The diet that works best for you is probably not a diet at all

If you’re looking to lose weight, the best diet may actually not a “diet” at all. You’re more likely to succeed at losing weight in the long run by eating a little less, walking more, and cutting out your most unhealthy foods (such as swapping out sodas for water). Walking can help you lose weight as well, but remember that it’s much easier to make one healthy food swap than it is to do an hour of weight loss fitness walking.

No matter what stage you are at in your fitness journey, a combination of eating better, walking more, and other healthy lifestyle changes (like not missing your sleep) are your best bet for weight loss. Eating healthier is probably even more important than exercise for weight loss, but you should avoid falling into the trap of counting on fad diets or unsustainable eating plans. Here’s why most fad diets don’t work, as well as what you should focus on when trying to eat healthier.

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Why fad diets don’t work

Woman looking at refrigerator deciding what to eat
Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock

Most fad diets fail for a few common reasons. They may be impossible to sustain even if you follow them, they may be too hard to actually follow in real life, and their scientific claims may just not work.

Unsustainable diets

According to the UK NHS, to maintain their weight the average male needs bout 2,500 calories and the average woman 2,000 calories. A combination of eating a bit less and moving a bit more will cause people to lose weight, but cutting too much is dangerous and unproductive. Going far below these numbers (less than 1,500 calories for men or 1,200 calories for women) is dangerous and will result in your body not getting enough vital nutrients. Some extreme diets (like very restrictive juice cleanses) can go far below these numbers.

You simply can’t live on 500 calories per day, so inevitably such an extreme diet must be temporary. People who try these diets usually go back to their regular eating habits once they finish, and whatever weight they may have lost on the fad diet will simply be gained back.

Diets that just aren’t enjoyable

The best healthy eating plans don’t feel like “diet” because you’re simply making healthier choices. A perfect example is the “Twinkie diet,” in which a doctor tried eating only Twinkies for 10 weeks, plus nutritional supplements to ensure that he took in enough nutrients to stay alive (please don’t try this at home). The doctor did lose weight by cutting calories, but it was through meticulously counting everything he ate to the last calorie and wasn’t an enjoyable experience. The takeaway is to consider whether you can actually follow any diet for the long term. If you’re going to be miserable all the time, you’ll end up going back to the way you ate before.

Restrictive eating plans may also be hard to follow in practice. If you can’t eat many or most foods, it’s harder to shop and much harder to eat at restaurants (especially if you live in a smaller town). This extra difficulty, energy and time spent can lead you to abandon your eating plan even if it’s working for you.

Diets with dubious scientific claims

You should look critically at any diet that promises dramatic weight loss in a limited amount of time, especially if it requires little effort on your part. Before looking into miracle pills or the benefits of adding a certain spice or ingredient to your diet, look for independent research showing that it’s actually effective. There are too many claims to evaluate here. The Washington Post reports that half of people taking dietary supplements for weight loss experienced at least one side effect (like fast heartbeats), and most supplements just don’t work. It’s better to stick to eating a bit healthier and getting a bit more active. You’ll save the money you would have spent and you’re more likely to get results.

Long Term Weight Loss

Woman eating a healthy salad and meal

People that have successfully lost weight and kept their weight under control know that it’s not a sprint but rather a marathon. Eating healthy, controlling portion sizes, and limiting excessive sugars and high-fat foods are lifestyle improvements that you’ll want to stick to over time. It may not be easy at first, but once you build healthier eating habits they become easier to follow in the long term.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that individuals that aim for long-term weight loss goals are not only more likely to meet their targets but also to maintain their weight loss for many years. Among successful individuals, the keys are often smart food choices, regular physical activity, and maintaining a consistent eating pattern throughout the week. The American Journal also found that when successful individuals maintained their exercise and diet strategies, they had decreased rates of depression, and significant health improvements – both of which helped the individuals stick with their programs. Walking makes you feel great and gets you healthier too, so don’t overlook the exercise component.

Smart choices like eating a healthy breakfast and going for a walk every day are easy tasks that will have lasting results on not only your waistline but your overall health. When following a robust exercise program and diet, the results may not happen overnight. Weight loss also doesn’t always follow a straight line – you may hit some plateaus or get stuck at points, which is ok! With some work and perseverance, however, you’ll end up healthier and fitter while establishing a healthy relationship with food that will last you a lifetime.

Small Changes Lead to Big Results

Man and woman tying shoes before a fitness walk / Shutterstock

Instead of trying to completely overhaul what you eat at once, try making small changes that will add up over time. They’ll be easier to work into what you eat, you’re more likely to stick with them, and you’ll be able to troubleshoot if your swap makes a big difference on your health or your happiness.

Set manageable goals with milestones

It’s important that your weight loss or eating goals should be manageable and have milestones to check your progress. The Mayo Clinic recommends trying to lose a maximum of 1-2 pounds per week. That’s in line with other health organizations. If you set out to lose 20 pounds in the next month, you’re likely to fail which can cause you to give up on healthy eating altogether. Reasonable goals also encourage sustainable, healthy strategies to achieve them.

Incorporate nutrition and exercise milestones to make for a sustainable winning combination. This allows you to track your progress over time, and make adjustments where needed. You might aim to start walking 30 minutes a day or set intermediate step targets on the path to 10,000 steps per day (or whatever your end goal may be). Your eating goals could be to incorporate fruit or green vegetables with every meal, or to cut your soda intake from once per day to once per week to zero. When you break your targets into more doable actions, not only will you stick with them, but you will start seeing results faster.

Don’t just look at the scale:

Weight loss is a popular reason for both walking more and eating better, but in the end you’re looking to feel better and be healthier. If you’re making positive changes in your life, like walking an extra mile per day or cutting out sugary snacks, you’re likely to have more energy and feel better overall. There are many reasons why your weight loss might plateauyou may have gained muscle from strength training, been unable to walk due to a cold, or experienced hormonal fluctuations. Instead, focus on the positives like how far you and walk and how great you feel. If you’re stuck at the same point for a long period of time, you may need to take another look at your weight loss plan. But don’t sweat things day to day and week to week.

Know your strengths and weaknesses

When making any attempt to get healthier, it’s important to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses as well as what might set you back. This will help set you up with a great game plan and make you aware of situations that can derail your goals. If you know that you tend to engage in late-night snacking, consider getting active instead with an after-dinner walk or start walking earlier in the morning which will force yourself to go to bed earlier. If there are foods that you just can’t stop eating, take some time and check calorie counts to see if there are healthier versions or avoid keeping those foods around the house. If you love sports, dancing or some other active pursuit then use that to get active and healthy. Simple changes to your routine will not only make a world of difference to your weight loss target but are more sustainable to do for the long term.

Track your progress:

Writing down your goals and achievements each week will not only help motivate you but keep you accountable for your progress. Visually seeing everything you have accomplished will lead to amazing results. You also may not realize just how much you’re snacking or what you’re eating, so keeping a journal can help you both celebrate your wins and remember the times where you weren’t able to stick with the plan. Track your steps and other activity with Pacer (or keep a journal too if you like).

Make simple swaps:

Lasting changes doesn’t have to mean giving up your favorite foods. With a few simple tweaks, you will not only be able to enjoy the most delectable of dishes, but you will also be losing weight at the same time.

  • Cut out sugary sodas and swap them with some delicious sparkling water.
  • Focus on controlling portion sizes, especially when eating out
  • Make a conscious choice to snack smarter, rather than depriving yourself. This will help you limit the amount of over-snacking that you do without making foods “taboo” and leading to cravings.

What about “diets” that work for some people?

Woman eating salad surrounded by plants
RossHelen / Shutterstock

There are debates still raging both online and in the medical community about what eating plan is “the best.” Some experts call for a low (or no) carb diet, while others favor a low-fat diet or somewhere in between. A study done on 600 participants found that people lost a similar amount of weight on low-carb and low-fat diets. There is some evidence that people can lose weight faster in the short term on low-carb diets, but much of that may be water weight. In the long run, low carb and low-fat diets show similar results.

The most important thing you can do for weight loss is adopting a healthy eating plan that you can live with long term. For most people, that’s eating a balanced diet with fewer processed foods, less added sugar and salt, and more fruits and green veggies. It’s also important to check with your doctor to ensure that you don’t have any medical conditions that might be made worse by a significant change in diet. If you do make drastic changes, make sure to check in periodically to make sure that it’s not having an adverse effect on your health.

Final thoughts

Losing weight is not easy, but with the right mindset, a healthy nutrition program, and a great walking exercise routine, you can reach any milestone that you set for yourself. Avoid the restrictive and harming “fad diets” and find a plan that not only will leave you with the results you want but with a lifestyle that you enjoy doing.

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Long-Term Weight Loss: 5 Tips. (2018). By WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS. WebMD.

Long-term weight-loss maintenance. (2005). By Rena R Wing, Suzanne Phelan. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Volume 82, Issue 1, Pages 222S–225S. Oxford Academic. 


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