Why Most Diet Plans Suck, and Rarely Work

Rebeka Bergin Rebeka Bergin

  • Why we tend to fail at dieting
  • Why mental health is the key
  • Why healthy fats are really important

Diet Plans Have a Bad Reputation

Diet plans have negative connotations. We think of them as limiting, strict, and a bit depressing—but in actuality, by definition, a diet is simply the total sum of our overall food consumption (not a set of strict rules to live by, where if a rule is broken, then our diet is ruined). As long as our eating habits are somewhat reasonable, we shouldn't need to stress too much about each individual meal, or even our daily calorie intake.

Whilst diets should be structured, they shouldn't need to enforce strict boundaries for us to maintain a healthy balance (although many of them would have us believe otherwise). If one of our meals isn't healthy, it's not the end of the world. It's perfectly okay for us to take one step backward as long as we're taking two steps forward.

In short, the best diet plans are ones that are flexible, and don't hound us when we break a so-called “rule”. Let's explore some of the reasons why many diets don't work, and how to maintain a healthy diet plan without feeling run down or depressed.

Healthy vs. non-healthy food

1. Dieting is Mentally Exhausting

We all form habits, and it's the separation anxiety from these habits that makes it seem as if we've unfairly taken something away from ourselves. Unhealthy food tends to fill a void that is depression, boredom, anxiety, stress, and so on. When you're bored, for example, your default setting might be TV and snacks. You might even do this every night because it's a habit you've formed, and you no longer think twice about it.

Dieting can send waves of emotions crashing down on us.

If we're to become healthier, we need to do more than switch to healthy food. Healthy food isn't tasteless (look at this Chana Masala Curry Recipe recipe, for instance), but that doesn't mean that we instantly stop thinking about our evening snacks when we diet. It’s also worth noting that many bad foods have addictive ingredients, so taking these away can induce withdrawal symptoms that affect us mentally and emotionally.

First, Change Your Lifestyle

Before anything, we need to replace the lifestyle habits associated with our unhealthy food choices. Rather than television, for example, you could start a business, do a little workout, or anything else that’s new, exciting, and doesn’t offer opportunities to indulge in food. Not willing to change is a recipe for instant failure (pun intended!).

“Out of sight—out of mind”, as they say. Making ourselves busy can help us to retrain our brain and form better habits—choose a hobby that builds your confidence, and feeds your brains reward system in a healthy way. Taking away food is like taking away happiness; if we don’t find new ways to smile, we’ll never find a diet that works.

How Food Addiction Clouds Your Judgement

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends signals to the brain when we reward ourselves (e.g. eat, sleep, have sex, or seek attention/validation from others). Naturally, our brain loves this, and this is why our “reward system” is susceptible to addiction.

Junk/low-nutrition foods don’t satisfy our hunger for long (because they’re high in sugars and bad fats, and therefore decrease dopamine efficiency), so not only are they unhealthy, but they can quickly make us hungry again. Withdrawal from these bad foods also leads to stress and depression due to their addictive ingredients. A dopamine diet (which is essentially a high-protein diet) can boost dopamine efficiency without increasing hunger and addiction, thus making us feel happier for longer.

High-protein foods include:

  • Fish and seafood
  • Lean meat
  • Pulses and legumes (lentils, beans, peas etc)
  • Nuts, such as almonds and walnuts
  • Dairy foods like milk, cheese and yogurt
Grilled Goats Cheese Salad

It’s been suggested that those who suffer from obesity have a low sensitivity to dopamine due to overexposure to unhealthy fats and sugars, which is similar to how insulin-resistance works for those with Type 2 Diabetes. This means that the higher our body fat ratio, the less we enjoy food, and the more of it we need to feel happy. However, feeding our reward system in a healthy way ensures that we maintain a healthy body fat ratio and in turn think more rationally about the food that we’re eating.

If you’re dealing with weight issues, a high-dopamine diet would be suitable for you.

How to Improve Your Mental Health

Crappy days, we all have them. We don’t need to be clinically depressed to feel depressed, or to feel any of its symptoms (anxiety, stress, boredom, et cetera—all of which contribute to our cravings). Aside from understanding how our brain’s reward system works, and forming better habits, we can limit the number of backward steps that we take by rewarding ourselves in other ways as well (and when we do so, we’ll be far more likely to stick to our healthy diet plan having been satisfied in other ways).

Let’s take a look at some suggestions.

Walking, running, swimming, or any other kind of exercise, is a highly effective mood-lifter as it boosts the aforementioned dopamine as well as serotonin (serotonin not only regulates your mood, but also your sleep, appetite and overall stress levels).

Practise yoga or meditation. Note from the author: Calm is an excellent meditation app for desktop and mobile that heals you with breathing and mindfulness exercises, which you can do while going for a walk, drifting off to sleep, or even just sitting still!

Learn to cook a new recipe. Not only does learning a new recipe add more options to your cooking skillset, but cooking is extremely therapeutic, and, you’ll have a yummy, nutritious meal to eat after! Subscribe here and we’ll send you recipes occasionally.

Cooking chicken skewers on the barbeque

2. You're Always Hungry

As mentioned above, addictive foods can leave you feeling quite hungry, not only because they lack nutritional value, but because they include addictive ingredients.

That being said, many so-called healthy diets are no better.

Let's talk about Slimming World UK, and the diet that they advocate (we’re happy for anybody to challenge us on this, since health as a science is still largely debated).

Slimming World “syns” you for the so-called unhealthy foods that you eat, which right off the bat isn’t fantastic for your self-confidence. Not only that, but white rice (a refined carbohydrate where all of the nutrients have been specifically discarded) doesn’t count as a sin. In fact, you can eat as much of it as like, yet an avocado is 14 of your 15 available daily sins, and is one of the most nutritious foods in the world.

In fact, avocado is a superfood. Why would it be sinful?

Diets like this pray on an age-old belief that fat is bad for you, where in actuality there are good fats and bad fats. For example, avocados contain heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, fibre, and almost 20 vitamins and nutrients. The reason why “fad dieters” are often left feeling hungry and deprived, is due to a lack of real nutrition.

Weight-loss diets tend to deprive us of nutrients, giving the impression that a lot of healthy foods should be off bounds because they’re high in fat. Slimming World prays on clientele that still hold these beliefs, however numerous studies have indicated that some fats are very healthy (here’s a fantastic write-up by Harvard Medical School).

Healthy Fats Reduce Hunger

Despite many diets advocating a balance of fruits, vegetables, protein, and carbs, a balanced diet should also include healthy fats such as avocados, fatty fish, olive oil, and nuts. These fats even help with the absorption of vitamins and minerals found in other healthy foods, and of course, unprocessed meat is included in this too.

Protein is also found in meat, so eating it—or alternatively other foods that come from an animal, such as eggs and dairy, or some plant organisms, such as nuts and soy—will enrich you with both protein and healthy fats, both of which will help to reduce hunger!

Carbs Aren’t “Better” Than Fat

Diets (weight-loss diets especially) should also emphasise that while carbohydrates should make up 45-65% of our daily calorie intake, they should in fact be complex carbohydrates such as whole wheat pasta and whole grain rice, and not their low-nutrition refined counterparts (which of course, are white pasta and white rice).

It’s also worth noting that fruits, vegetables and legumes are complex carbohydrates too, and since excess carbohydrates is converted to fat, Slimming World’s claim that white rice is a “free food” (as in, you can eat unlimited amounts of it) is terrible advice.

3. You're Always AFK (Away From Kitchen)

One of the most common reasons why diets don’t work is that they fail to help dieters think ahead. Consider this scenario: you were planning to eat avocado toast on whole wheat bread for lunch, but now you’re at work and you have neither toast nor avocado, or know of any local cafés that serve it. Instead, you find yourself eating a sugary chocolate croissant, which sucks because you were totally ready to be healthy today.

Being AFK (Away From Kitchen) can be a major roadblock for our healthy diet. One solution is to meal prep (i.e make our meals ahead of time and take them with us).

How to Meal Prep

Meal prep doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Here are some tips:

  • Make tomorrows’ meals today
  • Freeze fruit for quick smoothies in the morning
  • Keep nuts and dried fruit at hand for healthy snacking on the move
  • Cook food at home, season with herbs/spices, store them in the fridge/freezer
  • If you use sauces, make them in batches and store in travel-size containers

Here are some quick and easy meal suggestions:

  • Blueberry, Mint and Yogurt Toast
  • Red Lentil Soup
  • Mixed Bean Salad
  • Mediterranean Chickpea Salad
  • Greek Salad (or Greek Pasta Salad)
  • Lemon and Herb Grilled Chicken Salad
  • Yogurt with Oats and Blueberry
  • Strawberry and Banana “Overnight Oats”
  • Chicken and Avocado Salad Wrap Rollups
  • Banana and Nut/Seed Butter Wrap Rollups
Yogurt with oats and blueberry

Hate Cooking?

We’re also working on a series of City Food Guides aimed not only at commuters that work away from home, but also digital nomads and travellers that simply don’t want to cook or love to eat out. If you’re already familiar with the local cafés and restaurants, make a note of their menus so that you can refer to them in a critical moment of need.

Always be prepared!

5. Lack of Support from Family and Friends

When starting a healthy diet plan, it’s important that friends and family support this decision. A once-in-a-blue-moon “night off” from dieting is perfectly fine, but if you’re very sociable or a family dinner is a weekly occurrence, it becomes really difficult to diet when nobody else is doing it, and even more so when they’re regularly unhealthy.

When friends arrange a Saturday night drinking session, or our families tempt us into a Sunday feast, it’s easy to adopt a “start again fresh on Monday” mentality, which can quickly become a routine. The same applies to birthdays and other celebrations—there’s always something happening, and thus an excuse to fall off the wagon.

We have to become better at saying “no”. That doesn’t mean rejecting an invitation entirely, but we can politely decline to eat, or only have one or two alcoholic drinks. In a win-win scenario, food may even become a topic of conversation, and dieting can become something that you do as a group or family. Learning together and hitting milestones together can be even more rewarding when you’re not alone in dieting.

In an even better scenario, invite friends and family over and cook them a splendid healthy dinner, and have them reciprocate. Play games, discuss ideas. Maybe you’ll even convince your mom/friend that sweet potato is just as good as ordinary potato?

6. Unrealistic Expectations

When adopting a healthy diet plan, it’s difficult to notice any instant mental health benefits due to the unsettling withdrawal symptoms from addictive foods (we’ve fallen in love with bad food, and then we’ve taken it away—it’s only natural that the brain and body is deeply sad about it). When dieting to lose weight, the effects are similar (in this case, the body wants fat because it can convert it to energy in a time of crisis).

During this “starvation mode”, our bodies slow down our metabolism in an effort to conserve energy, and our bodies stop burning fat. This is an evolutionary phenomenon that dates back thousands of years, when living conditions were much harsher. People had to hunt for food, and icy winters meant that there was no food at times.

Fat = energy = survival.

When we diet, it takes a while for our bodies to figure things out, and when we don't see the instant results we were hoping for, we can wind up feeling a little disheartened. We should approach dieting gradually, not only to ease our mind into a new lifestyle, but to ease our bodies too. Don’t take drastic measures, take realistic measures.

Start by making small substitutions, such as swapping white bread for whole wheat bread; when using cooking oil, use oils that are low in unhealthy fats (such as canola oil, olive oil, or coconut oil). Prepare your meals before you feel hungry. Eat 5 fruits and/or vegetables a day, and drink lots of water. Form little habits to begin with, and work up.

Learn to enjoy dieting a little bit before going cold turkey (pun not intended this time!).

It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

It’s common for serial dieters to frequently abandon their diets and “start again fresh on Monday”, which is why we advocate flexible diet plans. It’s better to make allowances for inevitable mistakes, than to quit altogether because we’ve been a bit cheeky.

Conclusion

Starting a healthy diet plan is a no-brainer—it’s easy.

Sticking with it is a whole other story, though. Your mental health, outdated dieting advice, lack of planning, and the fact that some diets are way too strict, can have us falling off the wagon. Don’t let your problems become excuses—be honest and mindful of what you find challenging, and form habits to help you sidestep those challenges. It’s easier to sidestep a challenge when you can see it coming in the distance.

Choose a diet that works, one that’s both tailored to and accepting of the way that our brains naturally function. We’re human, we can’t change it, but we can hack it.

Rebeka Bergin

Rebeka Bergin

Rebeka Bergin is the founder of Nomad Noms. A digital nomad finding ways to stay happy and healthy while traveling around the world, her hobbies include cooking, eating out, discovering new cuisines, watching horror flicks and reading fantasy novels.