Do Diets Work for Weight Loss? Explaining the Facts

Published October 20, 2022
Young woman making smoothies in her kitchen at home

If you've tried a diet to lose weight, you are certainly not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 17.1% of adults are on a diet on any given day. But are those diets successful for the long-term? Unfortunately, much of the evidence points to "no" as the answer.

If you want to lose weight, it's possible to find a weight loss plan that works for you. But restrictive dieting may not be the best path to success. Taking care of yourself with good sleep habits, nourishing foods, stress management techniques, and invigorating movement are habits that can improve your life in a variety of ways. And weight loss might be one of them.

What Is a Diet, Exactly?

The word "diet" has come under fire in recent years. For example, you may have heard of anti-diet culture, a movement that seeks to reject pressure to be thin or conform to conventional standards about body weight or body appearance. But your feelings and opinions about diets might change depending on how you use the word.

Clinical Definition

In nutrition circles, the term "diet" simply refers to your pattern of eating. For example, if you are a vegetarian, you follow a plant-based diet. When health experts advise that you get a balanced diet, they are recommending that you consume adequate amounts of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. The term "diet" technically has nothing to do with weight loss.

Casual Definition

When many of us use the term "diet" in casual conversation, we often refer to a short-term meal plan that involves some form of restriction. For example, many people follow diets that involve cutting carbs or cutting calories to lose weight. Often, this form of dieting has a restriction phase and a maintenance phase (which might also include some form of restriction).

Types of Weight Loss Diets

There are several different types of diets that people might use to lose weight. While each of these diets employs different mechanisms, the bottom line is the same for most of them: they reduce the number of calories you consume throughout the day.

Some different types of diets include:

  • High-protein diets that usually involve cutting back on starchy foods, fruits and vegetables and focussing on meat and other forms of protein.
  • Ketogenic diets that involve consuming high amounts of fat, moderate amounts of protein, and very few grams of carbohydrate.
  • Low-calorie diets (LCD) and very-low-calorie diets (VLCD) that require you to cut back on your total calorie intake but don't necessarily dictate the type of calories you should consume.
  • Low-carb diets that require you to cut out most carbohydrates from sources like bread, pasta, and sometimes, fruit.
  • Low-fat diets that eliminate both healthy fats (like those found in nuts and seeds) and less healthy saturated fats.
  • Meal replacement plans that require you to replace a certain number of meals per day with shakes or bars.

Throughout the years, different types of diets have become popular. Some have fallen out of favor only to return years later as the latest, greatest fad. These confusing trends can make it exceptionally difficult for people to find the right diet for healthy eating or weight loss.

Do Diets Work For Weight Loss?

Mounting evidence shows that calorie restriction might not be the best way to lose weight. For example, in 2021, The Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome examined many different types of diets and found that there was no single best strategy for weight loss and weight maintenance.

Furthermore, while some diets might help you to shed pounds temporarily, maintaining the weight loss is a problem for most folks.

In 2020, the British Medical Journal published an examination of over 21,000 patients who followed different types of diets. Initially, the diets were equally effective at modest weight loss. But after a year, many of the study participants had regained weight. These findings suggest that diets are pretty similar and didn't show that any one type of diet is best for losing weight or keeping weight off.

So does this evidence suggest that diets are never successful? Not exactly. Some people have successfully lost weight on diets and have kept the weight off.

Since 1994, The National Weight Control Registry has tracked people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least one year. Almost all the participants changed their food intake to lose weight and most of them report continuing to follow a low-calorie, low-fat diet to maintain their weight loss.

But for many of these people, weight loss success is also attributed to certain lifestyle habits. More than 70% of the successful losers report weighing themselves once a week and eating breakfast every day. More than 90% of them exercise an average of one hour every day. Many of them also report getting enough sleep and better quality sleep.

There does not seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach to losing weight and keeping it off. So if you are interested in trying a diet, it's important to find a plan you like and can stick with. And it's looking more and more like controlling stress, getting enough sleep, and moving more are critical to weight loss success.

Is There a Healthier Approach to Weight Loss?

Researchers have not only investigated whether or not diets can be successful for weight loss, they have also looked into whether or not restrictive diets are healthy at all. Some experts believe that any restrictive eating plan has the potential to encourage unhealthy body image and unhealthy practices such as binge eating and even eating disorders, especially in young women. But other experts disagree and the subject remains an issue of great debate.

So where does this leave you if you have decided that you want to lose weight? The first step may be to examine your incentive for wanting to slim down. If you spend hours on social media and have established standards based on photos posted by influencers, then it might be time to take a step back. Studies have shown that overuse of social media sites, like Instagram, can lead to unrealistic comparisons and body dissatisfaction.

Instead of focussing on the standards and appearances of others, think about how you feel about your body. Bodies of all sizes and shapes can be healthy and attractive.

A highly respected approach called Health at Every Size (HAES) advocates that weight is not an adequate indicator of health and that weight loss is not an appropriate end goal. Proponents of HAES promote consuming healthy foods (rather than dietary restriction), and engaging in physical activity because it is enjoyable rather than a means to an end. They also promote the use of intuitive eating practices - or honoring your own internal cues to determine when and what to eat.

If you make a decision that you would like to reach a lower weight that is healthy for you, then you'll need to find a sustainable way to reach your goal. Some form of a dietary change might be helpful, as long as it is sustainable for you long-term and doesn't compromise your physical and mental well being.

Healthy Ways to Lose Weight

A restrictive diet is likely to end in failure and frustration. Even if you do lose a few pounds, the weight is likely to come back. So it is important to find a food plan that makes you feel good and provides adequate nutrition.

You will also want to consider lifestyle factors for losing weight and keeping it off. Getting enough sleep, managing stress, and moving more can help improve your mental health and help you feel empowered to stay healthy. Consider these tips if you choose to begin a healthy weight loss journey.

Get Expert Help

Sometimes people don't follow a diet because they never liked the food choices to begin with or they feel like they are being punished. You increase your chances of losing weight and maintaining weight loss by following a way of eating that you enjoy.

Consider consulting with a registered dietitian to help you find realistic ways to stick with your healthy eating plan. A qualified professional can develop a personalized approach to eating that includes foods you enjoy and help you to feel nourished.

Consider Food Prep and Budget

When deciding on a plan, consider how easy it is to shop for food and prepare the food. Take into consideration your budget as well since you'll be much less likely to follow a plan closely if you can't afford the food.

Plan ahead for quick meal assembly for the days when you don't have the time or energy for cooking. Stock your kitchen with healthy foods that you enjoy and that you can easily assemble to keep you on track with your plan.

Get Enough Good-Quality Sleep

Adults require about 7-9 hours of sleep at night. Skimping on good-quality sleep can increase cravings for high-calorie foods. After a night of good-quality sleep you might feel well rested and less tired during the day. Getting better quality sleep and adequate sleep time can help you be successful in losing weight and keeping it off.

Manage Your Stress Level

Stress can cause you to eat too much and also makes it hard to sleep well. Mindfulness can help people who have lost weight regulate emotions, manage stress, and help maintain weight loss. Try mindfulness techniques such as meditation through a phone app like Headspace, or try guided meditation scripts such as mantras to chant.

Find Enjoyable Ways to Move More

Find ways to fit activity into your day, and you'll be more likely to lose weight and maintain your weight loss. Doing activity you enjoy can help ensure you'll do it regularly.

Ask a friend to help you stay motivated and exercise together. If you want to add strength-training exercise, you may want to hire a trainer to get you started or join a gym that offers free introductory exercise training.

Be Kind to Yourself

Celebrate your body through your entire journey. If a diet or exercise plan doesn't feel right, then try something new. You deserve to feel great and stay healthy in whatever way makes you feel strong and empowered. Remember that you and only you should decide what is right for you.

Do Diets Work for Weight Loss? Explaining the Facts