If there’s one common element among people who’ve successfully lost weight and kept it off, it’s that they made a “lifestyle change.” It may sound cliché, but this usually includes combination of controlling portions, limiting unhealthy foods in favor of healthier ones, and identifying environmental and emotional triggers that lead to overeating.
Many diets don’t lead to such lifestyle changes—including crazy fad diets—because they’re simply hard to maintain long-term, or even after you’ve reached your goal weight. If you’re deciding between different weight-loss routes, vet yours against this list of signs that your diet may be setting you up for failure.
Bad diet: It’s a total 180 from the way you currently eat.
Can’t imagine a Sunday dinner without roasted meat as a centerpiece of the meal? Then choosing a vegetarian or vegan plan will be harder for you to follow. Know you won’t be able to spend more than 15 minutes preparing dinner on hectic weeknights? A diet that’s heavy on home cooking may become frustrating before long. “If [it’s] incompatible with your lifestyle, the chances are slim you’ll stick with it,” says Today nutritionist Joy Bauer, RD.
Bad diet: It eliminates entire food groups.
Most nutritionists will tell you there’s no food you should never eat, but obviously there are lots of foods you should eat very rarely—fried Oreos, anyone?. Diets that forbid macronutrients wholesale, like carbs, tend to be unsustainable long-term. In the case of carbohydrates, they’re essential for providing energy, among other things. Sure, you can ditch anything for a week or two and probably be okay. But if that’s the main reason you’re losing weight, as opposed to cutting calories elsewhere or learning to downsize your portions, you’ll start gaining again as soon you bite into your next bagel.
Bad diet: You don’t lose weight soon after starting.
We are extremely motivated by psychology and positive reinforcement. If the scale doesn’t budge or your jeans don’t shimmy up a little easier after a few days, it’s easy to feel deflated and give up before the diet has a chance to work. Recent research from the University of Florida shows that overweight women who lost weight quickly wound up experiencing a larger overall weight loss and had more success keeping the pounds off. We’re not necessarily advocating Biggest Loser slim-down levels, but even losing initial water weight may also motivate you to stick to a plan that will ultimately burn stored fat.
Bad diet: The plan is a little too convenient.
If every single meal comes out of a prepackaged box, chances are the diet is going to be challenging to stick to during life’s inevitable bumps in the road, whether it's a friend’s birthday dinner or a week-long vacation. Some people can eat those premade meals, and learn what a healthy portion looks like so they can cook their own. Some cannot. And once you fall off the wagon, it can be hard to motivate yourself to start all over again.
Plus, research shows we’re not getting enough NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). This is the calories we burn off from daily fidgeting and little activities, like washing dishes or chopping veggies by hand. The more “convenient” your diet is, the less spontaneous physical activity you’re getting. Don't laugh: On average, such mini-moves can burn 348 calories a day, and nearly twice as many for more fidgety folks.
Bad diet: You can’t dine with friends and family.
How often do you eat because the people around you are hungry? Your co-workers decide to grab lunch at noon, so you do. The friends you’re dining with decide to get started with some appetizers, and you join them. Your partner asks to see the dessert menu, and somehow there are two spoons. Thought so. If your diet plan is so restrictive it doesn’t let you enjoy meals—even occasional ones—out with others, it’ll be tough to stick to. Similarly, if you’re following a plan that no one else in your family will eat, you’ll need all the more motivation and willpower to stick to it when they order in pizza.
Bad diet: You’re not encouraged to exercise.
It’s an increasingly well-known secret that exercise is overrated when it comes to weight loss; in fact, exercise alone leads to a less than 3 percent decrease in total body weight. That said, plans that boast you don’t need to exercise, or even shouldn’t, are questionable. Physical activity boasts dozens, if not hundreds, of health benefits separate from weight loss—improving insulin resistance, preventing insomnia, improving lung function, boosting energy, strengthening bones, preventing chronic pain, and more. Plus exercise, particularly in the morning, can give you a dose of “I-can-do-it” confidence that can trickle down to other healthy habits, such as passing by the office candy jar.
Bad diet: It makes you hungry, grumpy, or worse.
Weight loss is hard, but it shouldn’t feel tortuous. If you’re overly hungry, you’re probably not consuming enough calories, or not enough filling calories (like those from fiber-rich veggies). If you’re grumpy, you may not be getting enough carbs or may feel too deprived of the occasional treat (most nutrition experts tout a daily dose of dark chocolate as a healthy way to indulge). If the diet is throwing off your mood, it’ll be all the easier to succumb to an emotional eating binge when the right triggers happen, like a bad day at work, or a spat with your spouse.
Bad diet: You’re not reaping other health benefits.
If you’ve got a decent amount of weight to lose, chances are there are other health metrics that could stand improvement too, like your waistline circumference, cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, or chronic pain symptoms. If your diet is simply addressing your weight loss without positive changes in any of these other issues after a couple of months, that’s a sign that it may not be a healthy way to slim down. After all, you could eat 1,600 calories worth of fast food every day, but would that sodium-packed diet really be as good for your heart as one rich in fresh veggies, whole grains, and lean protein?