Popularity isn’t a Measure of a Diet’s Effectiveness

A lot of popular things aren’t effective. Almost any of the popular diets will work, but most are unsustainable.  The results produced by extreme exercise and diet programs aren’t any more sustainable than the programs themselves. Quickly done, quickly undone. When I argue that the results produced by a low card diet aren’t sustainable, people will defend it as if I was attacking a member of their family. A low-carb diet certainly wouldn’t be my choice, but if you can sustain it as a lifestyle, then go for it.

Why are extreme, overly restrictive diets and motivation so popular if they aren’t practical solutions? Popularity is no indication of effectiveness. Look at the popularity of the reality TV program, The Biggest Loser. Forcing 400-pound people to work out four hours a day on a low-calorie diet makes for good TV, but the results are abysmal. Virtually all the contestants fail to keep the weight off. Approximately 14 out of 15 contestants gain back all the weight eight months after the program ends.[i]

The key to sustainable results is sustainable routines. People wrongly believe that a habit takes approximately 30-days to develop. If that is the case, why don’t these people develop better eating and exercise habits? After all, the program lasts several months. The answer has many components. First, the program is unsustainable. No one that has any real-life commitments can work out four hours a day. Another reason these people don’t create better habits because everything is being forced on them. You don’t develop self-discipline when you are being forced to do something. When these contestants finish the program, they are probably eager to exert their autonomy and reward themselves for all their hard work, with the one reward they have all been conditioned to crave, FOOD.

Another reason that these people don’t develop healthy habits is that they are taken out of their normal environment. When they go back home, they are surrounded by the same triggers and temptations they experienced before. Habits never die; they simply go dormant until they are jolted awake again. These people are food addicts. The only thing an addict needs to change is EVERYTHING. I was always astonished by parents that sent their kids to rehab, only to allow them to go back to the same school, associate with the same drug-using friends, only to be surprised to discover their kids were using again. When people are too focused on short term results, they gravitate to unsustainable programs. The absolute best examples of this are the low carb diets, Adkins, the uber-popular Ketogenic Diet, and now the Carnivore Diet. Do you think any of those diets are sustainable? Before you answer, let me put it this way, do you think you will never eat another tasty carb in your life?

Low carb diets produce dramatic results. When you cut carbs from your diet, you’ll drop five to ten pounds in a week. It isn’t fat loss, because that would be impossible. You would have to create a weakly caloric deficit of 18,000 to 36,000 calories. To help put this in perspective, the weekly maintenance caloric intake for a 250-pound man is between 17,500 and 21,000 calories a week. People focused on quick-fixes get motivated by the immediate results it produces. Unfortunately, motivation is quickly replaced by disappointment when their rate of weight loss slows down to the normal one to two pounds per week that sensible dieting produces.

There are a lot of unethical people that will sell an attractive lie. Many of these experts know that people are looking for quick results, so they advocate low-carb diets because when you eliminate carbs from your diet, your muscles store less water. Since our bodies are approximately 60% water, instant weight loss. Even when you tell them it’s water weight, that doesn’t improve their appearance; they don’t care. The scale has moved. Even when you tell them it isn’t sustainable, they don’t care because they are looking for a quick fix, not a long-term solution. I focus on habits and lifestyle because those are the only effective long-term strategies. How many of the people that you know who stay thin year after year eat a low carb diet? How many simply control their portion sizes and eat a relatively clean diet.

The whole mentality of doing a diet connotes a quick fix mentality. It is our habits that make us who we are, not what we do for 10-weeks. When someone tells me that I don’t need to work out every day or eat perfectly all the time because I am thin. They just don’t get it. It is the habit of daily exercise and eating healthy, unprocessed foods that is responsible for me being thin. Even when you understand the importance of habits, if you are primarily focused on quick results, you’ll be too ambitious with the daily habits you connect with achieving your goal. We want to shrink the habit down so small in the beginning that we can do it on our worse day. That is why we will focus on shrinking the commitment. One way we shrink the resistance is by shrinking the change. Big changes, like eliminating an entire food group, are dramatic. Unless you are one of the few people that can thrive on a low carb diet, your Elephant is going to eventually reassert its autonomy by eating a boatload of carbs.

So, if the motivation isn’t an effective strategy for developing a good habit, what is? WILLPOWER. Willpower isn’t inexhaustible, as we will discuss in the next chapter, but unlike motivation, it gets stronger through repetition. Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist and foremost expert on self-control, has demonstrated that willpower can be developed like a muscle, making it a more solid foundation for the establishment of habits.[ii]

[i] Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D I, The Biggest Loser’ contestants gain again: Why weight keeps coming back, Today.

[ii] Muraven, Mark, Roy F. Baumeister, and Dianne M. Tice. “Longitudinal Improvement of Self-Regulation Through Practice: Building Self-Control Strength Through Repeated Exercise.” The Journal of Social Psychology 139.4 (1999): 446-57.)

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