• Do diets work?

There has been much talk in the fitness industry recently about the success rate of diets, with some voices stating that up to 95% of diets fail. My questions are, how accurate is this statement? What could be skewing the stats? Moreover, how do we help more people achieve their long term goals?

The definition of diet is fairly vague, and in its basic form, it relates to an individual's nutrition habits, i.e., the type and quantity of food routinely consumed. In this sense, we all have a diet, every human being from the overweight businessperson to the elite athlete. However, we do not discuss how successful the athlete's diet has been as this is just viewed as a constant part of that individual's lifestyle. Lifestyle change is difficult, so the fact is that in looking at those who are trying to make a change, disregarding those who have always implemented nutrition strategies successfully, we have already skewed the stats. We all know that there are healthy and unhealthy nutrition choices and that those who make more healthy nutrition choices (so long as they are made for the right reasons) will be healthier, so why is the success rate of diets in question?

The controversy around the topic stems from the fact that most of us are actually referring to behavioural change when we talk about diet nowadays. The term diet now relates to goal-oriented nutrition strategies, where we amend our nutritional behaviours to either lose weight, build muscle, or improve health and performance. Only once we apply this goal-oriented definition can we begin to discuss whether a diet has been successful. If a diet shifts us in the direction of our goals, it is successful; if not, it has failed, right?

When it comes to making short-term changes, most people will find that they will see some positive change so long as they stick to any diet protocol. It is important to note that different people will respond to nutritional strategies in different ways and that this may change based on a whole array of circumstances. However, once you have established which process is right for you, you will see some improvement so long as you are committed.

So why do people say diets do not work?

The criticism of diet strategies comes down to many factors, but I am going to highlight the three key categories I see.

  • Adherence: People struggle to stick with diets, normally because they look to make changes that are too drastic, fail to adjust their lifestyle in a way that allows them to maintain these changes, or strive for perfection, viewing a slip up as an outright failure. As a result, people give up before a strategy takes effect.
  • Rebounds: People complete their diet intervention, achieve the result they wanted, but then due to a lack of further direction, return to previous habits, and lose the results of their hard work, often ending up in a worse position than where they started.
  • Obsession:People follow a diet plan perfectly, but to the point that it interferes in other areas of their lives, consuming their thoughts, which is often more harmful than the initial state they found themselves in.

All of these concerns are valid, but with careful planning can be mitigated against.

So, how do we make sure our diets are successful?

  • Set powerful goals, not just for the journey, but for what comes next: The fact is that lifestyle change is difficult, it involves sacrifice, so the goal has to be inspiring enough to be worth making those sacrifices for. This will help us to ensure adherence, and perhaps more importantly, maintain our results. We must paint a picture of what our lives will look like once this goal has been achieved, what we will be able to do, what new hobbies we will have, etc. This is important, as instead of feeling as though we are cutting things from our lives, we focus on moving towards something positive and building things into our lives.
  • Take things slowly: When we are trying to change our nutritional behaviours, it requires a fundamental shift in how we live to ensure that we build a foundation that allows us to become the person we want to be. There are times when more drastic changes are necessary; however, my recommendation is that in most cases, this should be done slowly, making small adjustments that help us to move forwards without being overwhelming.
  • Allow room for flexibility: You are committing to making long-term changes, and in truth, a successful 'diet' is one that redesigns your lifestyle. However, this needs to come with the understanding that all progress comes in waves. As human beings, we require flexibility, an understanding that we do not have control over every variable, and that at times we will deviate from a path. That is ok. Long term results are about the sum of our decisions over time; when we look at our nutrition choices over a year, a meal out for a family dinner will not hurt us long term. It is only when the vast majority of our decisions for an extended timeframe do not align with our goals that we need to reflect on this. Is it simply a matter of getting back on the wagon, or do we need to review our goals?
  • Build a nutrition toolbox:A final note I would like to make comes down to the role of short term diet strategies. Each of these strategies serves a purpose and can be a useful tool on our journey. In training programming, we will often build a long term plan around a series of cycles, with different focus points at different times. We can similarly look at nutrition, utilising different nutrition strategies at different points to support our long term progress.
  • Reevaluate success: The success of a good nutrition plan is not the result you see following a short term intervention, but the value that this brings to your life in the long term.

Posted in Nutrition on Dec 08, 2020