The best diet is the one you follow


Some readers got in touch after reading the meal planning article asking why I choose to eat such a low-carb diet.

I could go into a whole rant about how insulin sensitivity is a powerful tool for health and how carbs are basically optional and how Nixon-era corn subsidies have made us fat and about a dozen other things.

All true, but none of them are actually germane to the real answer, because it doesn’t actually matter. It’s totally possible for a relatively high-carb diet to provide similar health and body composition outcomes to a relatively low-carb one, and so my choice here is just that: my choice.

Some scientists even confirmed this kind of obvious “fact” about more than one strategy for food choice being effective in a 2005 study, because well, scientists gonna science. Four popular diet plans—Atkins, Zone, Ornish, Weight Watchers—all produced almost identical results in terms of fat loss and health-related biomarkers, given the study participants actually followed the diets.

Improving your diet is way, way, way, way more about behavioral change than it is about food choice. Because here’s the thing: most diets fail not because the actual food plan wasn’t going to be effective, but because an effective food plan only works if you follow it.

That sentence — an effective food plan only works if you follow it — seems so obvious on its face, but virtually no one, from health gurus to joe and jane everyman, seems to actually remember or understand it when they try to make a change in how they eat.

You can even see this failure of understanding in the way people talk about diet.

Diets are virtually always discussed as something you do, or are on, not something you have. It implies dieting is a deviation from the norm, a temporary pain before going back to your old ways. This is a terrible way to frame diet.

You have a diet whether or not you create or follow one intentionally. That’s the nature of that word. A good diet shouldn’t replace your “normal” diet for a short amount of time. It should be something you can follow for the rest of your natural life.

Unsurprisingly, giving someone a set list of meals to eat is basically the worst way to ensure long-term success. Even giving someone food rules that are too restrictive, too hunger-inducing, or behaviorally unsuited to the dieter will also cause people to quit and go back to their old ways.

Imagine a diet that would let you lose five pounds a week but was so impossible to manage psychologically and/or physiologically that you could basically only do this for two weeks without going nuts and quitting.

Congrats, you lost ten pounds.

But because your rapid weight loss diet wasn’t long-term sustainable, you didn’t actually change your food habits, and you’re likely to go back to eating the same old crap that got you wanting to change your diet in the first place, potentially even in higher volumes as a reaction to all that restriction. You’re gonna gain it back. Maybe quickly.

In the long term, a diet like that is an ineffective diet—not because it wouldn’t work if you followed it, but because you won’t follow it.

It’s also, tragically, almost every mass-market diet that exists. These diets expect perfection and provide no sane alternatives in situations where perfection is not possible, and no plan for what to do once you’ve reached a goal weight or arbitrary deadline.

Of course 80% of people who rapidly lose a large amount of weight gain it back within a year— every person that I’ve ever seen do the Whole 30 follows it up with an epic binge of liquor and junk food and no long-term difference to the way they eat. It takes a lot longer than a month to rewire your brain.

Dramatic claims move books, and rapid weight loss is what people normally want, or claim they want, but it shouldn’t be. Fast results are often the enemy of the real goal: lasting change and durable habits.

So why do I eat a low-carb diet? Because it works for me, personally. Because it makes me feel the way I want to feel and look the way I want to look, and more importantly, I can do it consistently without having to think about it too much. Find something that works the same way for you.