It’s a new year. While fireworks light up in the sky and glasses of champagne are clinking, you look optimistically into the future. You feel strong and hopeful. You’re going to lose weight in the new year. And you’re sure that this time, you’ll make it to your goal.
Highly motivated, you start your diet the very next morning. No more pizza, no more beers, no more little treats. For a week or two, you cook every day. You try out new recipes and foods. You spend a lot of time in the kitchen – as well as at the gym. You suddenly workout multiple times per week, even if you don’t like it. But you have to make sacrifices, don’t you?
You lose some weight, but not as fast as you would like to. Meanwhile, you are constantly hungry and start missing your favourite foods. And your body feels sore and tired from all the workouts, but you force yourself to continue. Your friends invite you to a get-together at a restaurant, but you sadly decline, because the food there doesn’t match your diet.
Day by day, you get more miserable – until you inevitably get to the point where you’re ready to give up. Within a few days, you’ve gained everything back you’ve lost. You beat yourself up and feel like a failure. Until you try the next time.
Sounds familiar? A lot of weight loss attempts look like this. They’re frustrating and you might think at times that it is impossible to lose weight. But it really isn’t. It’s just that the road to success is littered with traps. If you know about them, it’s easier to carefully step around them. Here are 10 common reasons why diets fail and what you can do to avoid those pitfalls.
1. Unrealistic goals
Fad diets often come with unrealistic promises, like “Lose 10kg in 2 weeks!” Women’s magazines are especially notorious for this. But even people who don’t read those magazines often expect too much too soon. They are eager to lose those extra kilos, and they want results rather today than tomorrow. Which is understandable, but unfortunately not sustainable. Consequently, they go on overly restrictive diets that make them feel miserable and ready to quit.
However, sustainable weight loss takes time. It requires adopting and keeping a healthy lifestyle. This does not happen overnight. In fact, it is not recommended to change your whole lifestyle at once, as each change requires willpower and too many changes at once get overwhelming.
Instead, start with just one or two changes. Pick something you think you can easily repeat day after day. Then allow yourself some time to turn it into a habit, so you don’t have to rely on willpower any more to stick to it. Research has shown that it takes at least 21 days to form a new habit. Once you’re comfortable with your new habit, add something else. You might take a bit longer to see the scale move, but over time the changes add up and it will be much easier for you to keep the weight off once you’ve lost it.
Furthermore, people are often focused on a specific goal weight, and it can be very frustrating when the numbers on the scale don’t move. But your weight is affected by many different factors, not just by the amount of calories you ate the previous day. You might be holding water weight if you’ve eaten something high in carbs or sodium. Or you’ve just started a new type of exercise and your body is adapting to it and therefore holding on to some water. But also hormones can cause water retention. Maybe you’ve also gained some muscle – as muscle weighs more than fat, this can cause the number on the scale to stand still, too.
You see, there are many reasons why the scale won’t move for a while. Therefore focusing on a certain number and deeming everything else as failure is not helpful. Instead, look out for other indicators of progress. Have you successfully stuck to a new habit for a certain amount of time? Maybe you can lift more weight at the gym? Run for longer? Maybe your pants fit a little better? Or you look different in the mirror? All of these are alternatives to the scale that can show you you’re on the right track to success.
2. Lack of planning
Maybe you allow yourself plenty of time to get to your goal, but you’re not really sure how to get there. You generally resolve to move more and eat less, but you’re not clear about what this will concretely look like. Without a clear strategy, continuously working towards a goal can get challenging.
First, ask yourself what you are willing to do to lose weight and what not. There’s no point in completely giving up your favourite food or go to gym classes when you’d rather work out on your own. Based on that, map out a strategy with milestones and habit goals and lay down what you’d like to try out when.
When you set yourself a goal, make it a SMART goal. The acronym SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. Check every activity or change you’d like to try with the help of this acronym.
Let’s say, you’d like to eat 5 servings of fruits and veggies every day. It’s specific, as you say what you are going to add to your diet (“fruits and veggies”). You can make it even more specific if you come up with a list of fruits/veggies you like or would like to try. It’s definitely a measurable goal (“5 servings”). It’s attainable and realistic as it’s in line with general nutrition recommendations. It’s timely, too, as it’s clear when it will be done (“every day”).
Finally, it’s also a good idea to think of possible obstacles that might occur on your journey and come up with ways to address them.
3. Relying on willpower
Willpower is a finite resource. You can think of it like a budget. Each day, you only have a certain amount available for everything you do, not just weight loss. At some point, you’ll run low on it – be it because you’re tired, you’re having a tough day or for some other reason. That’s why you struggle so much if you’re trying to lose weight by relying on your willpower, and it’s what ultimately leads to giving up.
If you want to lose weight successfully, it is therefore crucial that you make the journey as easy as possible for yourself. It helps to introduce changes gradually to not overwhelm your willpower and to break big steps down into smaller ones to make them easier to accomplish.
Another way of sparing your willpower is changing your environment. Eliminate the things that consume your willpower from your immediate surroundings, so that you don’t have to “spend” it on them. On the flip side, make things that contribute to your goals more easily available.
4. All-or-nothing mindset
In the previous paragraphs I’ve pointed out that changing everything at once isn’t helpful. But even if you just focus on one or two changes, you might be aiming for perfection.
The truth is, you do not need to do everything “perfectly” at all times to lose weight. Aiming for perfection only creates too much restriction and causes you to feel deprived. Therefore, crash dieting so often leads to binge-eating.
Life happens. If you miss a training session or eat one unhealthy meal, it does not mean that you have failed. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just go back to your new healthy habits immediately afterwards.
Generally aim for making good, healthy choices, but allow yourself some leeway to enjoy the things you like in moderation – even during your weight loss journey.
5. Unbalanced eating
Many diets are based on cutting out certain foods or include specific calorie goals and the common “diet mentality” leads to demonizing groups of foods and a negative relationship with food overall. This, in turn, leads to an unbalanced way of eating.
As a result, people who are on a diet often feel unsatisfied and hungry. Sure, veggies are low in calories, but you won’t feel satisfied for long if you only eat vegetables and nothing else. Adding in some higher fibre starchy foods like wholemeal bread or brown rice, healthy foods high in fat like avocadoes or nuts, and an adequate amount of protein helps promote fullness and keep hunger away.
Eating enough protein furthermore helps you to prevent the loss of muscle mass when you’re eating at a calorie deficit. This is important, as muscle burns more calories than fat. The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn throughout the day, even if it’s a day you don’t exercise.
6. Secret eating
Another common pitfall many dieters stumble across is “secret” eating, or eating without remembering it later. If you know the TV show “Secret Eaters”, you know what I’m talking about.
People who fall into this trap might be convinced that their diet is healthy, as they eat several well thought-out, light main meals a day. But when they examine more closely what’s really going on, they find out that they forget about some of their daily intake. Whether it’s a bite at the supermarket, a slice of cake a co-worker brought into the office for her birthday, a fancy coffee drink or a beer with friends in the evening – all of these items contain calories. They are easy to forget, but they still count.
If you suspect that this might be you, try to keep notes about everything you eat and drink for the next 3 days. Write it down the minute you consume it. This allows you to see later if there are any items that you would have otherwise forgotten about.
7. Emotional eating
Do you tend to eat while you’re working or when you have to wait somewhere? Do you often feel like you deserve a “treat” after a stressful day or when you have done something you were scared of? Then you might be struggling with emotional eating. Emotional eating is the habit of using food as comfort and trying to medicate difficult feelings like boredom, stress, sadness and anxiety with “treats”.
If you’re prone to emotional eating, you experience cravings in difficult situations. When you give in to these strong urges to eat, you experience short moments of happiness, which numb the underlying difficult emotions.
The first step to change this is to gain awareness about it. Good ways to become more mindful are meditation or journaling. When you get hit by a craving, you can also ask yourself some targeted questions before reaching for food, for example: “What do I think/feel right now?”, “How’s life treating me at the moment?” and “Am I craving something specific or would I eat anything available right now?” The last question is helpful to separate mere cravings from actual hunger cues.
8. Underestimating portion sizes
In the last decades, plates and portion sizes have grown considerably. Restaurants offer bigger and bigger portions in an attempt to satisfy their customers who are demanding “their money’s worth”. And dinner plates from 50 years ago look small compared to the plates you can buy today.
You eat with your eyes, too. We fill up our plates, because we think we need to eat a full plate to feel full. With plates being bigger, this leads to eating more food overall. Thus, it’s a huge trap for weight gain.
You can avoid this trap, if you use a breakfast or salad plate instead, as they are smaller than dinner plates. Eat slowly and avoid second helping. If you eat at a restaurant that serves huge portions, but you don’t want to contribute to food waste, you can consider taking a small container with you and boxing a part of your meal to take it home. That way, you can enjoy the same delicious food the next day again without overeating.
9. Overestimating physical activity
This pitfall can show up in various forms. Maybe you have been very active in the past, but then you switched to an office job and over time your activity level in your free time decreased. Without you even realizing it, you became sedentary and the numbers on the scale started to rise.
Or you have already started to track your activity level with devices such as step counters or fitness trackers. You might also look at the display of your treadmill at the gym to get an idea of your calorie burn. What you might not take into account is that the calorie counts on many of these devices are inaccurate and tend to overestimate your calorie expenditure.
Perhaps you have also been overweight for a while or are not used to exercising. If that’s the case, many activities can feel hard, even though they don’t burn a lot of calories. This felt exhaustion can easily lead you to believe that you must have burned a lot, even if you haven’t.
Therefore, it can be a good idea to take a close look at your actual activity level from time to time, if you struggle to make progress, and adjust your strategy if needed.
10. Unsupportive environment
If the environment you live in is not health conscious, it can be hard to stick to weight loss goals. Perhaps your colleagues constantly bring in treats you find hard to resist. Or your family is not on board with your goals: Your partner might not want you to change, your kids might be picky eaters. Your loved ones might bring home foods you’d rather stay away from for a while. They might discourage or even sabotage you. Maybe it’s also your circle of friends in which most of the socializing activities revolve around food or drinking that makes it hard for you.
While it’s not impossible to lose unwanted extra kilos under these circumstances, they are an important obstacle to consider and take into account.
Sit down and think about potential strategies on how to deal with your environment. If there are likely tempting foods in your home, is there for example a way to make them less accessible to you?
It might be helpful to map out and practice crucial, yet difficult conversations with the people around you beforehand. Be specific about why your goal is so important to you.
Plan for social events in advance. For example, if you’re going to meet your friends for dinner at a restaurant, have a smaller, light lunch.
Finally, if you need further help to stay on track, it might be a good idea to hire a personal trainer or coach. Not only do they help you to stay accountable, they can also boost your motivation in tough moments and help you get even better results.
Eager to transform your life and turn into the most confident, healthy, best version of yourself? Book your appointment with Walnut Coaching.