Do diets actually work for sustainable weight loss? Here’s how to make every diet work for you.

Two healthy diet bowls

Do diets actually work?

I’d say most diets lead to unsustainable weight loss. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for them. 

Just to be clear, I’m not saying diets are good or bad. Instead, we’ll explore why it’s ok to experiment with them if you’d like and what you can take from that experience. 

Read the entire article or use the table of contents below to skip ahead.

Do diets actually work? Or do they lead to unsustainable weight loss? 

Maybe, according to one study.

Researchers conducted a study with with more than 21,000 overweight and obese participants. They compared the effects of 14 popular diets on weight loss and cardiovascular disease risk. Some of the diets included in the study were.

  • Multiple low fat diets
  • Multiple low carb diets
  • Paleo
  • Weight watchers
  • DASH
  • Mediterranean

A complete list of all the diets in the study

What they found was that after six months each diet helped the majority of participants lose weight and reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Not one diet stood head and shoulders above the others as there was little differences in the results.

However, after 12 months these results diminished for all diets, except for the Mediterranean diet, which continued to provide benefits for cardiovascular health. What this tells us is probably something you already know. All diets are designed to work and can help you achieve weight loss in a short period of time. But maintaining weight loss is an entirely separate effort that needs to be addressed differently.

Which leads us to this.

Do diets actually work? They should. Here’s how every single diet can help you

A diet will work for weight loss if it puts you in a consistent calorie deficit over time. It won’t work if it does not not do this. 

I’m not a proponent of any particular diet. I prefer to think of myself as a nutritional agnostic. But that doesn’t mean every diet you’ve ever been on or decide to try can’t help you.

Every single diet can help you lose weight if it helps you create a calorie deficit. This is the primary factor that drives short term weight loss. While maintaining a calorie balance or eating at maintenance calories helps you maintain that weight loss over an extended period of time.

  • It doesn’t matter much if you eat carbs or don’t eat carbs.
  • If you eat after 7 pm or don’t eat after 7 pm.
  • If you eat meat or don’t eat meat.

Weight management all comes back to calorie balance. Create a deficit and you’ll lose weight, eat at maintenance and you’ll maintain weight., eat in a calorie surplus and you’ll gain weight. And when weight is managed most health markers will naturally improve.

Then why do so many of us kinda suck at diets?

It’s because logic and ideas can influence decisions, but, feelings determine what we ultimately do. Just because you know a calorie deficit is needed for weight loss doesn’t mean you’ll do it. Our social relationships, environment, energy, and mood all can influence our decision making when it comes to what we eat. And hell, sometimes you may be making what you feel is the best choice but are not aware of how much you’re eating.

Diets get blasted all the time by “fitness experts” as being a waste of time. I completely disagree with this. Experimenting with multiple diets over my lifetime has taught me so much about food. Trying diets like keto, paleo, vegan, and intermittent fasting can be a wonderful opportunity to learn what works well for you, what doesn’t, and what you enjoy and don’t enjoy.

For example:

  • Keto go F yourself. Too restrictive for me and I kinda like carbs. But you get along well with some people, so you’ve got that going for you
  • Intermittent fasting, I like you. Not all the time but it’s nice to know we can hang out every once in a while
  • Paleo, you make sense to me but sometimes I’d like to eat yogurt and cheese
  • Vegan, you are hardcore. But because of you I buy better animal protein and eat less of it while eating more veggies. Plus, my Dad likes you.
  • Intuitive eating. You seem really nice and I like the idea of you. But I feel like intuitive eating is what got most of us into this nutrition pickle. 
  • Tracking calories. Not really a diet but regardless you are a bitch. However, you taught me so much about how much I’m eating, calories, and portion sizes. For that, I owe you a lot.

Everything is an opportunity. Even every diet that you’ve been on or will go on.

If you’re on a “diet” now or are thinking of trying one in the future here are a few steps you can take to make it an experience that helps you long term.

  • Create more awareness: As you’re working through the diet write down things you enjoy about it, don’t enjoy, and what you like and don’t like.
  • Feelings, emotions, mood: Take notes on how you felt thought the day. What your moods were like and if you noticed any other changes to your feelings, emotions, and mood.
  • Internal health: Did you notice less bloating, more energy, and did blood work come back better
  • Misc: Log anything else you feel is important.

Now that we know how diets can work or not work for you, and understand that they’re an opportunity to learn more about what works for you and your relationship with food. How can you create a diet for yourself that makes sense now and forever?

Making your diet actually work for you

Healthy meal

I’m a believer that the key to any good nutrition plan emphasizes structure over rules. You want to remove as much – I’m allowed to do this and not allowed to do that. Or – This is good but if I do this it’s bad – type thinking.

Instead, create simple, science-based, and proven to be successful guidelines.

Create calorie and food awareness

Let’s check our egos at the door and admit what is going on. If you’re gaining weight it’s because you’re eating too much even if you think you’re not. While you don’t have to count calories to be successful, calories do count. To create more calorie awareness start learning more about your food.

  • Read labels and look at things like serving sizes, calories in a serving size, protein, carbs, and fats
  • If it doesn’t have a label lookup nutrition information online using sites like nutrition date or Myfitnesspal.
  • Experiment with using a food scale and weighing portion sizes
  • Learn more about what foods are proteins, carbs, and fats

Eat foods you enjoy and avoid overly restricting

Create a shortlist of your 3 to 5 favorite proteins, veggies, fruits, starchy carbs, and healthy fats. These can make up the majority of your grocery shopping list. Combine these foods and your meal template becomes limitless.

Download the cheat sheet by clicking the imageweekly meal planning document

For example, my list below with some go-to meals.

  • Proteins: Team chicken thigh, turkey, ground beet
  • Veggies: Asparagus, broccoli, those frozen bags of stir fry veggies
  • Fruits: All berries, banana (learning to like you), and kiwi for me-he
  • Starchy carbs: Potato (sweet and regular), white rice, plantain
  • Fats: Olive oil, grass-fed butter, almonds

And now for a simple meal.

  • 2 palms of chicken thigh
  • 2 fists of that frozen stir fry
  • 1 banana because I don’t feel like cooking potatoes
  • 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • Add some salt, buffalo seasoning, and get in my belly

While you’re at it, make a quick list of some of your favorite meals, dishes, or ethnic cuisines. Drop those bad boys in easy to understand categories that help you avoid restriction.

What can I eat…

  • More of Lean proteins, veggies, and fruits
  • Some of Cheese, bacon, trail mix
  • Less of: Hyper palatable trigger foods that are hard to resist (ex: ice cream, pizza, chips, fries)

Meal planning and more uniform eating

Too much randomness and variety can lead to unpredictable outcomes. But too much rigidity can leave you feeling bored and craving something new.

Yes, when it comes to eating “healthy” and maintaining a healthy weight there is some level of discipline you’re going to have to display. You’ll need to say no sometimes. But nutrition isn’t an all or nothing thing.

Think of eating on a continuum. When you have specific goals like beach season you can tighten up the diet a bit and ramp-up to a 9 or a 10. When winter rolls around and sweatpants and hoodies are in season you can dial it back to a 6 or 7.

An easy way to go about this is by keeping a few homemade meals and meals out into your rotation. This makes it much easier to adjust base on your goals because you know how much you’re eating all the time.

I like eating the same breakfast and lunch all week long and alternating between two different dinners with one of them usually being a meal out socially.

A quick note on recipes. Too many people get bogged down on finding them. I highly recommend learning how to cook without recipes. This will save you a tremendous amount of time and frustration.

I want to be clear. I’m not telling you to eat boiled chicken and broccoli. Only to simplify the process for yourself until you build solid habits, skills, and start seeing progress.

Make all of this easier for you to do

Environment trumps motivation every single time. You won’t be motivated to cook or eat healthy all the time. This is ok and to be expected.

When was the last time you were motivated to brush your teeth or take out the trash?

You do those things because you understand the benefits, the consequences, and most importantly because you’ve been doing them for so long that they’re now a habit.

Changing the way that you eat, following a diet, tracking calories, or any other approach at improving your nutrition is hard at first. But isn’t everything? As you practice it becomes easier. And that’s what this is – it’s practice.

Do diets actually work? Recommended reading 

If you enjoyed today’s article on why diets lead to unsustainable weight loss. Check out the following articles on the blog dedicated to helping you improve your nutrition.



Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Photo by Jennifer Burk on Unsplash


Ge L, Sadeghirad B, Ball GDC, et al. Comparison of dietary macronutrient patterns of 14 popular named dietary programmes for weight and cardiovascular risk factor reduction in adults: systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomised trials [published correction appears in BMJ. 2020 Aug 5;370:m3095]. BMJ. 2020;369:m696. Published 2020 Apr 1. doi:10.1136/bmj.m696