5 Reasons Most Diets Fail, and How to Succeed

PHOTO: Changing your diet for the better should leave you feeling energized, light, clear-headed, and happy.
Ivan Mateev/Getty Images

The No. 1 thing most diets have in common is the lack of stick-with-it-ness. Many of us equate the word diet with short-term deprivation, something you go "on" and ultimately go "off."

In a survey out this week, a UK food company found that of those who diet regularly, two out of five quit within the first seven days, one out of five last a month, and the same number–just 20%–make it to the three-month mark.

I've seen this pattern often. Before working with me, most of my clients have dieted repeatedly, and while each attempt "worked" for weight loss, it wasn't doable long-term. The solution: pinpoint the pitfalls, and implement savvy strategies to fine-tune your approaches. The five real-life tweaks below can keep you from throwing in the towel, so you can succeed at sane, sustainable weight loss.

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Why Most Diets Fail, and How to Succeed

Body rebellion

Drastic or too-strict diets can trigger mood swings, headaches, physical and mental fatigue, irritability, digestive upset, and brain fog; feelings some of my clients have referred to as withdrawal, and others have deemed zombie-like. Nobody wants to feel this way, and the truth is, changing your diet for the better should leave you feeling energized, light, clear-headed, and happy.

The Fix

Revisit your history, and vow not to repeat previous missteps. You know your body better than anyone, which means you probably know exactly what's made you feel miserable in the past. When I ask my clients about this, I tend to hear the same responses over and over – too few calories and too little carbs seem to be the biggest culprits. And when I ask, "If you could go back in time, what would you do differently that may have helped you feel more balanced?" most people have an intuitive response that's right on target, such as building in an extra snack, increasing portions, or adding back some fruit.

While it may seem illogical to eat more when trying to lose weight, trust your body. Yes, you need to cut back to shed pounds, but undercutting your body's basic needs can compromise your metabolism and your health, which is why you get such strong "stop it already" signals. To succeed, take a Goldilocks approach – not too little, not too much, just right.

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Hunger

Feeling hungry five minutes, or even an hour after you eat is not necessary for shrinking your shape. In fact, chronic hunger generally indicates that your diet is imbalanced or inadequate, which can cause your body to conserve energy, and resist weight loss.

The Fix

To lose pounds and inches without perpetual hunger pangs, include healthy foods that boost satiety and keep you fuller longer, namely those high in lean protein (organic eggs, poultry, fish, beans and lentils), fiber (fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, lentils), and good fat (avocado, nuts, seeds, and extra virgin olive and coconut oils). A 350 calorie meal of one cup of vegan black bean soup, topped with a quarter of a chopped avocado, two cups of grilled asparagus, and a half cup of cooked quinoa, will leave you feeling a whole lot fuller than a 350 calorie frozen diet dinner.

Another smart strategy is to choose foods that allow you to eat more volume without racking up excess calories, including water-rich fresh fruits and veggies, and airy starches, like organic popcorn and puffed whole grains. One half cup of organic corn provides about 15 grams of carbohydrate, about the same amount in three cups of organic popcorn, and one half cup of brown rice packs about 22 grams of carbs, roughly 8 more than one cup of puffed brown rice.

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Why Most Diets Fail, and How to Succeed

Cravings

I often ask my clients to list which splurge foods they could happily go through the rest of their lives without, and which they know in their guts they simply cannot or don't want to swear off forever. It's a critical question, because long-term weight control is a lifetime commitment. Not finding a way to build-in indulgences is the primary reason many people ride the weight rollercoaster–lose 20 pounds, gain back 25, lose 30, gain back 40…

Trying to be "perfect" week after week typically leads to feelings of deprivation, resentment, even anger or depression, and culminates in either binge eating, or diet abandonment.

The Fix

Ditch the "all or nothing" mentality. In that mindset, one small diet deviation triggers thoughts like, "Well, I blew it, I might as well go all out!" which keeps you stuck. If you're worried about overdoing it, allow yourself small splurges in ways that reduce the chance of overeating.

For example, once a week, split a dessert at a restaurant, or buy one cookie from a bakery rather than bringing home a box. Also, be sure to include nutrient-rich weight loss friendly foods that feel like splurges, such as almond butter, avocado, and dark chocolate. Not being able to look forward to and savor your food is a surefire recipe for disaster.

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Social pressure

Numerous clients have told me that when they turn down food or drinks because they're trying to eat healthier, friends and family members respond with comments like, "You don't need to lose weight, you look fine."

Many report feeling guilted or enticed into eating foods they're trying to avoid, and research confirms it. One recent study found that friends who eat together consume more food than those paired with strangers, and friends give each other "permission" to overeat.

The Fix

Break the eating-as-entertainment pattern. Rather than scheduling social time around happy hour and dinners out, mix things up. Go to a play rather than a movie (where munching on popcorn and candy isn't allowed), or go out dancing and volunteer to be the designated driver, so you can sip on H2O all evening.

If you get push back, concretely explain why your goals are important to you (e.g. eating better helps you sleep, so you're more productive at work, makes your heartburn go away, keeps your migraines at bay…), and ask for support. Your friends may feel like they've lost a partner in crime, but if they care about you, they'll make peace with adjusting the way you spend time together.

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Emotions

We're practically programmed from birth to use food emotionally. We bond and celebrate over meals, use food to show our affection, bring others food in times of crisis, and use food as a means of comfort. A terrible day at work, or a long-awaited promotion may both trigger you to eat. In my 15+ years counseling clients, I'm certain that overcoming emotional eating is the greatest weight loss hurdle.

The Fix

Strong emotions tend to drown out rational thoughts, and distance us from the consequences of immediate actions. In other words, when you're really sad, angry, or scared, and you know that eating ice cream is going to make you feel better right now, it's easy to push away thoughts about how you'll feel tomorrow, or detach from goals that aren't relevant in that moment. It's not easy, and it doesn't happen overnight, but you can change that pattern.

Even if you did not eat emotionally 50, 60 or 70 percent of the time, this shift can have a dramatic impact on your weight. To learn how, check out my previous post 5 Ways to Shut Down Emotional Eating, and use Health.com as a resource. If you're feeling pulled towards the pantry, hop online to check out success stories, read up on meditation, or do a little yoga– each of these things can help dial back the intensity of your feelings, and reconnect you with your broader objectives.

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's Health's contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Connect with Cynthia on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

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