Expert Opinions

Expert Opinions Archive

It seems like I’ve tried every diet but I always quit or regain more weight than I lost. What am I doing wr

B , JAustin, Texas

You are not alone. Although we are bombarded with information about eating right and exercising, millions of people still battle their weight. If dieting was truly effective, the problem would have been solved with the first one.


For many people, diets are not just doomed to fail, they’re doomed to backfire. Here’s why:


Your body is programmed to survive


Your body has primitive, complex survival mechanisms that help keep you alive during limited periods of starvation. Now that food is abundant and readily available, most modern “famines” are the result of self-imposed diets. While it seems that diets backfire, this is really the result of your body adapting to being under-fueled. 


In addition, when you follow a very low calorie diet, you lose water, fat and muscle. The reason you lose muscle is that it burns calories so some of your muscle mass may be given up to lower your metabolism and “save you” from starvation.


If you return to your previous eating habits when the diet is over, your body quickly replaces its fat stores but not the muscle you lost. You’ll have a higher body fat percentage and a lower metabolism than before the diet. That is why you usually gain more than you lost in the first place. In addition, a higher body fat percentage can also increase your risk for diseases like diabetes and heart disease.


Deprivation can lead to cravings


It is not just your body that rebels when you diet. Your mind may rebel too. When certain foods are forbidden you may feel deprived, leading to powerful cravings. Eventually, when you give in to the cravings for these “bad” foods, you might feel guilty and out of control and this can lead to more guilt and more overeating.


Diets ignore the rest of you


The biggest problem with diets is they focus on what and how much to eat without addressing why people eat in the first place.


Many people eat or overeat because of environmental triggers such as appealing food, automatic meal times and learned messages like “clean your plate.” Many people also eat due to emotional triggers like stress, boredom, loneliness, sadness or anger.


Since these triggers don’t go away simply by imposing a strict set of diet rules, you may try to cope with them by eating the “allowed foods.” In other words, you never really learn to stop eating out of habit, learn to recognize emotional eating or find other coping skills. As a result when the diet is over, you go right back to eating the way you did before.   


So what does work?


You are probably thinking, “If diets don’t work, what am I supposed to do?” To begin with, if a diet plan you’re considering isn’t something you can imagine doing for the rest of your life, don’t bother doing it for a day! 


The key to solving your struggle with weight or food does not lie in a magical or even a logical combination of diet and exercise. The real solution lies in finally addressing your relationship with food and learning to recognize and effectively cope with your eating triggers. 


Start by asking yourself “Am I hungry?” whenever you have and urge to eat.  Remember that hunger is a physical feeling. It is not the same thing as appetite, cravings, or the desire to eat. This will help you determine whether you are eating in response to a trigger instead of a need for fuel.


If there was an environmental or emotional trigger, ask yourself what you could do to better cope with that emotion.  For instance, if stress triggered your urge to eat, could you try a relaxation exercise instead? Begin to relearn to trust your innate ability to know when and how much to eat and learn to meet your other needs in more effective ways than food. 



Michelle May, M.D., F.A.A.F.P. is a Board Certified Family Physician and a recovered yoyo dieter. She is the award-winning author of Am I Hungry? What To Do When Diets Don’t Work and “H is for Healthy – Weight Management for Kids.” She is the founder of the Am I Hungry? comprehensive non-diet weight management program and a consultant to Healthways.

> Printer-friendly Version Return to Top