Even if you don’t diet all that often, it sucks, plain and simple. There are a lot of ways to go wrong so I thought I’d give you some little tips that can make a big difference. Here are 11 reasons why your diet isn’t working, and how to fix it.
1. You don’t keep foods in.
I went and visited a friend in Lexington, KY a few weeks ago. Most of the week he “eats clean.” Basically he eats a lot less, then on the weekends he eats like a teenager. I walked him through why this is a mistake and why it wasn’t get him the look in the mirror he desired (he is like 15% body fat and a gifted athlete so he can make a lot of mistakes us normal humans can’t). As we walked through all of the things that he wants to eat I started replacing them with healthier and better options that he ALSO likes. For instance instead of a milk shake, I made him a coconut milk smoothie. Milk Shake =1000 calories, Smoothie=350. I love it when people dismiss the value of calories is if they are irrelevant. Gradually, as I walked through the way he eats, we added more protein, more carbs, and more fats from great sources. He text messages me daily…I will paraphrase: “I feel like a fucking idiot that I was eating like that for so long.” You are welcome Matt.
Something important I have kept in all 7 years of my personal journey is dessert. As you can see from the paragraph above, I am not talking something crazy – just something I enjoy that helps me sleep better. Oh yeah, it will typically have carbs in it! For more on that check out our Nutrition Myths article.
2. Weeks not pounds.
I can not stress this one enough. Here is the basic formula for sustainable fat loss. As a general rule you need a 500 calorie deficit a day to lose one pound of fat. The problem is most people start their journey without a real understanding of how much they are eating now. If you have a lot of fat to lose OF COURSE it’s easy to lose 20 pounds in a short period of time but the question is, was all of that fat? For lean folks your only option is to go slow and do it right, otherwise you are basically declaring all out war on your muscle.
Anywho, let’s say you were taking 8 weeks to go from 178 to 170 pounds but you miss. You end up at 171.5 but you stuck to the plan and you were diligent the whole way. First of all how do you know you didn’t lose 8 pounds of fat? Most people don’t because they don’t have a body fat testing unit. It’s completely conceivable that you lost 8 pounds of fat so why sweat the pound and a half? Here is the real point, IT MAKES YOU STICK TO THE PLAN BETTER.
If you knew you did all you can do and you followed the plan perfectly I have some good news for you (though you might not see it that way) your body was ready to be done and get back to thrive mode. You have always focused on scale weight because you have an expectation on the result. Lose that expectation and stick to the plan.
3. You don’t know how to stop dieting the right way.
Let me know if I have this right: basically, when you diet you go super low Calorie. Your “mostly meats and veggies” with no starches, “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle!” way of eating is just super low Calorie in disguise. Eventually you go “Fuck it, I am having some wine.” Now the door is open so cheesecake is in play and before you know it your ass is in a White Castle drive thru eating sliders with a milk shake wondering where it all went wrong.
We wrote this article because YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG! What you want is the least amount of interference to get the maximum result. I’ll talk about this in my next tip but once you are done with your dieting period, BE DONE. Then what you do is slowly add in Calories moving back up to maintenance (which is probably a lot higher than you think, check out our calculator for confirmation). You 1000% need to eat more and do more once you are done with dieting but don’t go crazy doing either.
4. You’re not getting enough sleep.
One of the best quotes I have ever heard was from Robb Wolf. He said “Sleep should be the easiest sale since sex.” You show me someone that sleeps 4-5 hours a night and my first questions are “What do you do?” and “How much do you eat?” because too much activity combined with inadequate nutrition impacts sleep tremendously. I want specifics too, none of this “I eat until I am full.” and “I work out hard.” bullshit (I am looking at you strict meats and veggies people). Nutrient density should be a priority but strategic energy density is also important.
What if your exercise and energy intake are well-managed? What if you’re getting to bed early and your room’s nice and dark but you can’t get a good night’s sleep?
If you’re waking up in the middle of the night, I have two suggestions: one is Natural Calm and the other is Melatonin. Natural Calm could become part of your evening routine and you should take it with warm water (think tea). Melatonin is something I would use VERY sparingly but it’s phenomenal for setting a routine. Use it for a short while and then take it out once you’re more regular and remember, if it makes you groggy you are taking too much. I use 1mg but you might not need that much, so play with dosing a bit. If you just assume that you need the biggest dose you’re probably wrong.
Absent of this, GO SEE A DAMN SLEEP DOCTOR! Seriously, sleep is kind of a big deal and if you are trying to get lean on 4 hours of sleep a night, good luck with that and let me know how it goes because it’s pretty much the best formula for skinny fat that exists.
5. You’re making it way too complicated.
There have been a lot of things I have changed my mind about since starting this site but the biggest was how I viewed recipes because I feel like they can make eating a bit more complicated. Frankly, I think the harder you make something, the less likely you will be successful doing that. Eating is like that. Recipes are great for special occasions or trying something new but I keep ground beef around and I grill up a lot of chicken. If I make a recipe I tend to make a lot of it.
Here are some go-to meals:
1. Chicken and Rice revisited! If you are a sedentary individual then you might want to keep salt in check but if you’re an athlete and you eat a diet of mostly meats and veggies with strategic starches, salt is not your enemy. I am from New Orleans originally so I season things and magically it makes me want to eat them more.
2. Ground Beef and Potatoes! Mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, double-baked potatoes, pick your poison. Easiest thing ever is just adding ground beef to stuff and maybe a little garlic powder. I’ll be honest though, I cheat. You know those pre-packaged mashed potatoes that everyone wants you to avoid because they have GMO’ and such all up in them? That’s what I eat. AND IT’S REALLY SUPER GOOD. I’m obviously joking about the GMO thing so GMO police stay in your lane. All I am saying is when you become less concerned about how little you can eat all of the time, it opens up this whole world of reasonable and convenient eating.
3. Have a salad! It doesn’t need to be super complicated. Here is what I do: I buy Organic Deep Greens (spinach, Kale, Chard, yup the pre-packaged stuff, the harder I make it the less likely I will be to eat it) and I will add veggies that I have available (or not). For dressings, once again, I keep it simple. I take Hidden Valley Ranch and mix it with Balsamic or Franks hot sauce (goes well with chicken). For Taco Salads I use taco sauce.
Here is a tip for people that like hot sauce…it doesn’t typically have calories or it’s very low. The sodium is typically high so don’t go nuts.
6. You lift too heavy too often.
Ok, follow me here, you went 8 weeks, lost 6.5 pounds or about 4% body fat and it’s noticeable in the mirror. You feel great, you look great and maybe people are noticing. So the Eat To Perform guy says to you that you need to increase your work capacity and you decide to add a strength day or two. To continue losing fat you realize you need to build more lean tissue without adding a whole bunch of weight to do it. So you hit the bench and nail a 5 x 5 routine, at first you are sore but eventually it’s challenging but you don’t feel like you are making gains and it’s because you aren’t. One of my most shredded friends says it like this “people like to overthink it but going to failure builds muscle like almost nothing else”.
Now don’t be a moron and start doing deadlifts or squats to failure but if you want to build more lean mass you probably need to do enough squats so that it’s hard to sit on the toilet the next day. If that happens to you often great, you are probably building muscle assuming that you aren’t dieting. If you are dieting and your sore all of the time you not only aren’t building muscle you are creating a stress atmosphere in your body that is ultimately counter productive. Want to know what it’s like to not be sore and sleep like a sheep on a bed of pillows, eat an appropriate amount of food for what you do.
7. You’re not training hard enough.
The opposite is also true. If you are still scaling with light weights you are basically doing the equivalent of “walking on the elliptical” for 15 minutes. It’s marginally better than doing nothing but it’s not going to change you. Real change happens when your body is force to adapt to the stimulus you are providing. If you are wondering why you aren’t building lean mass (aka not fat) it might be because you are still doing what you always did. For you to expect change you need to challenge yourself.
8. You won’t let the scale go up.
Even if you did it perfectly a fat loss cycle is going to decrease the potential of your lean mass because of relative depletion. As you add food back in you are doing two things, you are sending a signal to your body that it’s time to do work and as you add more work you are pulling those nutrients into your cells. The right cells, this time, muscle not fat.
I always give myself a 3 to 5 pound leeway once I am not cutting. For women you might want to consider 2 to 3 pounds. Start slow though, you don’t want to undo all of the progress you have made but you ABSOLUTELY need to push it. The goal is to stuff as many nutrients into your body so you can be the best version of yourself. Both mentally and physically. We don’t want you to eat more, nature wants you to eat more. It’s what being more human is all about.
9. You aren’t doing what makes you thrive!
I referenced this earlier but I don’t think any word describes the way you should be most of the time quite the way the word THRIVE does. It just expresses what it takes to feel alive and vibrant so well. If you aren’t waking up excited and jumping out of bed each day ask yourself “why not”. Why not you, why not now? Quit thinking about what the least version of you would like in the mirror and start thinking about what the thriving version looks like.
10. You haven’t built enough muscle.
Once again, let me be clear, I am not suggesting you try to “spot reduce” your fat layer but a lot of people focus on the fat below their navel without considering the fat on their back, butt or arms. When you are never building muscle you are constantly in less, less, less mode and ultimately you are playing a game of attrition. It’s almost like you can never go low enough because you keep losing water and tissue but you never quite “get there”. Some people call it skinny fat, I have also heard it referred to as #puffypaleo but if you never try more most of the time you are really missing out on the other half of fat loss and that’s building lean tissue all over your body. Amazingly when your chest and back tighten up your abs pop, who knew? Oh wait, everyone who knows what they are talking about knows this. Maybe you are just listening to the wrong folds.
I start each day with over 50 grams of protein, a lot of days that looks like steak and eggs or pork chops and eggs. I can’t do that every day though and so when I can’t I have protein in my oatmeal or in greek yogurt. That doesn’t jive with your naughty and nice list of food? Let me ask you this, is that getting you closer to where you need to be or farther away? For athletes working their ass off in the gym I think it’s foolish not to have a back up plan related to protein. It won’t make you a Paleo sinner either, Mark Sisson recommends dairy and sells protein. What Loren Cordain was saying is that we were over reliant on processed foods that weren’t adding a lot to our food equation. Protein does, should it represent the majority of the way you eat? No, it should only be a fraction but once again, has excluding foods been the panacea you always thought it would be? Sometimes the thing that you start with isn’t the thing that takes you the rest of the way, which brings me to my next point…..
Energy dense foods aren’t the enemy, for from it. If you want to keep lean mass and potential build some energy dense starches and even some foods that aren’t starches can go a long way to get your calorie point to a more reasonable place. Strategically adding energy dense foods that add to your health equation is something you always pursue.
11. You’re more worried about your hormones than your Calories.
First of all, if your cortisol levels are high and you haven’t tried adding more carbohydrates and more food you are listening to the wrong people. I know this because Dr. Mike said so in this article and he is a really smart dude that is super sciency. Actually the fact that carbs and cortisol are adversaries is kind of well known but your typical low carb author isn’t going to let you in on that little secret since it sort of blows their whole gig.
“But what about my thyroid? Surely that’s irreparable and I am destined to a life with this fat layer, right?” I was diagnosed Hypothyroid, got the medication and started taking it and almost immediately felt better. Here was the problem, it addresses my symptoms but really didn’t do a good job of addressing the underlying problem. So I got off the medication and decided I didn’t have enough information to destine myself to a life of medication. Don’t get me wrong, if your sick I will be the first one to tell you to take some meds. But I didn’t know WHY I was hypothyroid and that WHY is what changed everything. Think about it, do you know how much protein you eat daily? What about carbs or fats? How many calories? What is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure?
Don’t you think you should know that stuff before you decide that hormones are your problem? Let’s face it, taking a pill without context is just another way of being a victim. Let me be crystal clear about this though, if you have a medical condition take your meds but you should still know more about that condition than even the doctor. That information is out there. Seek it out. Take the reins and anyone that makes you more of a victim ignore those people. They are only there to provide you some miracle cure and distract you from true understanding. If you have been dieting for years one thing you might want to consider is that you caused your situation (that certainly was the case for me). For me to fix my personal condition, I had to do the opposite of what I was doing. I get checked yearly now and every year my numbers look better and better and the very first year I moved back into the safe range.