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During your workout you saw a fellow gym-goer for the first time in several weeks. You hear her telling another member about her recent weight loss. “I swear, the ketogenic diet is the best thing ever. I dropped 10 pounds in four weeks,” she raved.
The next day in the break room, one of your co-workers is incessantly chatting about the meal plan she’s been following for a few weeks, because she’s already lost five pounds.
Intrigued and curious, you try these diets too. But, when you try them, they just don’t seem to produce the same holy crap I’ve found “the one” experiences as the women who sing their praises.
WTF, right? Why didn’t that diet work for you when other women seemed to achieve fast results?
Before we answer that question, here’s an important fact: there is no “perfect” or “magical” diet. Never has been, and never will be. Any diet can produce weight loss as long as you’re in a caloric deficit. Yes, this applies to Paleo, ketogenic, low-fat, vegan, and other diet you can think of. Some people may “go Paleo” and rave about how much fat they’ve lost, but it’s not the “Paleo” part that produced the weight loss. It’s because they were in a caloric deficit, which is most likely due to the fact that the Paleo diet eliminates grains and dairy, so that cuts out a lot of palatable foods that are easy to overeat (e.g., desserts like ice cream, cakes and cookies).
To use one more common example, it’s why some people lose weight quickly when they do a “sugar detox.” Not because they stopped eating sugar, but because they stopped eating calorie-dense, hyper-palatable foods that were also high in fat: desserts, snack cakes, doughnuts, and other heavily processed foods. By not eating those foods, they decreased the number of calories they consumed. The caloric deficit led to weight loss.
Image created by Fast Forward Amy.
It’s not magic. It’s math.
This also explains why someone can “go Paleo” (or any other diet) and not lose weight, because they were not in a caloric deficit. While they eliminated certain foods and food groups, they ate more of other things. (It’s easy to eat more than you realize with high-fat foods like nut butters and coconut oil, and it’s one reason why people who eat healthy can’t seem to lose weight.)
The “I tried this diet and lost weight so that’s indisputable proof that it’s the ultimate style of eating” rhetoric is what causes people to define themselves by a way of eating, and to develop a religion-like relationship with food. No longer is the way they eat something that simplifies and enhances their life — it consumes their personality. They’ve seen the “supreme style of eating” light and are anxious to share the good news with everyone who crosses their path about healthy carbs and acceptable fats and sinful processed evils that will lead to their ultimate demise.
You too can be saved if you bow to the one true nutrition god and forsake all others. Resist, and ye shall burn in a fiery, gluten filled hell and choke on the smoke from smoldering carby-goodness. In the name of clean eating, amen.
This is Why That Diet Didn’t Work
The four Ps explain why that diet didn’t work. One diet or style of eating will not work for everyone because we all have a different past, and we have different personalities, perceptions, and preferences.
We all have different pasts. What you’ve experienced influences you. It’s why someone who grew up in a home where things were constantly changing (divorce, having to move frequently) may be an adult with control issues. Because she didn’t have any control over much of what happened in her childhood, she wants to control everything now.
Similarly, your past experiences with food will affect how you view food now. Using myself as an example, my years of battling obsessive and binge eating habits is why I can’t follow meal plans or count calories without dire consequences. If I had to track and eat 1800 calories a day, within one week I’d likely dive head first back into binge eating and other restrictive eating habits. My past experiences with rigid diets make counting calories an option that is not viable for me.
Someone who has never obsessed over food and doesn’t know what it’s like to have food dominate their lives may have a very different experience. In fact, tracking calories may help them reach their goals without any negative consequences. Whereas it would stress me out and lead to binge eating, it could simplify the process and help them easily stay on track. Past experiences matter when it comes to present actions.
We all have different personalities. Some people can effortlessly make healthy food choices, even when they’re ravenous and short on time. Someone else may opt for whatever sounds best and is most convenient, which is usually something heavily processed and calorie-dense. Someone can live in a home filled with cookies, ice cream, and other tasty goodies without constantly being tempted to eat them. Someone else may be more likely to eat all those things because they’re around.
Someone may prefer to organize and prepare meals for the entire week to make it easy to stay on track. Someone else may loathe the idea of eating out of tupperware containers.
When it comes to why we eat what we eat, our personalities play a crucial role. You need to understand your personality, and then work with it, not against it.
We all have different perceptions. Some people respond emotionally to less than ideal food choices. Whereas one woman may be plagued with guilt from eating a sleeve of cookies and will vow to punish herself with an extra workout, another woman may simply be able to shrug it off and move forward with healthy food choices.
One woman may see the number on the bathroom scale as objective data, but for another woman it may have the ability to make or break her entire day, and self-esteem.
Two people can perceive the same event entirely differently.
We all have different preferences. What if you like carbs? Nay. You don’t merely like them — they’re some of the very foods that make life worth living. Like a freshly baked loaf of Challah bread, or homemade mashed potatoes. If you’re like me and love carb-rich foods, then attempting a ketogenic diet for weight loss would be an excruciating endeavor.
Maybe you like beets and enjoy adding them to a salad; maybe I’d rather gnaw on the sole of my tennis shoe then pop one of those dirt-tasting red balls of misery in my mouth.
The point is, not everyone likes the same foods; not everyone feels best eating the same foods or combination of macronutrients (some people prefer to eat a higher-carb diet, others a lower-carb). Not everyone likes to eat three meals per day — some prefer two big meals, some prefer five small meals.
And this is why that diet didn’t work for you.
It likely didn’t meld with your personality or perception, or it agitated an old wound from past experiences. Or, perhaps, it simply didn’t suit your preferences.
Or, and this is a distinct possibility — it was a crazy ass diet with rigid rules that was impractical and unsustainable and reeked of bullshit claims about its superiority to all other styles of eating, or it was based on sensationalized or fear-based marketing.
How to Create a Diet That Works for You
I use the word “diet” because it’s a term people are familiar with, but it simply means a style of eating.
Rather than a traditional diet or meal plan or some other restrictive eating regimen, embrace flexible guidelines. Specifically, guidelines that can be tailored to your past, personality, perception, and most definitely, your preferences.
Regardless of what slant your eating habits have — the number of meals you prefer to eat each day, foods you love and dislike — here’s what science has proven to work for losing weight (or maintaining a healthy weight) and building muscle.
Eat a variety of mostly real, minimally processed foods. This is a good way to get plenty of satisfying, nutrient-dense foods that can not only help you build a better looking body, but a healthier body, too. And let’s face it — that’s something most people put at the bottom of the priority list. This means choosing a baked potato over french fries from the drive-thru. Or a grilled chicken boob over fried nuggets.
And, no, there are no “off limit” foods or food groups. (The obvious exception: you have an allergy or medical condition and have been instructed to avoid certain foods from your doctor.) There is no single food group or macronutrient solely responsible for weight gain or fat loss.
Include a good source of protein in all meals. I’m assuming you strength train since you’re on this website (or you plan to start strength training). If you’re not, you should be — there are too many amazing benefits from this doesn’t-demand-much-time activity.
Not only does eating a good source of protein with all meals help you feel satisfied, but it also spares muscle loss when you’re eating in a caloric deficit.
Work in all other foods occasionally, and in moderate amounts. “All other foods” are things that don’t fall into the “real, minimally processed” category, or things simply considered “not super healthy foods.” Foods like pizza, fried chicken, ice cream, or whatever the heck you love that’s calorie-dense and not the healthiest option but tastes dang good.
One eating method will not work for everyone, and this is why your friend or co-worker may achieve great results from a diet, but you don’t. The solution is clear: you must be your own guru. You must find what will work for you.
Consider your past experiences, and your personality, perceptions, and preferences. Then create sustainable habits that form a lifestyle.