Updated: May 24
2020 marks my 9th year running a 5000 sq ft fitness and performance facility, my 10th year as an Exercise Physiologist and my 14th year coaching as a career in general. It also marks my 24th year of consistent, year-round strength training being an athlete and being around this industry on a daily basis at every level.
In that time, I have seen more diet styles, systems and approaches come through than I could ever fully sum up in a given blog post (mainly, since I couldn’t remember them all, or it would be too long and not get to the point for you).
However, similar to the saying that “success leaves clues”, so does failure. I feel that no matter where someone got their guidance or information, that there are incredibly common things that occur during or after someone attempts a diet to gain or lose weight, that lead to potential or certain failure.
I have much respect for anyone who is trying to help people succeed at anything, but the biggest problem in my opinion is when someone goes too far to one end of the spectrum, tries to mass apply a system they deem superior or attempts to sway peoples views to match their own. I was guilty of this myself in my twenties, before I realized that the more I learn, the less I realize I know.
This creates a dichotomy of opinions and as you will see in my list below, it sets people up to basically not know what the hell to do to actually achieve sustainable success for themselves. A simple example of this dichotomy is strong, plant-based opinions compared to a carnivore diet or even just a heavy meat-based diet, high-carb versus a ketogenic diet, or flexible dieting versus following a set meal plan provided for you.
While each of these comparisons have different aspects to consider, it is just me giving examples for comparison prior to giving my professional opinion on why many people fail at weight management (both losing or gaining weight).
I also want to state, that each example listed below is the feedback from MY clients - the people I work with every week. I am not an online coach who puts out generic programs to the masses. I engage with, listen to, and help apply education and knowledge to solve real problems for hundreds of people each year.
The information listed below is real, is heard or seen often and should be considered before ever making a decision for yourself!
#1. No matter what dietary system you decide to try, if you do not account for total calories or understand energy balance, you will more than likely fail in the long-term.
Energy balance, quite simply stated, is the relationship between the total calories/energy you consume and the total calories/energy you burn or expend in a given timeframe (such as 1 day). You can think of this as calories in, and calories out to make it simple.
The key point to understand here, without getting into a lengthy blog post on what energy balance is, is that you have to understand that the energy going “in” is not an imaginary number that gets excluded or is not important simply because someone told you that a particular diet is superior.
I say with absolute confidence that many people think this way and do not even realize it. I have been told the following on many occasions:
“I thought I could eat as much fat as I want, since I am in ketosis and am fat adapted.”
“I didn’t realize I had to track my calories, I thought I just had to track and limit my sugar.”
“I am not eating any bread, so I don’t know why I am not losing weight? It doesn’t make sense, since I don’t buy it anymore.”
"As a diabetic, I only track my carbs, I didn’t realize I had to worry about how much I actually eat.”
"I skip breakfast and fast 14 hours a day, so I don’t understand why I am gaining weight. Do I have to fast longer?”
The statements I listed above are 100% real and we hear them from people ALL THE TIME. It is awesome if someone told you that certain foods or perhaps the diet they just started made them feel better or they lost 15 pounds. That is great for them and if they can sustain that, phenomenal!.
However, let me make this abundantly clear…
Regardless of the diet style you use, if you create a caloric deficit by consuming less energy than you expended - you will lose weight.
My point here is this… often times, people are quick to follow advice, yet do not learn why that advice may or may not work, let alone is it the right advice for them.
Take away: If you want to lose weight, you will need to be in a caloric deficit. If you want to gain weight, you will need to be in a caloric surplus. However you decide to diet or eat, it is your choice and should be the approach you enjoy most and can adhere to.
#2. A majority of people do not understand what is in the food they consume
This goes slightly hand in hand with #1 above, however what I mean here is that if you want to succeed for the long term on any form of diet, it is in your best interest to not just follow blindly. Learning what is in the foods you choose will give you a lot of control and power to make good decisions.
Over time, you will be able to intuitively eat, since you will know what you are consuming and how it affects your total energy balance (total calories) and how that falls in line with your current weight management or performance goals.
Take away: For a while, track your food. Learn what is in a banana for carbs and total calories, what has high amounts of protein and what foods have fibre in them. Then as you get support or make dietary decisions to meet goals, you have a basis of information to build a plan on and one that will be adaptable. Education is powerful and will create flexibility and freedom as opposed to following blindly and having no actual idea what is going on.
#3. If you don’t know how to eat after you finish a diet, that diet approach was failing you from the start.
This point is probably one of the most important to cover, since I know this occurs in many people. Think about how many people you know who could easily tell you about the different diets they have been on. Perhaps they tried to completely avoid sugar, but couldn’t keep it up. Maybe they tried keto, but after they couldn’t keep that up or didn’t like something about it, they didn’t know what else to do. Or maybe someone tried going to a total extreme and went from a mixed diet consisting of plants, vegetables, meats and other animal products to now being a vegan (fully plant based).
Now let’s say all of those people entered those diets, going from one approach to another to try it out. There is nothing directly wrong with trying any given diet style, especially since you could find a blend or particular approach that just resonates with you, makes you feel amazing and that you want to implement for the long term. That is awesome!
The problem is that if you start on a diet, are explained the guidelines and benefits, and along the way you don’t learn about total caloric intake, energy balance and what you are eating, then you really didn’t learn the essential information to provide the tools for long-term diet success.
Here is my main idea, illustrated in point form:
You started on keto, knew to limit total carbohydrates and focus on nutrient dense vegetables. You also knew you can eat good quality fatty meat sources, cheeses and fatty plant sources as long as your protein intake is moderate and you are in ketosis (you check your ketone levels)
During this time, you start to lose weight. You lose weight, since you created a caloric deficit by way of habit change and different food choices. This is great, and you are confident and motivated.
6 months later, you decide that you don’t enjoy the diet and find it hard to maintain with your personal lifestyle and interests (some people will thrive and do very well, so to be clear, I am not saying any diet is wrong for everyone)
Now you go back to “normal” eating, are completely confused and the book you bought to teach you about keto didn’t have a chapter on what to do when you decide to not do keto anymore….so now you over eat by mistake, end up in a calorie surplus and gain weight.
Take away: Any diet plan you start on should teach you fundamentals of nutrition, energy balance and weight management. Without this knowledge, you will likely attribute success or failure to specific factors such as food choices or various approaches to eating, potentially leading to unhealthy connections to various foods or ways of eating. Understanding that the best diet for YOU will be the one that you enjoy, understand, can adapt to and that allows you to reach your goals in a sustainable way.
Hopefully the points above allow you to have a critical thinking mindset when making any decisions. The more you understand and the more you learn, the easier it gets to be flexible and not stress about food. Keep adding layers to your understanding and soon enough you will have the tools in your toolbox to get the job done.
Keep things simple, and keep learning!