In the 1980s, low-fat diets were all the rage. In the 1990s, low-carb diets took off. And in the early 2000s, people went back — way back — to their caveman days, embracing everything from the Paleo diet to Whole 30 to the raw food diet.
But now that it’s 2020, nutritionists are rethinking what they’ve learned about weight loss science — and finding that the best diet might just be no diet at all.
“I don’t believe in diets—they aren’t sustainable,” says Rachel Goldman, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine in New York City. Ultimately, she says, many people turn to these ultra-trendy diets because they can lose weight quickly, which motivates them to keep going. But what might work in the short-term doesn’t necessarily work over the long-term.
Here’s why many of these fad diets fail — and what will really help you lose weight and stay healthy in 2020 (and 2030 and 2040).
Why trend diets fail
Fad diets have been around for more than a century, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Food Research. (In fact, one of the earliest ones was popularized in the 1820s by Lord Byron, who famously stayed slim on a diet of apple cider vinegar and water.)
In the 1930s, fans of the Hollywood Diet ate grapefruit with every meal; thirty years later, Jean Neidetch founded Weight Watchers. The late 1970s brought the emergence of the Slim Fast Diet, while the 1990s were marked by the Atkins Diet craze.
Today’s diets—like Keto, Paleo, and Whole 30—are more sophisticated than last century’s eating plans. But most of these fads share one thing in common: They usually won’t help you lose weight over the long-term. Here’s why:
Fad diets are hard to stick with.
“A lot of these diets are super strict and aren’t meant to last forever,” says Brooke Scheller, DCN, CNS, a doctor of clinical nutrition and head of nutrition at Freshly. For example, some of the more popular trends ban entire food groups, including dairy, legumes, and whole-grains. The problem, says Scheller, is that once people stop following the diet, they go back to their regular eating habits, which caused them to gain weight in the first place.
Restrictive dieting can cause you to burn out.
Even short-term diets can backfire. Research shows that people only have a finite amount of willpower — and when they have to make too many decisions, they can later burn out and act impulsively. In a landmark study, researchers from Case Western University found that people who forced themselves to eat radishes instead of chocolate gave up on solving a puzzle faster than those who’d indulged in the sweets. “From a psychological perspective, when someone is too restrictive, it can later turn into a binge,” says Goldman.
People often regain weight after they stop dieting.
Sure, slashing your calorie or carb intake may help you lose 10 or 15 pounds a month, but a 2018 research review in the Medical Clinics of North America reported that more than half of dieters regain the weight within two years. “The reality is that small changes make lasting changes,” says Goldman. “But it can be difficult to make small behavioral changes when your focus is solely on the number on the scale.”
The upshot: Long-term changes require long-term habits — not just a few weeks of depriving yourself of bread. Besides, unless you have an allergy (or are a vegan or vegetarian, for example), you don’t have to avoid entire food groups for the rest of your life in order to have a healthy diet.
Why the no-diet diet works
Yes, it's 2020 — but there's nothing futuristic about creating a healthy diet. If anything, the best eating plan for you is as deceptively simple as it is sustainable. Just follow these guidelines:
Eat less processed foods.
Processed foods are notorious for being high in fat and sugar, so try replacing them with whole foods instead. You don’t have to deprive yourself, though. Instead of swearing off packaged products, try to implement small, healthy changes to your meals — like eating a serving of vegetables for dinner each night, says Scheller. “The smaller the habit and the easier you can implement it, the more likely you are to make the change,” she says.
Eat less sugar.
Try to cut down on your intake of added sugar, or the kind that’s been added to foods like cakes, cookies, candy, and sodas. Again, you don’t have to eliminate dessert altogether—just try fill up on whole foods throughout the day, which will naturally help crowd out the sweets. Besides, you don’t want to restrict yourself too much. “People hate to hear, ‘no sugar’ or ‘no dessert,’” says Scheller. “It can be demoralizing to feel like you can’t have the things you love.”
Eat more nutrient dense foods.
“Food is fuel,” says Goldman. “We want to focus on foods that make us feel good…and [boost] our focus, concentration, energy, sleep, and mood.” Instead of focusing on what you shouldn’t eat, focus on what you need each day—i.e., proteins like seafood and poultry, which provides you with energy while offering up important B vitamins, iron, and omega-3s, and vegetables, which contain belly-filling fiber, plus nutrients like potassium and vitamin C.
By following these guidelines, you’ll not only lose weight, but you’ll be able to keep it off over time, too. “If people can get away from what I call a ‘dieter's mentality,’ and rather find balance without any restriction,” says Goldman, “then this will become a lifestyle which absolutely is sustainable.”
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