Why We Are Not Failures, And The Truth About Fad Diets

This post will discuss why changing our habits is not supposed to be easy, why we are not failures if we struggle to make changes, how to choose the right weight loss program, and how someone can lose weight in this day and age. 
A Brief Introduction – We are not failures…and why it’s not supposed to be easy.
There is a juxtaposition between the commonly held believe that weight loss is easy, and the extremely real, solid evidence that it is not. This leads many individuals to believe that weight is a reflection of personal weakness and failed character, and that success is predetermined by your ability to suffer and endure hardship (that is often required with fad/restrictive diets). Not only do these fad, and sometimes extremely restrictive diets not work, but these diets themselves may break people. Many people feel that if they cannot adhere to these restrictive diets long term, that they are failures and just can’t resist temptation. Could it simply be that in just 50 short years the world has gone from a willful place to one filled with weakness?
Here you are: you may have battled your weight possibly even since childhood, you’ve spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on various dieting efforts, and you’re blaming your own lack of willpower? As I see it as evidenced by your ongoing commitment over the years, you have incredible amounts of willpower. I’d go so far as to wager that in all likelihood, you have spent more willpower on weight management than on any other area in your life.
So is it a lack of willpower that has led to the tripling of childhood obesity rates over the course of the past 40 years? Have we suddenly raised a generation of toddlers and elementary school kids who just don’t have the same willpower of prior generations?
Of course not.
It’s not about willpower. If it were about willpower, if it were about just wanting it badly enough, the world would be skinny. It’s about change and it’s about beliefs.
In terms of change, the world is very, very different from what it was just 50 short years ago, and there are many, many things that have an impact upon a person’s choices and weight. These days, cheap calories are everywhere and everyone’s telling us to eat them. Where we used to go to buy gas, there are now junk-food supermarkets. Where eating out used to be a rare treat, it’s now affordable and convenient enough to be a multiple-time-a-week occurrence. And, of course, there are supersized portions and tens of billions of dollars a year of food industry advertising to now contend with, coupled with the fact that high fat/sugar/salt foods light up the pleasure centres in our brains and become addictive, on top of the fact that cost of living has increased dramatically and wage rates have not increased to match inflation (leaving people less and less money to live) – and the list goes on!
It’s a different world now, and the default in this world is weight gain, and simple, brute-force willpower doesn’t stand a chance (for most individuals anyway), without the right knowledge, support, and a few ups and downs along the way.
Why Extreme Fad Diets Do Not Work
A fad diet is a weight loss plan or aid that promises dramatic results. These diets typically don’t result in long-term weight loss and they are usually not very healthy. In fact, some of these diets can actually be dangerous to your health. Examples of these include the ‘Military Diet’, the ‘Cabbage Soup Diet’, extremely low calorie diets, etc.
Weight Cycling and Metabolic Slowdown
The more restrictively a person diets, the more likely they are to experience regular weight cycling. It’s like the infamous ‘yo-yo’ effect, but unlike a yo-yo, sometimes the upswing winds up at a higher location than where it started.
The biggest danger to aggressive weight cycling is metabolic slowdown. If a person undertakes an extremely restrictive diet, they are likely to lose a disproportionate amount of muscle – meaning that losing 50 pounds in a very short period of time will cause a greater loss of muscle tissue than losing the same amount of pounds slowly. Muscle is responsible for a fair amount of our total daily caloric burn, and is also of course responsible for much of our feelings of vigor and energy. Consequently, an ultra-rapid 50-pound loss may lead a person to not only lose the actual strength to continue with their efforts, but also suffer from a disproportionate loss of muscle and perhaps an amplified near-starvation adapted metabolic response.
This phenomenon may help to explain why it Is that people who lose large amounts of weight rapidly often regain more than they’d lost despite in fact not eating more than they used to. If that person goes back to the life they were living before their ultra-rapid weight loss (which many do at some point in their lifetime), even though they are not eating any more than they did prior to losing weight, they’ll gain it back more than they lost because their body now burns fewer calories than it used to. Also, the weight they gain back will primarily be fat, which is often why body fat percentages often climb higher following a weight cycle. Click here, here, here or here, for examples of research articles that explain some of the many mechanisms behind weight cycling and metabolic slowdown.
So, how do you choose the right weight loss program, you might ask?
Look for “Red Flags”
The weight loss industry is not regulated, and typically uses appealing marketing ploys, and/or anecdotal stories to make you believe that it is the be all end all weight loss solution. It is up to you to choose a safe and trustworthy weight loss program (not to say you aren’t allowed to get sucked into the wrong program once or twice – we’re all human!).
Here are some “red flags” that may tell you that a program does not meet your health needs:

  • Promises fast weight-loss (more than one kilogram (two pounds) per week).
  • Recommends a very low calorie diet plan (below 800 calories) per day) without medical supervision.
  • Does not encourage long term realistic lifestyle changes, including regular exercise and a healthy diet that suits your lifestyle and overall health. E.g., diets that recommend excluding large groups of food or extreme calorie restriction such as the ‘Military Diet’, ‘Cabbage Soup Diet’, etc.
  • Tries to make you dependent on their company by selling you products such as foods or supplements rather than teaching you how to make good choices from regular grocery store food.
  • Does not encourage long term realistic lifestyle changes, including regular exercise and a healthy diet that suits your lifestyle and overall health. E.g., diets that recommend excluding large groups of food or extreme calorie restriction such as the ‘Military Diet’, ‘Cabbage Soup Diet’, etc.
  • Employs salespeople who act as “counselors”, but are only trained on the program and the company’s products and not on healthy approaches to help you change your behaviour to help you lose weight.
  • Requires you to sign a long term, expensive contract.
  • Pressures you to sign up right away by offering a “special price”.
  • Does not tell you about risks that may go along with weight loss or their specific program (for example: if you have diabetes and take prescription medication, it may affect you differently after you lose weight).
  • Promotes weight loss aids like starch blockers, fat-burners, herbs, supplements or amino acids that have not been scientifically proven to have any health benefits. Talk to a dietitian or other health professional to find out this information.
  • Does not offer support or follow-up to help you lose weight and keep it off.

If it sounds too good or too easy to be true, it probably is.
So, even with a good weight loss program, how does a person lose weight in this day and age, when it seems that the default is to gain, the environment is toxic, and the deck is conclusively stacked against us, you might ask?
According to the founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, Dr. David Katz, it’s not about developing willpower, it’s about developing skillpower. The good news is that the skills required aren’t the classic triad of suffering, sacrifice, and struggle that fad diets normally require. The skills required are organization, planning, and thoughtfulness – and with those skills, it is possible not only to experience permanency with weight loss, but perhaps more important, it’s possible to enjoy a normal, healthy, and friendly relationship with food. ‘Skillpower’, while it does take time and often support to master, gets easier with time, as the more practice a person has with any particular skill, the better that person will get at it, and the more naturally it will come. It’s also about identifying what works for you and your lifestyle; which again, becomes much easier with time. We are so uniquely different – so comparing ourselves to others does not help.
– Felicia Newell, BScAHN, MScAHN, RD(c)
Felicia Newell is our Official NEM Nutritionist and has a Bachelor of Science in Applied Human Nutrition, as well as a Master of Science in Applied Human Nutrition. For the past several years, Felicia has worked at a university research centre with a focus on food security, food access, and policies relating to food; she has taught university level nutrition courses; and she is currently working at a large chain grocery store helping her community make healthier choices. One of Felicia’s passions is helping others fight through the confusing misinformation that is out there in the ever-changing and growing world of food and nutrition. Another one of her passions lies in working toward a future where everyone has access to enough affordable, healthy, safe and culturally appropriate food, that is produced, processed and distributed in socially, economically and ecologically sustainable ways. Felicia has published a paper in the Canadian Journal of Public Health titled, ‘Is the Minimum Enough: Affordability of a Nutritious Diet for Minimum Wage Earners in Nova Scotia’.
Read more about her story here, and on her Facebook page, or follow her on Instagram: @felicianewellnutrition. Click here for more NEM experts.