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Science-based reasons why every diet works (at first)

Every diet works because the laws of thermodynamics are immutable. Weight loss happens when you burn more calories than you eat.


Obesity and its associated modern lifestyle diseases are a result of overconsumption. If “calories in” are fewer than “calories out” you will lose weight, at least in the short term. 

Now, sometimes it appears that some trendy diets allow you to lose weight without calorie counting. However, the truth is that these diets work by creating a calorie deficit. Here’s how:

1) Every diet can be a short-term antidote to some dysfunctions from the SAD diet and lifestyle

The Standard American Diet and lifestyle can lead to:

  • Overeating – too many calories all the time
  • Constantly eating
  • Lots of variety all the time, especially in processed foods
  • Low-quality and nutrient-void foods
  • Lack of fiber and polyphenols to feed your gut flora

The abundance of all nutrients and calories prevent anti-aging and cellular repair pathways from kicking in. The abundance increases IGF, mTOR, and oxidative stress, while inhibiting sirtuins and autophagy. This promotes a pro-aging, pro-obesity, and pro-disease state. 

In the short term, any diet that restricts calories or eating time will work as an antidote to these biochemical dysfunctions. 

For someone who already has leptin resistance, restricting calories or eating time can lower leptin and improve leptin sensitivity. [The mileage with this could vary, depending on your genetics, epigenetics, and whether you have other issues.]

2) Reducing palatability or diversity in your food cause you to eat less

Woman eating a burger

Palatable foods that are sweet, fatty, and salty promote overconsumption and addiction. These foods increase dopamine and override our satiety mechanism. 

Food variety also causes people to eat more. Conversely, restricting food choices or cutting out whole food groups tends to cause people to eat less. 

Reducing the palatability or variety of foods available to you can reduce nutrient intake. Even if you cut out all the other foods but only eat Twinkies, you eventually get sick of Twinkies and stop eating. 

Many diets, such as plant-based or Paleo, cut down both palatability and the variety of food available.

3) Being mindful of what you eat improves weight loss

Modern processed food is abundant and is engineered to bypass our natural satiety signals. We also tend to multi-task or eat mindlessly. Generally, paying attention, such as through food journaling, monitoring food sensitivity, and regular weighing improve weight loss.

4) Reducing obesogens/insulin disruptors OR insulin itself

Plant-based diet reduces your exposure to hormone disruptors and oxidative stress both as a contaminant and from cooking meat, which may help you deal better with carbohydrates. Both vegetarian and ketogenic diets reduce IGF-1, which explain their anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer effects.

4) Compliance/community/accountability

Adherence to the diet is one key factor that is important for weight loss both in the short and long term. Soundbite diets involving single food, processed food shipments, or reduced number of meals may have better compliance than other types of diets simply because they are easier to stick to. 

A clinical trial compared the Ornish, Atkins, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets. They found that overall compliance was low, although each diet helped with weight and cardiac risk factors at 1 year. However, the amount of weight loss was associated with self-report adherence level not the diet type. Another trial compared between Atkins, Zone, and Ornish and found that compliance was the strongest predictor. However, women who adhered better to a low calorie diet (and thus lost more weight) were also more likely to regain the weight at 2 years than their less adherent counterparts.

Habit-based programs that gradually introduce a new habit, such as “Do Something Different”, “10 Top Tips,” and “Transforming Your Life” produce better weight loss outcomes than conventional weight loss programs.

Functional training

Adding community support campaigns improve weight loss outcome – they nearly doubled weight loss in 12 weeks. Internet-based behavioral interventions supervising attendance and offering social support also result in more weight loss. Accountability, either through a coach, family and friends, or healthcare professionals can improve weight loss outcomes. However, having to text their weight daily did not produce significantly different results for dieters than money rewards.

5) Placebo effects and other changes that come with diet

Dieters don’t tend to change only food. They also exercise and develop a better mental outlook. There is a psychological transformative effect of working on a healthier diet. The placebo effect does result in some weight loss and other health improvements. 

A study of 84 hotel housekeepers demonstrated this effect. One group was told that their job was good exercise and satisfied the Surgeon General’s exercise recommendation. Whereas, the control group wasn’t given this information. At the end of the study – 4 weeks later – the informed group lost weight, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index. Their blood pressure also went down compared to the control group. Therefore, expectations and beliefs can contribute greatly to weight loss and health outcomes.

Many diets also come with the rituals, community support, camaraderie, and expectation that can have positive impacts on health.

Now that you’ve learned why every diet works (at least in the short term). In the next article, we’ll cover why every diet fails. 

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