Fit to practice: Why diets don't work

Don't set yourself up for failure. Here are some simple tips to help you stay on track.
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Jul 02, 2012
As you venture outside this summer, it’s easy to see the results of people’s wintertime habits. People who wear total body cover-ups despite 95-degree temperatures, guys who never take their shirts off while lounging around the pool, and folks who help themselves to another burger off the grill—potbellies and muffin tops are on display like a farmer’s market of pale flesh. So why do we fail so miserably at dieting? Why can’t we change our unhealthy habits? Studies show that about 90 percent of dieters fail to maintain weight loss for five years or more. Why? After all, it seems pretty simple: eat less and exercise more.

The reason we fail to sustain (or even undertake) any type of change in our lives boils down to two main reasons, Here’s why you struggle to stay healthy and some simple tips to reverse your course.

If it’s too big, we fail
The reason most diets and other life changes fail to stick is because we make them too big. Most people make goals that are so humongous they have little chance to succeed. So a person that needs to drop 50 or 100 pounds looks at that number and gives up before he or she even starts. Chances are the person has had previous failures throughout life that have taught him or her that this is a big mistake, it’ll never work, and so on. So whatever the goal or challenge, if it’s too big and you lack the confidence to try, you’ve chosen the wrong goal. If you take on a health goal, it should be so easy that you say, “Anyone can do that.”

On a confidence scale, anything less than a nine out of 10 is too big. Start by setting a goal of exercising for 10 minutes a day or eating one healthy meal. Vow to eat a bag of carrots during at dinner. Drink one bottle of water every day. Remember you’re looking to interject change into your already super-crazy life, so it’s got to be easy to stick. Starting off by committing to exercising 30 minutes a day is often way too much for someone who hasn’t been exercising at all. And that leads me to willpower.

Infinite will power
Some individuals I encounter are those who are brimming with self confidence. The bigger the challenge, the more excited they become. They think they’re tough enough and can power through any hardship. “Bring it on! You want me to fast for a week, no problem! I’ve got enough willpower to handle anything you can throw at me.” And that’s their first mistake, and the one that most often dooms over 90 percent of them. Willpower is a resource like any other—we only have so much. After you deplete your reserves of willpower, fatigue sets in and you reach for the cookie.

The problem is we deplete willpower constantly: we hold back a snarky response to the client who wants to consult with their pet’s chiropractor before allowing you to run recommended blood tests, we maintain our composure after our technician throws out the blood sample from the feline venipuncture patient from Hades, and we bite our tongue when our spouse asks, “Is that what we’re eating for dinner?” All of these tiny, constant, real-life willpower withdrawals steadily empty the account and eventually we find ourselves saying, “Forget it,” and we reach for the tub of ice cream at the end of a harried day. You’ve become willpower bankrupt.

The good news is that you can also make deposits to your willpower reserve. Participate in activities that bring you joy and satisfaction to restore resolve. Weight loss and health isn’t about starvation or deprivation. If it’s not enjoyable, it’s not sustainable. At some point you give up. Life is about finding joy and pursuing things you enjoy, not a life of continual constraint and denial. Set a goal of making at least one deposit into your willpower account each day. Simple acts can provide significant results. Dig deep and discover the things that bring you joy and do one daily. It can be as easy as reading, listening to music, watching the sunset or stars, whatever. Find joy and you’ll find the power to change your life.

There are two additional factors that make dieting in particular more difficult and why I’m not a fan of diets in general.

Binge-restrict cycle
Many people trying to lose weight by eating less mistakenly blame their lack of willpower for the constant cravings and internal pressure to eat calorically dense foods. Anyone who’s tried cutting back on eating for more than a few days has experienced it: doughnut shops, bakeries, and fast food joints begin appearing everywhere. These signals are originating from the body, and evolution has taught what it takes to survive—plenty of food. Try to bypass that hardwired system and you will encounter pain and suffering. Don’t blame the brain—blame the body.

When the body is deprived of calories and food, especially energy-dense nutrients such as carbohydrates, some funny behaviors occur. Scientists first observed this in lab rodents. When they withheld food for several days, the rats ran on the cage wheels—all the time. This is known as food-seeking behavior and because the rats couldn’t leave the confines of their cages, they did the next best thing: ran on their wheels until they were exhausted. Binging after restriction is an evolutionary behavioral cycle that is pretty tough to resist. Eventually, nature wins. That makes most diets tough to sustain.

Loss of lean muscle When people undertake unhealthy or ineffective diets, especially those very low in calories and/or protein, the body begins to bleed lean muscle. Our bodies don’t like that. To counter loss of muscle, the body begins to reduce its metabolism and your energy levels sag. You suddenly feel tired, lose the capacity to work, and pretty soon you grab a handful (or 10) of chips and you feel better. Whatever you do, especially if you’re in your 30s or 40s, don’t sacrifice lean muscle mass in pursuit of a weight target.

As you enter your 30s, you begin to slowly lose lean muscle mass due to mainly hormonal changes. Preserve what you’ve got because that’s what’s going to keep you from breaking a hip in your 80s. Functional strength is a skill that we all need to work on in order to retain our independence as we journey down life’s road.

Next month I’m going to bust a few more weight loss myths and give you the essential nutritional and eating habits you need to create a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. It’s far easier than you think and requires little effort.