cortisol, our stress hormone. Increased cortisol levels are linked to overeating and can also cause your insulin levels to rise and blood sugar to drop, making you crave sugary, fatty foods. Cortisol also stimulates fat cells to grow and mature, particularly the fat cells around the organs (called visceral fat). This visceral fat is associated with a higher risk of metabolic complications such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. As well as increasing your waistline.

And if you have ever wondered why carbs are especially tempting, your brain secretes neuropeptide Y (NPY) when you’re not getting enough calories and/or carbohydrates (your brain’s primary source of fuel). NPY increases your motivation to eat, delays satiety and simulates food intake with a preference for carbs. Because it delays satiety, we can eat a lot of carbs at once, which can feel like a binge/lack of control. Not only that dieters have improved smell function and report food tastes more pleasant (6) (7).

These biological responses to deprivation (in order to keep us alive and well) are not what diet culture tells us. The prevalent message is "no pain, no gain", that you just have to have the willpower (which is fuelled by carbs by the way) and puts you in a constant battle with your body for not being “good enough”. This is so unfair and leaves you feeling as though weight loss and better health is a huge uphill battle.

My takeaway message from these first two points are that it isn't some personal flaw that you can't stick to a diet. This is supposed to happen when our protection kicks in. You’re in a constant push-pull between wanting to lose weight and your body trying to maintain it's homeostasis.

All or Nothing Mentality vs. Embracing Sustainable Change

Which brings me to my own top reason why I dislike restrictive diets for weight-loss. All or Nothing Mentality!

It is hard to fathom changing our eating and lifestyle habits for good. For a few weeks, though? 21-day this, 30-day that, sounds doable. The problem is these short term plans/diets encourage an all or nothing mentality. You’re either doing the most you possibly can to be healthy (the "perfect" diet), or you’re doing nothing at all (back to the unhealthy eating patterns that caused your weight gain in the first place). 

This is the beginning of "yo-yo dieting," which takes you further from finding a balanced approach to eating you can live with and enjoy. Unfortunately, “yo-yo dieting” (losing weight, gaining weight, repeat), is actually more damaging to our health than just staying at a higher weight. One research article that reviewed 25 studies on dieting concluded that dieting is actually a predictor of weight gain.

Try this: Expand your focus beyond the next few months. Where would you like to be a few years from now, weight-wise? Do you want to be fit and strong, or do you want to still be stuck in the yo yo dieting cycle? Now ask yourself what would help you achieve that desire. The "right" diet, or permanent, gradual lifestyle changes?

Diets Don’t Take Into Consideration Your Unique Body and Life

As individuals, we have different genetic makeups, ages, sexes and health statuses. We work differently, we exercise differently, we sleep differently. And yes, we all eat differently. When you follow a one-size-fits-all diet with a fixed set of rules, it doesn't take your unique life or where you are in your life into consideration. 

It does seem easier to just pick a diet and follow it. This takes away the mental load of deciding each day what you will eat. However, it adds stress if these choices (made by someone else) don't align with your needs. Instead you must to evaluate the habits you do need in your life and why. Each healthful habit should fully integrate into your life with ease.

Try this, when you are considering making a change in order to improve your health, ask yourself, can I realistically sustain this for years, not weeks? If not, don’t add it to your life. How much more motivated will you be if you think, "yes! I can sustain this habit long term". You will gladly give energy to making it a part of your own healthy lifestyle.

Diets Don't Address the REAL Reasons Why You Gained Weight

Simply focusing on the food we ingest does not necessarily create long lasting change, because it doesn’t touch on the deep rooted beliefs, patterns, and behaviours that inform our food choices and eating habits in the first place. We must touch upon “why,” we keep reaching for foods that diminish our energy and health, otherwise we remain stuck working only on the surface level. 

Maybe you eat for emotional reasons and you need to learn healthier ways to soothe yourself. Maybe your whole family has poor eating habits, so you'll need to look outside your family to learn healthier habits. Maybe you feel safer as an overweight person so you keep sabotaging your efforts to lose weight. Maybe you are labouring under limiting beliefs that prevent you from making permanent lifestyle changes.

For some people, therapy might be a prerequisite to healthy weight loss—it could help them identify the feelings and situations behind emotional over-eating and replace that with healthier self-care patterns. This will not only benefit them nutritionally but emotionally they will be much better off.

Long lasting change comes from the inside, exploring why we eat and where our eating habits come from and the mindset that we bring to the table.

Read More about Mindset: Positive Affirmations for Weight Loss and Health

Dieting can take the joy and pleasure out of the food experience

Many mainstream diets, detoxes and plans often require constant tracking of food on a day-to-day basis. Following the plan, counting calories, adding up macros, or measuring every gram of food you eat not only preoccupies you with your food choices but quickly diminishes the satisfaction from becoming healthier and saps the joy out of mealtimes with family and/or friends.

Food is not only a means to an end and something we must control. Food plays many amazing roles in our lives like tradition, culture and celebration! It is such a powerful way to bring nourishment into our lives, of course nutritionally but also socially.

Unfortunately, so many diets don't include this and meals become unsatisfying and cooking a chore. You “look forward to” that meal when you let go of focusing on what you should or shouldn't eat and simply enjoy it! If you are not enjoying what you are eating, then weight loss will be like the battle so many believe it to be.

Try creating a positive experience around your meals. This could be trying out new recipes and nourishing ingredients that excite you, turning on music while you cook (my favourite). It could be eating at a beautifully set table, eating without any devices and connecting with your loved ones. Inviting friends over to keep you company while you cook and then enjoying that healthy meal together.

Reframing food as something to explore and appreciate instead of restrict can create a more positive relationship and ease around eating. Over time you will find meals to cook which suit your own tastes and cravings, cooking abilities, motivation, and time available. You will form your own meal plan that’s colourful, delicious and diverse that not only nourishes your body but also fills you with joy to experience.

Remember, food is far more than just nourishment for our cells!

Diets Don't Focus on Deep Health

Most weight loss diets don't focus on what's REALLY important - good long term health! They’re designed to try to get you a big result as quickly as possible (for the before and after photo), instead of building your health for the rest of your life.

In general, if you get anything out of this post, it’s to stop focusing only on weight loss in terms of your diet and lifestyle. When you feel your setting a health goal that’s centred around your physical appearance, check in with yourself about your intentions and where they originate from. Consider other ways to measure success outside of the scale. For example, better digestion, deeper sleep, feeling more confident, less stress, better concentration, being and feeling stronger, feeling happier and being more present day-to-day.

There is so much evidence that shows us that focusing on health behaviours like eating more fruits and vegetables, balancing blood sugar, exercising, and reducing stress actually have a significant impact on reducing risk factors for chronic disease, regardless of whether or not you lose weight.

So, What Should You Do Instead of Dieting?

Permanent weight loss requires permanent healthy lifestyle changes, not restrictive dieting! When you make the lifelong commitment to taking really good care of your body with everyday nutritious, pleasurable eating coupled with regular enjoyable exercise, you will naturally lose weight and free yourself from the endless cycle of dieting. I can confidently say, to get in shape once and for all, you have to do things simpler than you expect, for longer than you expect.

Break it Down

Jot down exactly what healthy looks like and feels like for you, and why you want this for your life. Which healthful habits will help you reach this wellness vision you have for yourself? When you have this clarity, it becomes much easier to decide if a habit you want to create is something which aligns with your own unique needs and desires.

Next, imagine what would happen if you refocused all of your time and energy into developing one of those healthy habits. Really working through it until it’s easy and fully integrated into your life. Then, adding on the next healthy habit. Slowly building up your changes and habits over time, intentionally stacking them one on top of another and building a solid wellness foundation for yourself.

When you begin this long term approach with gradual lifestyle changes you'll not only realise how much easier and sustainable it is compared to diets, you'll notice that this really WORKS! You will learn the skills needed to lose weight and keep it off, improve your health in many ways and you will break free from the diet mindset.

I hope you will be more empowered to make decisions that feel healthy for you. But if you are thinking, "I don't know what those healthy habits are!" There are some suggestions below to get you started. And if you need further help after reading through those, you don’t have to do it alone...

Get Support in Creating Healthy Habits

If you are ready to break the diet cycle once and for all, I am currently taking clients in my Vitality Nutrition Habit Transformation Programme which starts on May 1st! I still have a few spots left.

This programme focuses on creating lasting change and a deep sense of well-being. You will learn liveable and practical skills to create sustainable healthy habits that fit with your life! It’s a game changer.

There are plenty of ways that we can connect to and enjoy our bodies that have nothing to do with restrictive dieting and compulsive exercising.

Start by Losing Weight Slowly

Slow weight loss is much more sustainable and your body prefers this to steep calorie restriction. Instead of thinking about how to eat as little as possible to lose bodyfat as quickly as possible, instead, reframe this as, eating as much as possible while still maintaining your caloric deficit, until you are ready to maintain your weight.

Eat plenty of foods that support and nurture your body (lots of vitamins and minerals) but that also taste great and leave your taste buds satisfied. Learn the serving size which leaves you satisfied rather than overfull or still looking for more. Never deprive yourself; but DO moderate your intake of foods that you might typically overindulge on.

Practice Mindfulness While Eating

Picture this: You’re sitting in front of the TV with a takeaway you could spread over two meals. You’re fully engrossed in whatever you’re watching and before you know it, you’ve mindlessly cleared your plate and you feel so full! Familiar?

To avoid unintentionally overeating, try practicing mindful eating. Maybe you’ve heard of mindfulness, but don’t know what it looks like in practice. You don't need to go on a retreat to learn it. Mindfulness is simply practicing being in the present moment. Tuning in to our five senses, in particular our smell, taste, touch and the visual appeal of our food really turns the act of eating into a really pleasant experience.

This also encourages you to listen to your body and follow your innate hunger and fullness cues and signals so you can stop eating when you feel full. Save those leftovers for a tasty lunch tomorrow!

Keep Moving Throughout Your Day

Build physical activity into your day so it's second nature. The idea is to minimise sedentary time. Reduce how much TV you watch (or any other electronics that encourage you to sit for hours at a time) and look for ways to be active throughout your day. You may find a pedometer motivating. It can give you a good feeling when you see how many steps a day you have taken. 

Change the Way You Think About Exercise

Exercise doesn't just burn extra calories; it also weakens your body's desire to regain the weight. Researchers don't understand all the mechanisms behind this but believe working out may encourage the body to become more sensitive to leptin so you don't feel as hungry. 

I believe the key to exercise is finding what you enjoy, how much intensity you can currently recover from, and how much you can realistically fit into your schedule. Exercise doesn’t have to be associated with calories and weight loss. You can find motivation in improving your health, resistance training increases bone density, cardio improves your heart health. Or simply be one of many ways to enjoy your body.

I move my body because it feels good and I enjoy the exercise that I do. I look forward to it. Try removing “should” or “have to.” with "want to" when you think of an exercise until you find the right one for you. This replaces dread with a excitement for movement that can make physical activity a regular, enjoyable part of your life.

Stay Hydrated

Consistently drinking water is one of the best things you can do for your health. In addition to keeping your skin plump and your energy up, staying hydrated makes you feel full (per a 2015 study from the University of Oxford). Mild dehydration is often masked as feelings of hunger, when really your body just needs fluids. If you feel hungry, and you haven't drank much that day, try drinking a glass of water and waiting 15 to 20 minutes to see if your hunger subsides.

Manage Stress

Research has shown that stress is associated with overweight and obesity. You might eat more, sleep less, experience fatigue more often, and exercise less when you are under stress. Studies have also shown that a stress-reduction program can make a weight loss program more effective. Consider using stress reduction methods like deep breathing, meditation or mind-body methods like Pilates.

Get Enough Sleep

Did you know that short sleep duration is associated with a modest increase in future weight gain and obesity? Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can increase hunger and cravings, as well as cause weight gain by messing with levels of the hormones ghrelin and leptin. 

Trust the Process

You are much wiser and stronger than you think, and you are perfectly capable of taking charge of your habits and changing your lifestyle for good and making decisions which benefit you today and for your future. I know you are wise enough to know that maintaining every habit all of the time is impossible, unless it is your full time job perhaps.

Try not to be disheartened when you are derailed. It is guaranteed to happen. Family events, both positive or negative, going on holidays, becoming super busy at work, those early years with young children can be hectic, recovering from a virus, PMS and upsets with family and friends can throw us out of our usual routines. So they will definitely have a bigger impact when we are trying to subtly improve those routines.

It is important to treat yourself with kindness when you are struggling to keep up with your healthy habits during these times. Just do what you can, be selective if possible. Maybe you have to focus on sleep. Maybe just hydration. What you think will help the most and then you will get back to the rest.

Coping with complications is the biggest skill you will learn and you can only learn by living your healthy lifestyle.


Remember me if you want a programme to follow to get you started with lifestyle change.

Meet Emma

Hi, I am Emma McAtasney, a NCEHS Personal Trainer since 2009. I earned my Pilates credentials through BASI Pilates, a highly respected college-level Pilates teacher training programme which aim is to create and maintain professional standards for the teaching of the Pilates Method to the highest calibre.


In addition, I am a prenatal and postnatal exercise specialist, nutritionist and founder of a boutique Pilates studio in Dundalk, Ireland.


I help my clients eat healthier, ditch fad diets and lose weight for good by guiding them to make small manageable changes that long term have a huge impact on their quality of life!

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