January 15th, 2014

Top 5 Reasons Your Diet Isn’t Working

“Do you believe in Paleo?”  (or, insert Atkins, Pritikin, the Zone, South Beach, etc.) It’s a somewhat loaded question to those of us who work in the fitness business. Do I believe it exists? Like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy? But that’s not the real question I’m being asked. The question is really,  “Do I believe that someone should eat this way?” And while my answer is a definitive “maybe”, I think the “Paleo, Atkins, South Beach” question misses the point; because it doesn’t answer what the REAL issues are that prevent ANY eating plan from working…

Disappointed Girl on ScalePopular diet books promise to cure us of our unsightly Muffin Tops and make us dynamos in the bedroom! Not only that, but if we’ll just follow their particular food restrictions, we won’t have to count calories or workout either.  Baloney!!

If you read my previous blog, the “Top 5 Reasons You’re Not Seeing Results in the Gym”, you will understand one thing about me: I believe in basic, straightforward solutions…”Big Picture” stuff.

Continuing my quest to provide simple, actionable solutions, here are my “Top 5 Reasons Your Fat Loss Diet Isn’t Working”:

1. You Don’t Count Calories.

The simple truth is the vast majority of us simply eat too much. We tend to eat too many calorie-dense foods, our portions are too big, and we eat too often.

Consuming the proper number of calories is the single best thing we can do to be successful at fat loss! In fact, it’s so critical that my other 4 “Reasons” could really be viewed as 1b, 1c, 1d and 1e. Everything refers back to our ability to control calories.

For fat loss, this means a calorie deficit. In other words, we need to burn more calories daily than we take in. We can create this deficit by eating fewer calories or exercising to burn more calories, or (preferably) a combination of both.

I know you were promised that if you just cut out carbs, or fat, or gluten, or meat, or dairy, or legumes or nightshades you wouldn’t have to worry about calories. Sorry, but it’s simply not true.

It’s no wonder that most of us have no idea how many calories we are eating. We were told it wasn’t important. Yet without this knowledge, we can’t possibly create the proper calorie deficit to lose body fat.

The ONLY reason any diet works is that the food choices you are given to eat are typically lower in calories than the foods you were told to eliminate.

But make no mistake, it’s not that you stopped eating animal protein or fat or sugar or legumes that got you to lose body fat. It’s simply that you created the needed calorie deficit.

Keep a food journal, or use a smart phone app to find out how much you’re eating now. You may not need a whole new lifestyle; you may just need to eat less of what you’re already eating.

2. You Demonize Nutrients

For Atkins, it was carbs; for Pritikin, it was fat; and for Paleo, it’s legumes and “nightshades”. Nightshades…sounds scary, right?

To be fair, there is a poisonous nightshade called “Belladonna” or “Deadly Nightshade”. It is poisonous and it can kill you.

But to lump other nightshades like potatoes, peppers and eggplant in with Belladonna is simply ridiculous.

As is the idea that eliminating any single nutrient, food or food group is the key to fat loss (or that consuming it is the cause for obesity).

Yes, there could be reasons for an individual to limit or eliminate specific nutrients (e.g. someone with Celiac Disease eliminating gluten). But for most of us, this is completely unnecessary and could even lead to malnutrition.

But demonizing nutrients does sell a LOT of diet books!

3. You Don’t Sleep Enough

 Other than the danger of a middle of the night, Ambien-induced food binge, sleeping is hugely important for good health, and even for fat loss.

Lack of sleep has been positively correlated with an increase in metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance, hypertension, obesity). Studies have also shown that sleep deprivation is inversely related to body fat (less sleep equals more body fat).

And while dieting, a lack of sleep leads to more of the weight being lost from lean body mass instead of fat mass, definitely not what you want. So get your ZZZZ’s!

4. You Follow Someone Else’s Diet

If you told me I had to consume a diet that included sushi, radishes, cauliflower and avocado, you’d probably think I’d say that’s pretty healthy, right?

While those foods ARE good choices for some people, I HATE them all. What good is the best diet plan if you won’t follow it?

The key is to find a diet that works for you, a diet that covers all your nutritional bases while creating the desired calorie deficit.

And perhaps most importantly, a diet that you can maintain your weight with once your fat loss goal is achieved.

5. You Don’t Lift Weights

“Less Frosting, More Cake!”

I’m not talking about dessert here. But this is one way I describe body composition to my clients.  We want a body that is more cake (muscle) and less fat (frosting).

Resistance training is, of course, the best way to add more “cake”. And one of the biggest problems I see is people who try to rely on dieting alone to lose body fat.

You’ve probably heard that you burn more calories when you add muscle. Technically, this is true, but the results are minuscule. You won’t magically be able to eat whatever you want just because you added a few pounds of muscle.

But what weight training does do is stimulate the retention of lean body mass while on a diet.  Also, you are more likely to stick to your diet if you are concurrently exercising.

Final Thoughts:

To be fair, fat loss can be complex at times and confounded by medical issues, socio-economic issues, etc. But most of us could achieve our goals far more quickly if we ignored all the hyped minutiae and focused on the Big Picture items I mentioned above.

As I learned growing up in the Midwest, “Don’t step over a dollar to save a dime”!

Focus on counting calories, sleep, resistance training, and by all means, investigate what foods work best for YOU to stick to your eating plan.

About The Author

chad-landers2Chad Landers is a 1991 graduate of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology. Chad is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Most recently, Chad became the first (and at the time, only) American to graduate with a Diploma in Sports Nutrition with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Chad has owned a personal training business in Los Angeles since 1993. In 2003, he opened PUSH Private Fitness, a 2400 sq.ft. personal training-only gym. He currently competes in USAPL Masters Raw Powerlifting competitions. Chad lives in Studio City, CA and is married to Oscar-winning Supervising Sound Editor Karen Baker Landers.

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30 Responses to “Top 5 Reasons Your Diet Isn’t Working”

  • I totally agree 100% with this article. For sure, I know that mine are sleep issues. Sleep is something that you cannot make up, but it would sure be nice if we could. I also agree that for the most part we just eat too much. Or, if we don’t eat too much (but I’m sure that we do), then we eat all the wrong foods. Loosing weight has to be a lifestyle change. As you have said Tom, if you don’t get your nutrition right, then exercise is not going to be as effective and neither will your results.

  • Hi,

    I agree with some of your points, such as the importance of sleep and the calorie equation. However you are wrong about Paleo. Paleo in simple terms is an aim to eat natural food. Some people balk at not eating potatoes, rice, pasta but in actual fact you do not need those foods to live. Paleo is misunderstood as a low carb diet it is not. I eat lots of carbs they just happen to come from other root vegetables.

    Paleo is more than a diet it is a lifestyle. I eat a paleo diet and I also exercise regularly. Really it is just choosing to live healthy and not eat fake foods. It probably works for weight loss as it is easy to over eat potatoes/rice/pasta. But how can it be wrong to eat such a huge range of vegetables, meat, fish, fruit and nuts. This way of eating is fully balanced.

    I exercise a lot and have had no degradation of energy. Until I turned paleo I had chronic asthma (which has gone I no longer take any asthma medicines), my bad knee repaired itself (probably due to the weight loss), my weight dropped 40lbs and then stabilized.

    I belong to a Paleo group Paleo UK with 1200+ members who all have incredible stories of the change and benefits Paleo has made. Paleo is not a fad diet it is a balanced diet and a healthy way to live. Every nutrient you need can be got from the range of foods that are allowed.

    • JC Deen

      How is IronMan wrong about Paleo?

      Why does an “aim to eat natural food” suddenly have to be labeled as Paleo? Why don’t we just call it eating whole foods, and be done with it?

      The biggest problem with Paleo, or any other fad diet is the zealotry that comes along with it.

      You know that many of the nuts and seeds you consume in your ‘paleo’ diet can actually cause problems in the body due to the excess PUFA from omega 6’s, right?

      Now that’s not to demonize nuts/seeds or Paleo, it’s just stating what we’ve come to know through nutritional science.

      We also know that the western diet contains far too many of these PUFA’s and not enough saturated, whole food fats coming naturally from beef, lamb, bison, and dairy.

      Why? Because we rely on a bunch of processed food for our daily diet. No wonder we have problems.

      How can it be wrong to eat a huge range of nuts/veggies, meat, fish, etc? When did he ever say it was wrong?

      Maybe your asthma would’ve resolved with the weight loss alone? Or maybe it would’ve cleared up as soon as you want on a whole foods diet, without ever knowing what Paleo is?

      You also mention the word ‘paleo’ 10 times, which also alludes to the zealotry that is a major problem with the diet industry.

      Then you have the issue of what’s actually considered Paleo. Some are okay with dairy while others demonize it. Some think it’s okay to have some rice, especially if you’re an athlete, but others scoff at this idea.

      And to be really extreme, some encourage the idea of becoming fat-adapted on a Paleo diet, and calling that a lifestyle suited for long-term maintenance. Hardly a good idea.

      happy MLK weekend.


      • Chad

        Love me som Joocy! Said it better than I could have! Thanks man!

      • Kimberly Mills

        Very well said Joocy!!! I hate the idea of diets because they are not maintainable and it does come down to creating healthy and maintainable eating habits including most of all eating whole foods and cutting out as much processed foods as possible. Diets demonize foods rather than helping people adopt maintainable healthy eating habits….and they are basically just a way for the person who named the diet make a lot of money. It’s why I listen to fit pros like you and Chad for my nutrition and fitness advice rather than self-proclaimed experts that continue to be the problem in why people lose weight but cannot keep it off.

      • Rene

        Two thumbs up!

    • julie

      I’m a super healthy mid-forties woman, and I eat natural foods as well. I love me veg, fruit, dairy, legumes, and smaller amounts of grains and meat (taste preference, not religion or dogma). Yum yum! Gluten doesn’t bother me in the least, and really, I can eat anything at all if I have to. Try traveling to unusual places, you’ll get a better appreciation for any edibles, and more tolerance to boot. What’s truly liberating and healthy is not being afraid of food, even if there are potatoes in it.

      I really hate how so many paleo people see the false dichotomy of “paleo =healthy, natural foods, non-paleo = overprocessed refined grain crap”. So tiring.

  • Lynn Fixter

    I agree, calories in V calories out, always been the best way for me.
    Also I weigh myself everyday, that works for me too as I allow myself a variable 3lbs from what I call my normal weight.

    I found out last year that I was gluten intolerant. changed all my habits (especially warm white crust with lots of butter.
    It took 7 months of not eating bread, flour etc to drop 5 pounds.
    Be aware that being gluten free does not mean weight loss (its all a hype by the celebrities).
    I work out 4/5 times a week (only for 1/2 hr or 40mins max on the elliptical machine, I cant lift weight as yet due to injury.

    I try to eat porridge oats for breakfast with a few nuts and seeds
    salad and raw veg for lunch,and then I enjoy dinner with my hubby (although I have cut down the portion size)
    I still have a small piece of chocolate most days as its my greatest weakness.

    Unfortunately I think most women in menopause suffer with lack of sleep
    its also to do with having children you become more aware of noise.

    thanks for sharing, hope your business continues to thrive!
    Like your photo 🙂

  • Joe

    Basically any diet that removes an entire food group, or is difficult to follow day in and day out 90% of the time is doomed to failure.

    I remember the early body building diets that just focoused on macros and didn’t allow seasonings or any fats drove me nuts..I felt tired hungry and calories were restricted because the food was just plain boring!

  • Tommy77

    Great article, and good reply by JC Deen to the crazy and unnecessarily defensive paleo woman! 🙂

    The whole calorie deficit thing is just where it’s at for weight loss – period. If you don’t take care to also eat well, then you can sure end up skinny and sick all the time. If you don’t also lift heavy stuff, then you will end up skinny and soft.

    The calorie deficit is really the Pareto Principle at it’s finest, only instead of 80/20, it’s more like 95/5! If you eat less calories than you burn in a day, you will lose weight. All the other stuff about hormones, micros and what time of day to exercise just confuses people who simply don’t know what they’re doing and are either trying to make it too complicated OR do it without the discipline required. If you’re serious about weight loss and aren’t already an expert, weigh your food every day for a fortnight and count your calories EXACTLY. You’ll learn so much about what you’ve been doing right and wrong. No guesswork for at least 14 days until you KNOW where all your calories are coming from.

    If you get down to 12% body fat and plateau and for some reason want to lose more, then you have my permission to investigate all the minutiae to drop the last 5 lbs.

    Also, being pedantic in nature, I must point out that sleep deprivation is POSITIVELY related to body fat, not inversely. More deprivation = less sleep = more body fat.

    Yes yes, I know, I’m very picky.


    • Tommy, I get what you’re saying, hopefully my (less sleep = more body fat) was the take home. Thanks for the reply!

  • ellen

    what would you recommend for a 59 yr old female w/end-stage copd.

  • Georgie

    I am aware the whole country has large population of obese individual in all 50 states. Dr. Christenson, a nutrtional researcher at Stanford University had graphs of 40 years of “fat” growth for all 50 states. I come to realized that many people just FOLLOW through on “Marketing Hype”, ie, Atkins, Paleo etc. it sad that they don’t take some time to educate themselves about their own body; metabolism, insulin, hypothalmus, digestion, “good” bacteria, fiber etc. They don’t need to know enough biochemistry or physiology to become a BioTech company but a basic understanding to empower themselves so they can be “creative”
    in selecting what works for them and what they can “live” with. Instead of just buying into some person “DIET” and experiment on themselves like ginuea pigs.

    • Tom Venuto

      Georgie, I agree completely on the self experimentation. In burn the fat, feed the muscle, I call it getting into a ‘feedback loop system’ and using the feedback on your results to help you customize your OWN plan. Thanks for your comment.

  • David

    Good article.

    What works for me is sushi and steamed white rice which is just as healthy as brown rice btw.

    • David

      People think white rice is unhealthy for reasons I will never understand. It is a natural and healthy carb for your body. 100% of the population of Japan eats white rice every single day and they are the leanest country in the world.

  • Allen Vance

    I have been on a diet for about ten years and I find that what keeps me fat is my “between-meal-snacks.” They are not included in my recorded diet. A couple of servings of pizza (1/8 of a pizza pie per serving) blows my diet for the day. I find that keeping an accurate record of “calories-in” is very hard. The best thing for me is to make a diet first and then stick to it. No “between-meal-snacks.” My BMR = 1190 Cal.
    Exercise=45 Cal.
    TDEE = 1235 Cal.
    I am 83 years old and find it hard to hold my weight at 155 pounds, my college weight. All extra calories seem to go to my stomache.

  • Ondrej

    Well, I agree with all points, but I think there is another group of people like me. I for example want to avoid counting anything, and I want the training to be very simple and effective. That way I won’t invest much mental resources of time and still get a lot of benefit. Also, the fact that this is long term process won’t bother me because my investment is low.
    I think just eating whole foods most of the time, sleeping and training in very simple fashion – like twice a week, to failure, 10 sets full body, compound movements, great form, progress chart – would lead to great looking body. And all it would take is to eat whole foods and train twice a week for 25 very unpleasant minutes.
    Now, I get it, 25 sets four times a week and calorie counting deliver better results. But you invest like 4 hours a week and also 168 hours of record keeping. If you keep doing the simple option for 10 years…you will see dramatic transformation. And because the progress will slow down in both groups you may look very similar to someone who invested much more time and effort.

  • Heidi

    I agree with much of what you are saying here; however, paleo is not the removal of nightshades unless you are autoimmune and removing them makes you feel better and eating them elicits an inflammatory response. I specialize in helping people heal from autoimmune disorders and the removal of nightshades is a biggie. It is also backed by scientific literature, however, I digress. Back to my reason for posting, paleo is the removal of processed foods, mainly gluten and gluten containing foods, not nightshades.


  • Ha! I love the frosting vs. cake analogy 🙂 Sharing this!

  • Hey, nice article and good points! However, I don’t fully agree on counting calories. I think it’s the beginning of the end on staying motivated to lose weight. Almost nothing is as demotivating as having to count every bite you eat. Surely, an overall understanding of how much protein/carbs/fats is good for you is needed, but for example using a plate model or the like is easier and more sustainable in the long run than having to write down the contents of each meal.

    • Peter


      I don’t believe in calorie counting either. I don’t mean people should eat at a buffet everyday just that it’s more complex than that.

  • yuma

    Great article, great points. I have a question:Doesn’t isometrics also build muscle?

  • Hi Chad,

    Thanks for sharing these top 5 Reasons, sad to say I am one of those, hope I can control or minimize it by this year, I will not promise but I will do it…

  • Have to agree with you on counting calories, I’ve never found that to be useful or practical. It’s still a good idea to look at labels to get an idea but I have always found it easier and more effective to eat foods that are high in micro-nutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, etc) per calorie. And of course lifting and sleeping well are vital.

  • Jesse

    It’s simple but not easy was a real eye opener for me.
    My lack of a just do it attitude
    Has been a contributing factor for lack of success
    on all the programs I’ve tried in the past including BFFM
    If you don’t get your thinking inline with your actions you will
    Be relying on luck alone. BFFM has the tools to solve all of
    These issues stated above and many more
    but you must pickup those tools In order to use them.

  • Incredible points. Solid arguments. Keep up the good work.

    my site :: gain muscles fast

  • Calorie-count haters, you are not alone! I have one at home. Now, since I haven’t found a successful way to try to talk him into this much hated activity, I’ll try to explain it here.

    It seems you believe you’ll be confined to counting your calories all your life. Thing is you won’t.

    What would happen instead is this – you’d learn calories of the food you use 90% of the time in the first two or three weeks. After that initial period, you know them all. You simply get the feel of it.

    Also, you can accurately estimate the quantities you need by simply looking, whether you used to measure your food with scales or divide its weight on the packaging for orientation.

    If and when a new food comes along you read its calories once or twice and incorporate it in your menu. That’s it and that’s all!
    (If only other parts of losing weight were so easy!)
    All the best to everyone!

  • It’s absolutely true that following someone else’s diet will not help us. Each one has their own diet plans.

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