Why Diets Fail: or, Why so Many Yo-yo Diet, Why Mother Nature is Unfair, and Why It’s Not Your Fault


Diets almost always fail because they make you hungry, depressed, and prime your body to regain body fat at a lower caloric level than your pre-diet basal metabolic needs required once normal eating resumes (even with only moderate caloric restriction).  Hence, most people on these diets “yo-yo” between a lower weight and an ever-higher body weight because eating less than the body requires (“semi-starvation”) triggers an abnormal hormonal environment (study) that leads to the inevitable regain of lost fat mass when any form of “normal” eating is resumed (see Lustig video here).   Researchers refer to this as “poststarvation body fat overshooting” and was experienced by, to name one well known, very-strong willed individual, Christian Bale in his efforts to regain weight between “The Machinist” and “Batman Begins” (the reason I say “strong-willed” will become apparent later).

Therefore, if a 6 foot 200 pound man who just dropped 50 pounds eats the same amount of food as a visibly similar 6 foot 200 lb. man who never dieted, the former dieter will get obese again while the lean man will stay lean.  Mother Nature is cruel.  And for the very, very small minority of obese people who successfully lose weight and keep it off, they must starve themselves, literally forever, if they are to remain at their lower weight.  Almost no one can do this.

This means that diets might actually be counter-productive when it comes to body fat loss  and lead to greater weight gain over time .  Yikes.

Unabridged Post:

Whether you’re carrying a few extra pounds, have a “muffin top,” or are so fat that your corpse causes a crematorium to overheat, when you talk to your physician, read a magazine, watch the news, or talk to your cousin who just got their dietitian’s license, you’ll hear the same mantra: you are fat because you eat too much and move too little.  This statement is considered sacrosanct by the top health authorities around the US and the globe (including, but not limited to: the WHO, NIH, CDC, The US Surgeon General, AHA, “Biggest Loser” trainer, Jillian Michaels[ii],[iii],[v],[vi],[vii],[viii]    

They’ll then tell you to “eat less and move more” — as if you hadn’t thought of this.  Do they honestly believe that you, after years and possibly decades of trying to reduce your adiposity, hadn’t actually heard this advice and tried it?!   After all, who wants to be fat in a society that equates obesity with a lack of willpower, maturity, intelligence, class…?  The fact that you, the fat person, know what to do yet cannot do it, means that lean people judge you as “triply” weak and lazy: 1) you got fat so are weak and lazy 2) you know how to get thin yet cannot so are doubly weak and lazy 3) even if you lose weight, you were once fat so are weaker and lazier than a person of similar weight who was never obese.  In reference to #3, obese people who lose weight are even judged, at least in one study, to be less-attractive than people of the same weight/height who never were obese.  This anti-obesity stigma may depend upon which culture we’re looking at as anti-obese stigmas may be stronger in white populations than black populations, at lease in regards to female obesity (obesity).

So you try to lose weight again.  You then go off and buy some running shoes, join a gym, start a bootcamp session, and start counting calories and eating carrots and cottage cheese for breakfast and skinless chicken breast with spinach for dinner for 3 months.

You lose 20-30 pounds. Your clothes fit better.  You’re proud of your accomplishments and people applaud your efforts (usually in a condescending fashion, as if you’re a kid who learned toilet training – and the amount of condescension is probably directly related to how fat you were prior to your efforts).

However, the fact remains that, despite your weight loss, you’re hungry all the time, likely lethargic, , and your libido might dip (if you’re a male, quite literally – pun intended).

You reach your goal weight and consciously or unconsciously decide to reward yourself (and quell the ever-present hunger) by eating like your lean counterparts.  Before you know it, you’ve gained all the weight back.

But HOW!?

Caloric-restriction, i.e. eating less than your body requires for daily metabolic needs, drives the body to enter “starvation mode,” a lovely state of hormonal disorder that includes lowered metabolic rate, hunger, lethargy, depression, low libido, and an ever-present obsession with food.  Secondly, entering this state means that the fat tissue is likely re-regulated to regain its fat stores at a lower caloric level (whether this regulation occurs at the level of the brain’s hypothalmus or the fat tissue itself, is debated).

The sad state of affairs is that the advice to “eat-less and move more” has been ubiqutous for decades (see USDA Dietary Guidelines from 19802010) and yet obviously does not work as we’re still in the midst of an ever-worsening obesity epidemic that is affecting all ages and genders in our nation.

If eating less and moving more does not generate long-term weight loss (and, of more importance, metabolic health, which is the main point of obesity prevention and treatment), then it needs to be abandoned in favor of a better, more effective hypothesis.

What might this hypothesis be?  I’m not sure.  Perhaps it’s all about reducing circulating insulin levels to access our stored fat for fuel (see Peter Attia video).?  Maybe it’s about reducing the palatability of foods to reduce over-consumption(see Stephen Guyenet)?

I think the first step would be to reduce sugary drink consumption through high taxation, restriction on sales in schools, hospitals, etc., and massive education campaigns (see Lustig article and video).

What do you think?  Feel free to comment below or send me  a message.


[ii] WHO. (2011). “Media centre: Obesity and overweight.” Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/.

[iii] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Overweight and Obesity: Defining Overweight and Obesity. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/causes/index.html

[iv] American Heart Association. (May 5, 2011). “Obesity Information.” Retrieved from: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/WeightManagement/Obesity/Obesity-Information_UCM_307908_Article.jsp#.T0e_ZPF5F8E.

[vi] NIH, NHBLI. (Nov. 1, 2010). “What Causes Overweight and Obesity?” Retrieved from: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/obe/causes.html.

[vii] US Dept of HHS, US Public Health Service. (2010). “The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation.” Retrieved from: http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/obesityvision/obesityvision2010.pdf.

[viii] National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health. (2012). “Balance Food and Activity: What is Energy Balance?” Retrieved from: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/wecan/healthy-weight-basics/balance.htm


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