Short answer: Rarely and barely.
With new trendy diets emerging every few years, they typically have their share of dieters claiming that “it’s the only effective way to lose weight”.
Let's examine whether common diets actually bring any long-term weight loss.
The history of diets
Have you ever wondered:
"Isn't it weird how every new diet claims the old ones were all fads?"
Then a few years later, this trendy diet also doesn't live up to the hype, getting replaced by a newer one.
The low-fat diet was heavily popularised in the 1980s, being promoted by the diet food industry, government recommendations & healthcare professionals for weight loss.
Around 1995 the Zone diet and the Blood type diet became popular.
Then the Dukan diet and some “cleanses” trended around the 2000s.
The early 2010s was the time for gluten-free diets (and we'll talk about gluten in another article).
More recently it was Atkins, Paleo, ketogenic (low-carb), vegan, dairy-free and a few Meditteranean-based diets.
And since 2019, many of us confidently call breakfast-skipping habits “intermittent fasting”.
And despite coming up with new solutions to weight loss virtually every few years, our global weight problem is only getting worse.
Do common diets work in the long term?
In fact, most recent evidence suggests that the average person tries 126 diets during their lifetime.
Take a minute to ponder on that number.
That’s over two diets per year. Every year. For your entire life…
Two-thirds of the UK population are on a diet ‘most of the time’.
45 million Americans go on a diet each year.
And despite the high numbers of dieters, the results are less than modest. A common statistic going around the internet is that 95% of all diets fail.
It's not 95% of people that fail diets. It’s 95% of diets that fail people.
In other words, it’s not that people quit dieting.
Instead, what usually happens is this:
People stick to the diet for a couple of months or even half a year.
They lose a considerable amount of weight over that time - usually 5+% of their bodyweight.
However, after achieving some impressive results and feeling content, they decide it's time to end the diet and eat some "normal food".
As a result, they start gaining a little bit of weight. They either say: "No biggie, hopefully I'll keep off most of the weight." or "Oh no! My hard-earned gains! I need to go back on that diet if I want to stay slim."
They either continue this on-&-off diet cycle or eventually go back to their "normal" eating habits.
In either case, since their "normal" diet didn't change, their "normal" self won't either. In other words, you only stay slim while you're dieting, and your body regains the weight back on the moment you stop.
Unfortunately, after years of on-&-off diet cycles, our bodies grow less able to lose weight. They adapt to the constant feast-to-famine cycles by holding on to most of the energy (i.e. body fat) reserves. This is why most of us find it increasingly more difficult to lose weight, despite following harsher diets and doing more exhaustive workouts.
That's the sad truth about dieting. It doesn't work unless it becomes your lifestyle.
In fact, statistics show that after 5 years, four out of five people regain 90+% of the weight back on.
What's more, between 40-60% of people gain more weight than they lost while dieting.
To put this in perspective, if you took medication that will likely bring back 90% of your symptoms over the next 5 years, and has a 40-60% chance of making your symptoms even worse, would you take it? Would you simply give up? Or, would you look for a better, more effective alternative?
How to lose weight without dieting
While diets are hardly effective, there is a good approach for consistent long-term weight loss: develop healthy eating habits.
In fact, we've written a very thorough 5-step guide on how you can lose weight without dieting here:
In short, here are the five steps you can take:
1) Practice portion control
Research thas shown that by simply reducing your meal portions, you can easily lose weight and keep it off in the long-term.
You can read the story of this lady, who managed to lose 75lbs only by using portion control.
Here is a healthy weight-loss portion control guide for every meal:
One palm-sized protein
One fist of veggies
A handful of carbs
Just a tip-of-the-thumb of fat
A glass of water with a cucumber slice or a lemon wedge
2) Eat more protein for easier weight loss
Protein is the most helpful in losing body fat out of the 3 macronutrients (along with carbs and fat).
The benefits of eating more protein are:
provides a longer sensation of fullness
more lean mass (i.e. muscle)
uses more calories to be digested
least likely to be stored as fat if you eat in excess
What is more, protein is the main nutrient that most successful weight-loss diets focus on.
Most popular diets work largely because they shift away from sugar & processed foods, and towards eating more protein.
So, while you don't need to go on a diet to lose weight, you can take what makes most diets work and eat more protein with your meals.
3) Get moving & stay active
The goal of doing exercise is not to burn enough calories, so you can eat a muffin.
Exercise releases endorphins, making us happy and content. It is also one of the most essential parts of being a human.
So instead of annoyingly running on a treadmill for hours each week (unless that's your thing), you can take the following steps:
Find an activity you LOVE doing. Then schedule yourself doing it at least 1x /week.
Come up with 5 exercises that you enjoy doing. Tennis, swimming, punching bag - pick your options. Find a way to do them at least a few times a week. If you don't have at least 3 you can do right now, come up with more.
Increase your daily walking speed from slow to moderate.
Take the stairs everywhere you go.
At work, stand up every half an hour and do some stretching. Use a Pomodoro app to help you with 25-min alarms.
After lunch, go for a walk and get your mind off of "work mode" for a while.
Whenever you can, try to walk to work or meetings, instead of driving or taking transport.
4) Get good quality sleep
The benefits of getting quality sleep are:
preserving lean mass
improved brain function
improved hormone regulation
better mood & overall wellbeing
There's no need to even consider getting better sleep. I'm sure we all will enjoy it.
Here's how to make sure you get your 7-9h of sleep regularly:
Start easing off for sleep about 9-10h before you plan to wake up.
Stop working and avoid all screens (or use blue-light blocking glasses).
Do some calming activities: drink tea, meditate, read a book, call a friend.
Enjoy your evening routine of skincare, brush your teeth and get in comfortable sleepwear.
With ~8h left until your wake-up time, set the room temperature to cool (~22°C) and get under the sheets.
Play a bedtime story (there's a reason kids love it) or some nature sounds and ease off to sleep.
Enjoy the feeling of freshness and energy in the morning even without a coffee.
5) Eat mindfully and in peace
This habit alone has helped many of my clients keep the weight off while loving every bite and dramatically improving their relationship with food.
Here's how to eat mindfully:
Firstly, pay attention to your environment. Make sure your table is clear of clutter and you are eating in a quiet place.
Then, eat mindfully. Notice the colours of your food, the smells of it, have a small bite and notice the tastes and textures. Be present with each bite and notice the sensations.
Finally, be aware of any signs of fullness. Your goal should be to stop when you're around 80% full, since that's where you're happily full but not stuffed and heavy.
6) Love yourself and practice self-acceptance
Finally, as a bonus step, love yourself at any shape and size. It's okay to want to lose weight or change your body, but accept yourself as you are and learn to appreciate your features.
Practice saying this affirmation:
"I'm already awesome and I'm only getting more awesome."
Then, watch your outer world flourish as your inner world does.
While most diets talk about how much weight you can lose while on the diet, very few discuss how you can keep the weight off.
The next time you think about jumping on the next diet trend, consider this:
more than half of the Western population is dieting at any given time
95% of diets fail
four out of five dieters regain almost all of the weight back
about 50% of dieters end up heavier than they started
So, let’s ask again: Do popular weight-loss diets actually work?
Rarely and barely.
Instead, if you'd like to lose fat & keep it off, focus on creating long-term healthy eating habits, like portion control, getting regular exercise and sufficient sleep, eating mindfully and appreciating the journey.
What do you think about popular diets?