May. 20. 2020
Health Conditions
Written By:
McKel (Hill) Kooienga
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped® and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

Have you thought about how many diets, detoxes, and plans you’ve tried in your lifetime?

When we have new clients in our Wellness Coaching practice or new students join The Method Membership, on average, they’ve tried three diets, plans, or trends prior to coming to see us for sustainable solutions.

And they’re not alone!

This is becoming increasingly more common with so much information online, new trends, and new quick-fix plans coming out weekly.

In this article, I’m diving into the 5 reasons why diets don’t work for most of us and what you could do instead to more mindfully care for your body and yourself.

Why Diets Don’t Work

Most dieting, for the sake of the example of reaching a societal ideal, includes calorie deprivation. When your body is calorie deprived, a few things may happen physically and mentally:

  • levels of leptin (the satiety hormone) decrease (1)
  • levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) increase (1) (2)
  • ability to burn calories decreases (3)
  • mentally dieters become fixated on food (4)
  • attention and focus leans towards anything related to food (5)
  • dieters may have improved smell function and report food tastes more pleasant (6) (7)
  • the metabolic effects of chronic dieting can last years later (8)

These changes lead to a variety of challenges that can prevent you from maintaining this way of eating for the long term. Let’s dive into what those are.

(It’s important to distinguish between dieting used as a tool to improve health conditions and dieting to reach a societal ideal which is not tied to a biological need to lose weight or improve health markers. Dieting can work as a temporary tool for those who need to improve certain health conditions and should always be done alongside a Registered Dietitian like those on my team.)


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

The first issue that comes up with diets, detoxes, and plans, which I’m sure many of you have experienced is that dieting can take the joy and pleasure out of the food experience.

Not only that, but research has shown those who are on strict or rigid diets become more fixated on food (4), have increased attention and focus leans towards anything related to food (5), and have improved smell function and report food tastes more pleasant (6) (7) all of which reinforces the power dieting can have over our bodies and brains.

If you know me, you’ve likely heard me say this before, and it’s worth repeating: food is more than nourishment. It’s tradition, culture, pleasure, and joy and it’s okay to celebrate the many roles food plays in our lives!

Every day, I cook meals that not only nourish my body but also make me so happy and filled with joy to experience.

I love being in the kitchen alone or cooking with my husband Jesse, trying new recipes and new ingredients and then sitting down together over a delicious meal (not always “Instagram worthy looking) and talking about our day and our plans for the future. It’s such a great time to connect.

Food is such a powerful way to bring nourishment and joy into our lives, but unfortunately, so many diets are really strict, rigid, and completely ignore this “life/joy” element and it can make you feel as if cooking is a chore, that you’re meals are unsatisfying (both on a hunger level and also an emotional level), cause you to view food only as a means to an end, or can cause you to “look forward to” the next time you “can” eat that food causing a lot of stress and mental energy focusing on what you should or shouldn’t eat.

Try this: focus on creating a positive experience around your meals.

This could be finding recipes that excite you to try or even simply eating at the table with your partner without any devices and talking about your day. It could be turning on music while you cook a meal for yourself or invite a friend over for a mini-pot luck night in.

Reframing food in this way can help you create a whole new appreciation for fueling your body with nourishment, love, and joy.

2. Short-Term Thinking — Start and Stop Mentality

The second reason why diets fail most people so often is the short-term thinking — the 21-day this, 30-day that — what are you supposed to do after that time period?

What these things fail to do is set you up for success 365 days a year.

Not only that, but from a psychological perspective, the negative metabolic effects of chronic dieting can last years later (8) such as levels of leptin (the satiety hormone) decrease (1), levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) increase (1) (2), and the ability to burn calories decreases (3).

But most of those diets out there are not given in this sense of long-term change.

They’re designed to try to get you a big result as quickly as possible (most of it being just about the aesthetic/before and after photo or weight loss only), but they often fail to then teach you how to integrate that into your life.

It’s unrealistic to think that you can or should follow such strict guidelines 365 days a year.

Try this: the switch you need to make with your health goals is moving from this short-term, one-size-fits-all thinking and instead, to making choices for yourself that you can realistically sustain for years. Ask yourself, can I do this every day? If not, don’t add it to your life.

Think about this — following a diet can be a lot of work. You need to learn the rules, buy the right ingredients, follow the meal plan, potentially skip on or work around your normal social outings, and so on.

And then you end up following that for, let’s say, 30 days.

Imagine what would happen if instead, you refocused all of that time and energy into learning a new skill or developing a habit that would last you much longer than that.

Maybe instead of following a trendy or popular diet, you simply focus your energy on cooking more at home to avoid microwave dinners or drive-thru runs.

Or focusing on consuming more water in between meals instead of soda or fruit juices. Or focusing on increasing the number of vegetables at every meal to increase the fiber in your diet to improve your gut health and balance blood sugars.

It’s these types of small practices and longer-term thinking that can give you the skills to navigate all 365 days of the year.

3. They Often Require You to Have Foods that Are Off-Limits

This goes hand-in-hand with reason number three that diets don’t work for everyone — you are asked to eliminate certain foods or food groups.

Oh boy, we’ve all been there, myself included. We’ve been so “good” on our diet, but then we go out to eat or go to a social gathering and are offered foods we “can’t have” which increasingly make us hyperaware, hypersensitive, and focused on that food choice.

And that can cause two unhealthy extremes: either isolating yourself from others to avoid that temptation or completely overindulging, sometimes even to the point of feeling sick. There’s absolutely a path where foods are on a shouldn’t consume list if you have food allergies, or intolerances for example, that you’ve discovered with your Registered Dietitian and you have a firm plan on how to navigate around that.

So here’s my tip: don’t follow guidelines that tell you to eliminate specific foods or food groups for the sake of losing weight or because someone on social media told you to because they do. If you feel like you may need that for health reasons, for example, if you’re noticing dairy really doesn’t sit well with you or if you have a specific condition and can’t eat certain foods, a registered dietitian can help you navigate that safely.

But eliminating foods for the sake of any goal you’re trying to achieve with this trendy diet can contribute to that yo-yo diet cycle of falling-off-the-bandwagon and dieting over and over again while you’re trying to find something that works and sticks with your lifestyle.

Instead, focus your energy on learning to feel comfortable around certain foods that you might typically overindulge on.

4. Diets Are One-Size-Fits-All — They Don’t Take Into Consideration Your Unique Body and Life

And that brings me to reason number four, which is that following a popular diet’s set of rules and guidelines doesn’t always align with your wants and needs and your unique life.

While it may seem easy to pick a diet and follow it, because you don’t have to think about anything, you end up following rules you think you “should” be doing, without actually evaluating what you need in your life and why.

This can make it very difficult for you to integrate into your life, it can cause you to feel drained of energy or feeling like you lack motivation. In addition, you’ve started to create a new “normal” of what you should or shouldn’t be doing that you may interpret that as being a long-term change, but in reality, it was originally designed to just be a short term change/fix.

Do this: jot down exactly what healthy looks like and feels like for you, and why you want those things in your life.

When you have that clarity, you will begin making decisions that align with your unique needs, rather than what someone else says.

5. They Ask You to Do Too Much All At Once, Making it Hard to Maintain

Lastly, diets often are structured in such a short time-frame that they ask you to make dozens of changes overnight. When there’s so much change all at once, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with it all.

Instead, shift to slowly building up your changes and habits over time, intentionally stacking one on top of another so they’re all study and building a solid foundation for yourself.

This means taking that wellness vision you have for yourself and breaking it down into tiny action steps for yourself. It’s not waking up tomorrow and trying to do everything all at once. It’s taking it one item at a time and really working through it until it’s easy and fully integrated into your life.

Then adding on the next habit.

We covered a lot in this video, but if there’s one thing I want you to take away, it’s that we all have unique lifestyles and bodies to honor but most diets, detoxes, or plans don’t take that into consideration.

Ditch the Scale and Measure Your Health in Other Ways

There are many ways to measure and reach your health goals without dieting — including ways to measure outcomes and success outside of the scale.

Some examples might include:

  • blood work/labs if you’re managing a certain health condition,
  • to be aware of how you’re feeling day-to-day,
  • better digestion,
  • feeling more confident,
  • expressing creativity and joy in your life,
  • honoring what your physical body allows you to do (i.e. give loved ones a hug, exercises, think, work, breathe, etc.)
  • eating free from distraction
  • less stress around food and food choices

Putting This Into Practice

By shifting your focus from these short-term fixes to long-term solutions that stem from what you need and want in your life, you can create a healthy lifestyle that’s maintainable 365 days a year, not just for 30 days. 

If shifting your mindset around this seems impossible, challenging, or really hard for you to do right now, you’re not alone.

One thing you can do when you feel your setting a goal that’s centered around your physical appearance is to simply observe your thoughts around it, call it out, and bring awareness to it. 

As soon as you start to shine a light on those old thought patterns and beliefs about the “all or nothing” mentality, the stronger you’ll become at intervening and taking an action that’s more aligned with how you want to eat and live.

If this message is resonating with you, grab my free guide for creating healthy eating habits without needing to follow a diet or plan. It walks you through a step-by-step process for eating well on a daily basis. 

Get Support for Your Goals

If your goal is to eat healthier, dieting isn’t the only approach. You can get a free exploration call with a Registered Dietitian on my team to discuss how you can achieve your goals without needing to diet so that the changes you make and the eating habits you create are maintainable 365 days a year.