01.02.2015 Natural Health

Why Diets Don't Work

Diets do not lead to weight loss because they ignore individual nutritional and lifestyle needs, says Peter Dingle PhD

One of the most common resolutions for the New Year is to lose weight. Most of us begin with the best intentions but do it the wrong way. Rather than diet, create a lifestyle program that suits you and your family. Focus on the full picture to get the best result because diets do not work.

Research shows that just focusing on calories for weight loss or low fat foods has been a miserable failure and eating less and exercising more has dismally failed us. With the majority of diets nearly everyone loses weight then puts on the weight again once they stop - often more than before. These diets focus on calorie restrictions, low fat, low carbohydrates, low protein or various combinations of these approaches. They fail because they are not based on our overall health and nutritional requirements. They are diets and not lifestyle programs; they do not satisfy our hunger, physical, biochemistry and often totally overlook the environmental, social, psychological and emotional components of weight control. They fail because they are often one plan to suit everyone and we are all very different. More than this, they work against our genetic coding, our millions of years of evolution. Of course they don't work.

Maintaining weight is not about what you must give up or cannot have. It is about what you as an individual can do to improve your health and improve your quality of life by working in line with your genetic coding and evolution. Weight loss should be viewed as a means to achieving optimal health by eating, doing and being what you have been programmed to be.

Most restricted diets will play havoc with your body, its biochemistry and genes. This may not concern you now but it will be a part of why the diet doesn't work. The foods we eat literally determine all the important chemicals in the body and if we're not getting enough of a number of nutrients it can lead to weight gain, depression, low motivation and low energy, as well as long term health problems.

Many of the healthy foods we eat also talk to our genes and tell them to burn more, eat less or even feel better without any consideration for counting calories. Many diets leave you feeling run down, tired and grumpy, but also more prone to chronic illness.

Lifestyle changes not quick fixes

Consuming nutrient-empty foods, following specific food plans and enduring strenuous exercise are only temporary fixes. Weight control is about making lifestyle changes in order to permanently keep weight off. Weight control involves change, not sacrifice. The reason why these diets are so popular is that they offer the consumer a quick and easy solution to weight control. The reason why these diets are short-lived and abandoned is that diet guidelines to restrict caloric intake and only eat specific foods will make the average consumer bored and maybe transfer onto another diet, restarting the cycle all over again.

New fad diets will continue to emerge and more diet products will invade supermarket and pharmacy shelves. Over the past few years, research has shown that these so called fad diets are not helping us lose weight but, in fact, are increasing our long-term susceptibility to diseases (1). Restricted diets are often deficient in the nutrients that communicate with your genes to tell your body to work effectively, including vitamins C, A, D, E, K, folate, antioxidants, minerals, omega 3 fatty acids and fibre.

Deficiency in these key nutrients has been seen to increase the risk of many forms of cancer and heart disease and, more recently, has been linked with weight gain and a lower quality of life. One study of women dieting showed impaired mental performance, poor immediate memory and slower reaction times. When the brain does not get the right nutrients it needs it begins to shut down. Many people would know this as brain fog and it is a way of protecting the brain in times of food shortages. It is usually apparent when you also overeat the wrong foods.

If these diets worked there would be no more obesity - but they don't. Sixty five percent of all Americans claim to be on a restricted diet and the figures are probably much the same for countries such as the UK and Australia. Americans spend around $50 billion per year to support this claim. Unhealthy dieting practices such as regularly taking diet pills, water pills, laxatives and calorie burners have become entirely too common in the Western world.

Studies report that in the United States, 32% of all college-aged females regularly take a diet pill in order to maintain weight control. Not only are these extreme dieting methods a harsh stress on the body and digestive system, they also lead to endless frustration. Sadly, this frustration often gives birth to severe eating disorders such as bulimia, and anorexia nervosa, not to mention serious digestive disorders. In the United States alone, over 10 million women and one million males suffer from an eating disorder and probably 50% of adults have digestive problems on a regular or permanent basis.

Poor results

Despite all the celebrities and famous people who testify to their benefits, celebrity diets do not work. The Jenny Craig diet has been tested in only one randomised, controlled trial. The study was funded by Jenny Craig, who also provided all the meals and counselling sessions free of charge - $7000 worth - and a personal trainer. Even so, nine per cent of participants had dropped out by the end. After two years of free Jenny Craig meals involving intense calorie restriction, participants lost just over seven kilograms, dropping from 92.2 kilograms to 84.8 kilograms.

It seems this astounding lack of success is not a one-off observation. In a study of the Weight Watchers program over two years, participants lost three kilograms. They started at an average of 94kg and ended at 91kg after two years and 75% of them dropped out. The program cost US$167 every three months or US$445 per kg lost.

A 2007 UCLA review of 31 credible long-term weight loss studies found that most people on calorie restricting diets initially lost five to 10 percent of their body weight. But they also found that the majority regained all the weight and some extra within 12 months. Sustained weight loss was found only in a very, very small minority of participants. In fact, the scientific studies show that one third to two thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets, and these studies likely underestimate the extent to which dieting is counterproductive (2). In addition, the studies do not provide consistent evidence that dieting results in significant health improvements, regardless of weight change. In sum, there is little support for the notion that diets lead to lasting weight loss or health benefits.

Popular commercial diets can help you lose some weight in the short term, but keeping the weight off after the first year is not so easy according to the American Heart Association (3). In studying the various diets (Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, and Zone) those on the Atkins diet lost an average 4.6 to 10.3 pounds; Weight Watchers participants lost an average 6.6 pounds; Zone dieters lost an average 3.5 to 7 pounds; and control lost about 4.85 pounds. In all the diets there were no marked improvements in cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, or other cardiovascular risk factors (3).

Don't count calories

Counting calories over the last 50 years as been shown repeatedly to be an absolute failure. Long-term weight-loss is not the number of calories consumed, but rather what kinds of calories and even how they are consumed. Some foods are used to repair tissue, boost brain power, fuel our metabolism and turn on or off our genetic library, while others are stored as fat.

Based on the science that a pound (454 grams) of fat equals 3,500 calories, advocates of all weight loss programs say it is about counting the calories that go in and the ones that go out. Simple. But not true. This outdated theory suggests that in order to maintain weight you must burn the same number of calories you consume and that all calories and people are the same. This theory takes no account of the biochemistry and genetics of the body and how different foods, different gene expression and even lifestyles and environment may impact on what your body does with the food.

For example, one study found that increased sugar and reduced fat actually results in a substantial decrease in the number of calories burned (4). Participants in the study had lost weight and agreed to follow low fat, very low carb, and low glycemic index diets for a month. Even though they ate the same number of calories on each of the three plans, all of the study participants burned about 300 calories a day less on the low fat eating plan compared to the low carbohydrate diet, which would equal the number of calories typically burned in an hour of moderate intensity physical activity. The low fat diet turned on the genes to slow down metabolism.

Another example is that dieters lose more weight in the first few weeks of a diet and then lose less and less each subsequent week despite consuming and expending the same amount of calories until hitting the dreaded "plateau". This is believed to represent a metabolic adaptation to prevent starvation. It's something we have evolved with through our genes for millions of years. Your body slows down to conserve the reduced number of calories you're eating so you don't starve. This is why you have to work with your genes not against millions of years of your evolution.

In addition, a pound of fat does not equal exactly 3500 calories and could contain anywhere between 2,843 and 3,752 calories. Which means you can fit in, or have to take out, an extra biscuit or two each day without any difference. The difference in fact may end up being as many as three kilograms a year added to your weight just by eating the right number of calories.

Similarly, 100 calories of sugar is not the same as 100 calories worth of almonds or spinach. One puts on weight, leads to diabetes, CVD, arthritis, cancer and more and the other two reverse all conditions despite their calorie and fat content. In the same way, 100 calories of brown wholegrain rice consumed is not the same as 100 calories of processed white rice flour. Farmers learnt long ago that if they fed raw potatoes to pigs they did not put on weight. If you cook the potatoes they do. But even better, if you give them an even more processed diet they get big and fat really quickly.

Many other factors make the theory of calorie counting a ridiculous farce. Certain foods like fibre, protein and nutrients reduce appetite. Protein slows the time it takes for food to move from your stomach to your intestines, helping you feel full longer. Additionally, protein increases metabolism, and builds and maintains muscle mass, which utilises calories. It also curbs your appetite by stabilising blood glucose levels.

Even timing of food affects calorie processing. In a study, researchers found that participants who ate late in the day lost significantly less weight than those who ate earlier in the day. Each group was given a similar diet, the same amount of sleep and similar caloric intakes and expenditures (5).

A large amount of scientific evidence also suggests that toxic chemicals added to your food can increase weight gain without changing the calories. This includes some of the food additives. Low and no calorie drinks and foods with artificial sweetener actually increase your weight gain, despite the fact they have no calories. Mice fed the same food with some toxic chemicals added to it gained weight, developed metabolic syndrome and chronic illness despite consuming the same calories as the control mice. This is particularly the case for a group of chemicals we find in our modern life called endocrine disruptors.

Other major factors include our probiotic microorganisms, stress, sleep debt, and pharmaceuticals (6) , none of which are interested in calories but do influence our genes.

DISCLAIMER: Dr Peter Dingle is a researcher, educator and public health advocate. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor.



Nestle, 2002Mann , et al 2007, Eisenberg, et al 2014Mooney, 2012The International Journal of Obesity 2013Dhurandhar et al, 2014
Peter Dingle

Dr Peter Dingle (PhD) has spent the past 30 years as a researcher, educator, author and advocate for a common sense approach to health and wellbeing. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor. He is Australia’s leading motivational health speaker and has 14 books in publication.