04/17/2014 06:28 EDT | Updated 06/18/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Diet Plans Don't Work

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For the longest time I was more than happy to design diet plans for people who came to me looking to lose weight. I thought it was the right thing to do -- they wanted to lose weight and I knew the nutritional value of foods and the "right" amounts to eat, so it seemed logical;. A+B=C. Well as much as I hate to admit it, my diet plans rarely worked. There are countless excuses for this, but there are also few powerful and universal reasons why these types of plans don't work.

Too much change, too soon

When people come to me with the desire to lose weight, I know they want to change -- they wouldn't be reaching out to me if they didn't have any motivation. But what I've learned is that you can't simply overhaul someone's diet overnight and expect their entire lives to change to make this new plan feasible. We all have social lives, food preferences, stress, and a plethora of other attributes that make us all unique. Furthermore, eating is a complex behaviour that can become an addiction just like any other. Much like an alcoholic can go to rehab and get clean, only to relapse once back in an old familiar environment, addictive eaters can fall back into old habits once they are either alone and away from their support network or out with others who catalyze unhealthy eating behaviours. It's not always a people-problem but instead an environment-problem. A smoker may say "I only smoke when I drink", which is the same as an addictive-eater saying "I only overeat when I'm out with friends." I don't care how you slice it, there's still a problem.

So does it really make sense to give someone addicted to unhealthy eating a healthy diet plan? Would you give an alcoholic a "drink plan"?:

Morning: 1 bottle of beer

Afternoon: 1 glass of wine

Evening: 1 shot of liquor

No. That wouldn't make any sense at all! Why would we expect this person to stop after one drink when their thirst would far exceed the amounts recommended in the plan? Is this any crazier than telling someone that all they can eat is chicken and broccoli? Just because we have the knowledge that something is healthy doesn't mean we will execute a healthy plan accordingly.

Precision Nutrition recently released a great article on this exact topic. They see the same things that I do:

Person gets diet plan. Starts diet plan with motivation and drive. Gets hungry. Snacks on a little something on the side. Goes out for dinner. Has a little extra for dinner. Gets hungry before bed. Raids refrigerator. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The problem with humans is that we only have a limited amount of will power. Studies have shown that will power is much like a muscle -- you can only work it so hard until it is exhausted. Once our will power is tired, emotion and comfort take over, and they are more than happy to help you break your plan (and a weakened will power will start to rationalize the decision).

But even with a good plan and good intentions, sticking to a healthy diet can be difficult. There is an infinite stream of information out there on how to eat a healthy diet. Whole grains or low-carb? Paleo or vegetarianism? Fruits contain sugar so they should be avoided right? This is where people spin their wheels, get frustrated, and fall back into old habits. What may seem like laziness or a lack of will power is simply a lack of clarity and direction.

So if diet plans don't work, what does?

We are impatient by nature which is why a full-throttle diet overhaul seems like a great choice. People always want the quick and easy. Unfortunately, we are not wired to support such a plan. For this reason, when it comes to sustainable weight loss, a behaviour-based diet and lifestyle plan makes the most sense. How?

Take on one change at a time. The trick here is to find your limiting factors. We can all haphazardly select behaviors to change, but will that change help lead you towards your weight loss goals? The key is to look at your current diet and lifestyle and to, one at a time, change the behaviors that are preventing you from losing weight. Examples of some common starting-point limiting factors include:

- Not enough protein in the diet; plan to prioritize protein at every meal

- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies (not enough fruits and veggies?). Take a multivitamin

- Dehydration. Get a water bottle and drink at least 2 L of water every day

- Sleep deficiency. Prioritize at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night

- Lack of exercise. Prioritize adding 30 minutes of exercise each day

You may look at these and fail to see the connection to weight loss, but you'd be surprised. If the human body isn't functioning properly, weight loss won't be a priority. The key is to get the body up and running and from there the subsequent behaviour changes can be more specifically geared towards weight loss. However, making a few of the changes above can lead to promising results, and at the very least will set you up for future success.

With this blueprint in mind, make a plan. Set a tangible, realistic, quantifiable outcome goal. For example: I will lose 10 pounds by June 20th. In order to achieve this goal, progressively set behavior goals that will get you there. For example, I will take my multivitamin every day. In order to keep yourself accountable, keep a daily checklist with a "yes" box and a "no" box; this will also give you a visual representation of when you have mastered this behavior. For example:

Behavior goal 1: I will take my multivitamin every day.

- Once you have 2 weeks of consectutive check marks, graduate to a new goal...

Behavior goal 2: I will eat protein at every meal.

- Once you have 2 weeks of consectutive check marks, graduate to a new goal...

Behavior goal 3: I will go to the gym every other day for 1 hour.

And so on, and so forth...

Your outcome goal is bulletin-board material -- write it down and put it somewhere you can see it every day. Your behaviour goals will be where you concentrate your daily efforts. It is important to have a specific long-term outcome goal, but it is mastering the behaviour goals that will get you there.

Finally, you may find it important to take away all ambiguity by setting black and white goals. This means setting behaviour goals that are either 100 per cent or 0 per cent with no wiggle room. For example: I will not eat any potato chips (as opposed to: I will only eat chips once per week). Some people can set goals with some wiggle room and adhere, but for others, wiggle room is an open invitation to overdo things: "If I can have some, why can't I have a bit more, and a bit more..." Take away ambiguity, and the plan will be clear and easy to follow.

Diet plans can be effective short-term tools for high-level athletes looking to cut down or bulk up for shows and competitions, but for the average person with the goal of losing weight, diet plans are a waste of time and money. In lieu of these restricting plans, changing simple habits one by one and building upon your successes will be your best bet for sustained weight loss. Make sure to hold yourself accountable with checklists and visual cues, but if you need somebody to help you with the details there are plenty of good nutrition coaches out there to help- and Precision Nutrition isn't a bad place to start your search.


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