Why Rigid Diets Don't Work

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*Having the willpower to stick to a structured diet is generally a plus, but pushing it too far can do you more harm than good.*

You want to be lean — now — and you’re willing to whatever it takes to reach your goal.

Although you don’t like cutting calories, you realize it’s the only way to lose fat. You want to get it over with as soon as possible so you can relax and move on with your life.

When you diet, you diet hard.

You slash calories.

You exercise more — much more.

You stop eating dessert, or any junk food, or as some bodybuilders say “anything that tastes good.”

You avoid certain foods, food groups, or macronutrients.

You put up with the hunger, the cravings, the mood swings, the lethargy, and the loss of performance, because you know that you’ll achieve your goal. You’re willing to suck it up until then.

You’re a rigid dieter.

How to Know if You’re a Rigid Dieter

In general, you are a rigid dieter if you eat in a way that goes against your personal preferences to the extent that it hurts more than it helps you.

Some rigidity is a good thing. If you give in to every craving and eat as much junk food as you like, you’ll have a hard time staying lean.1 On the other hand, being too strict about your eating habits can also make it hard to stay lean for other reasons.

This is true whether you focus on your food quality, quantity, or both.

Most of the time, rigid dieters become fixated on what they eat. They avoid certain foods that are high in sugar, salt, artificial flavorings, total fat or saturated fat, or anything they consider “unclean.” If you have something that wasn’t “on” your diet, you feel like you’ve failed.

However, you can also become too obsessed with calories and macronutrients. Your life becomes run by numbers. You become terrified of anything high in calories or that doesn’t fit your macros. If you don’t hit your macros, you feel like you’ve failed.

You might also become obsessed with what and how much you eat. In this case, you usually feel like a failure by just looking at the “wrong” food.

You’ve been in one of these situations before, and you weren’t happy.

Whatever your personal story is, it only has three endings. You’ve experienced one of them before. Here’s what happened.

1. You realized your diet couldn’t work in the long-term.

Everyone has a breaking point.

Maybe your progress slowed just enough to make you crack.

Maybe you got tired of losing muscle, strength, performance.

Maybe you got tired to not being able to eat at restaurants, with friends, or anywhere that served “unsafe” foods.

Maybe you went through your home and ate everything in sight, and then felt like crap afterwards.

If your diet is too stressful, rigid, and obtrusive, you won’t be able to maintain it. Eventually you’ll break under the stress and fall short of your goal.

Or, you’ll reach your goal and then break…

2. You reached your goal, but you couldn’t maintain your progress.

You were lean.

After weeks of hard work, you lost a ton of fat and got shredded. Or maybe you just reached a healthier weight.

You enjoyed your new physique for a while. Maybe a few weeks or months. But then your diet started to drag you down.

You were tired of avoiding “unclean” foods.

You were tired of sticking to a rigid meal schedule.

You were tired of being socially isolated because you couldn’t eat with your friends.

The thrill of being lean became less satisfying than a bowl of Lucky Charms. The excitement of seeing your abs in the mirror wasn’t as awesome as spending a night out with friends or baking a fresh plate of fresh brownies.

Being lean wasn’t worth it anymore, so you stopped trying. You didn’t know how to stay lean except through endless self deprivation, so you ended up regaining most of the fat you lost.

3. You reach your goal, you maintain it, and you are fucking miserable.

On the outside you feel accomplished. You’ve done what most people can’t — you’ve lost fat and kept it off. You look and feel great.

On the inside, however, you’re thinking something very different.

You’re sick of broccoli and chicken breasts. You’re sick of telling your friends “I can’t hang out because I already have plans,” which is code for “staying home and watching T.V… alone.”

You’re sick of depriving yourself of your favorite foods.

You tell yourself that you’ll just have to live without cake if you want to be lean. “Cupcakes are for fat pussies” pretty much sums up your perspective on dieting.

You’re wondering how you got to the point where you have to choose between being happy and being lean.

But you deal with it because you’re determined to make this work. Maybe you even take pride in it. Your self deprivation becomes a mark of your commitment to being lean. You don’t say it out loud, but you tell yourself, “I am so disciplined that I can give up my social life/favorite foods/free time/sanity to be lean.”

Eventually the stress becomes too much. Being lean isn’t worth it anymore and you crack. You gain back much of the fat you lost, and feel like there’s no way to be lean and happy at the same time. You feel defeated, frustrated, and lost.

Studies have found the same thing. When people go on a diet, they lose weight. In most cases they keep it off for a while. Then they get tired of their diet, they stop following the “rules,” and they regain some or all of the weight.2 In fact, only 17% percent of Americans are able to maintain more than 10% of the weight they’ve lost after one year.3

Here’s why being overly strict about your diet screwed you.

3 Reasons Why Your Last Diet Failed

Your diet was destined to fail from the start for several reasons.

**1. You adopted a diet you didn’t enjoy.**

You didn’t let yourself eat your favorite foods. You nit-picked about which foods were supposed to be the healthiest or lowest in calories, rather than the ones you enjoyed. You obsessed over minute details that didn’t matter, instead of sticking to an overall healthy diet of foods you like.

You didn’t let yourself eat desserts, sweets, or anything “unclean.”

You hated your diet and wanted it to be over as soon as possible. It ended, because you got sick of it and quit — not necessarily because you reached your goal.

**2. You overreacted when you went “off” your diet or didn’t reach your goals in time.**

When — not if — you went off your diet, you were angry with yourself. You told yourself that you had failed and that you should have had more self control.

In many cases you may have binged on all of your favorite foods after going off your diet.4 In other cases, you just stayed mad at yourself. You made a promise to yourself that you would never go off your diet again, thus setting your already unreasonable standards even higher.

You either gave up or beat yourself up because you couldn’t meet the unrealistic expectations you had set for yourself.

Maybe your diet wasn’t hard to follow, but you assumed you’d make progress much faster than you did. When you didn’t reach a certain weight by a certain date, it just wasn’t worth it anymore. You felt so defeated that you stopped trying.

**3. You didn’t adopt sustainable behaviors that would help you stay lean.**

You wanted your diet to be over as soon as possible, or assumed that the only way to reach your goal was through excessive suffering.

You rationalized that it didn’t really matter how miserable you were during your diet as long as you could relax after it was over. You massively slashed calories, did endless hours of exercise, and made extreme changes to your life that you knew you couldn’t maintain. When you got worn out, you abandoned dieting and exercise completely, and regained the fat you’d lost.

You’re not alone. People who are more rigid about their diets tend to have a harder time maintaing a healthy weight and are more likely to have eating disorder symptoms.4 Other data indicates this is largely because dieters who are more relaxed about their food choices don’t suffer from cravings as much as rigid dieters, and do a better job of controlling their food intake over the long-term.5,6

You couldn’t maintain your progress, because you didn’t maintain all of the behaviors that helped you lose fat in the first place.

A Better Way to Diet

You’re a disciplined, motivated, committed dieter. Whether you need to lose 100 pounds or 5 pounds, you’re willing to do whatever it takes to reach your goal.

The problem is that your discipline is a double-edged sword. It can cripple you in the long-term because you’re willing to suffer in the short-term. You can’t suffer forever, but you don’t know any other way to reach your goal.

If you set up a diet you can’t maintain, it doesn’t matter how much weight you lose in the short-term. You probably won’t keep it off or stay as lean as you’d like to be.

The solution is to set up a diet you enjoy — a diet that you can maintain for as long as you need to.

That idea scares you, however.

You’re not sure how to let yourself eat junk food in moderation while losing fat.

You’re scared that if you’re not hungry, you won’t be able to lose fat.

You don’t know if you’ll be able to have the patience to wait a little longer to reach your goal.

Relax. There’s a fourth option that doesn’t make you choose between your happiness and your physique, health, or performance. You can learn to become a flexible dieter, where you allow yourself to have your favorite foods in moderation, and don’t beat yourself up when you do something you didn’t mean to.

In the next article, you’ll learn the most important principles for how to set up a diet that you can maintain in the long-term that will also help you stay lean, healthy, and happy.

Do you consider yourself a rigid dieter? How has this hurt or helped your efforts to stay lean and happy? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

> Did you enjoy this article? [Click here to check out my book, *Flexible Dieting](http://evidencemag.com/flexible-dieting-book)*. Want an even more in-depth education on how to lose weight, build muscle, and get stronger and healthier? [Join Evidence Mag Elite](http://evidencemag.com/elite) and get member’s-only reports and interviews.

### References

1. van Koningsbruggen GM, Stroebe W, Aarts H. Successful restrained eating and trait impulsiveness. Appetite. 2013;60(1):81–84. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.09.016.

2. Nordmann AJ, Nordmann A, Briel M, et al. Effects of low-carbohydrate vs low-fat diets on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166(3):285–293. doi:10.1001/archinte.166.3.285.

3. Kraschnewski JL, Boan J, Esposito J, et al. Long-term weight loss maintenance in the United States. International Journal of Obesity (2005). 2010;34(11):1644–1654. doi:10.1038/ijo.2010.94.

4. Stewart TM, Williamson DA, White MA. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite. 2002;38(1):39–44.

5. Meule A, Westenhofer J, Kubler A. Food cravings mediate the relationship between rigid, but not flexible control of eating behavior and dieting success. Appetite. 2011;57(3):582–584. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2011.07.013.

6. Meule A, Papies EK, Kubler A. Differentiating between successful and unsuccessful dieters. Validity and reliability of the Perceived Self-Regulatory Success in Dieting Scale. Appetite. 2012;58(3):822–826. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.01.028.

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Armi Legge

Armi Legge is a writer and fitness consultant who competed on the Youth and Junior USA Triathlon circuits for nearly a decade. He also trains as a powerlifter.

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1 Comment

  1. Blake Porterhouse on November 26, 2015 at 10:21 am

    I agree completely which is why I like the Cake Cleanse diet, where one can have their cake and eat it too. Bad ingredients such as Sugar and Flour, are replaced with wholesome ingredients such as Almond Flour and Red Kidney Beans.