Why Diets Don’t Work

I am an animal behavior nerd. I always want to know why animals do the thing they do. Why do dolphins pop their jaws, making a loud clapping sound underwater? (It’s called jaw-popping, and it’s a very aggressive behavior targeting predators, rivals, or unruly children) What does it mean when my cat slowly blinks her eyes at me? (With The Kid, it usually meant he was content, with our older cat Winnie, it meant she wished we would disappear) Why would the lions catch a duck in their exhibit if they are fed well by the zoo? (Honestly? Because they CAN– same reason cats roaming free outside catch birds) But the animal that consistently befuddles me is the human animal. We are a weird species.

Judgmental owl is judging you

Take dieting. And for the record, I’m not pointing fingers saying YOU YOU and YOU are doing things wrong, because I am definitely in this category of doing diets repeatedly. But why do we seem to be constantly trying new diets, new fads, new eating trends? I’ve learned it’s not the DIET that doesn’t work, it’s our mentality around the diet, and our behavior beyond our eating habits that tends to not work.

Yes, this blog post is just an excuse to rant about a personal story of mine, but it fortunately has a powerful lesson that I hope to share with all of you.

Definitely how I view an all you can eat buffet

The first year of the pandemic, in 2020, many of my friends were complaining about the Quarantine Fifteen—the 15 (or more) pounds they packed on during the quarantine. Most people were eating take-out more (since in-dining restaurants were closed), going to the gym less (they were closed, too), and dealing with the stress of COVID-19 (children at home, losing a job, paying rent, WHEN DO I GET TO SEE PEOPLE AGAIN?!?!). However, for me, I didn’t gain weight, I lost weight. My Quarantine 15 was actually Quarantine 22, as in losing 22 pounds during the first 4 months of quarantine.

How was I able to do that? Well, I was really focused on my health and fitness, so even though gyms closed, that didn’t stop me from working out. I created workouts that took me and my husband outside. We didn’t eat out very often to begin with, but we completely stopped eating out with the pandemic. I have a strong aversion to single-use plastics, which is what everyone was using for take-out. It became an easy choice to eat at home.

While I sometimes joke that my dirty little secret is that 2020 was NOT a terrible year for me, I think Karma heard me, and made up for it in 2021. I was so focused in 2021 on writing my book, that I neglected my health and well-being. I stayed up late at night to finish a chapter and sat at my desk for hours on end without a break because “I was in the flow” and didn’t want to lose my train of thought. My “office” was the living room, which was right next to the kitchen. When I got bored, instead of walking or meditating or exercising, I went to the kitchen and made a snack. Sure, it was a healthy snack, but eating even a salad with olive oil dressing at 10 pm isn’t exactly healthy behavior. Soon, I got more and more lax, and even the salad became “homemade trail mix” which became “tub of yogurt”.

I lost 22 pounds in 2020, and then gained 32 in 2021.

Around November, I decided I needed to do something about this predicament. So, I turned to dieting. I tried doing a Detox cleanse and then Whole30. They weren’t working. Then I remembered I’m a fitness consultant who uses positive reinforcement and went about my struggle a different way.

I’d reward my weight loss with items I really loved, not food. When I lost 5 pounds, I’d reward myself with a massage. At 10 pounds, I’d splurge on new books at my local bookstore. At 15, I could sign up for the conference I really wanted to attend, but was kind of expensive.

Awesome idea, right?


Good intentions, wrong action.

I stepped onto the scale after a week of my new reinforcement schedule idea. I gained 2 pounds. Well, shoot. Okay, let’s up the ante! Five pounds would equal a whole spa day—massage and facial! That is an incentive!

But the following week, I didn’t lose any weight. At least I didn’t GAIN weight. But I wasn’t making progress. What gives?

This is why diets often don’t work. Because we focus on the RESULTS rather than the process. Animal trainers don’t focus on the completed behavior to get the animals to succeed. I don’t focus on “elephant giving blood sample” or “dolphin sliding onto scale for weight”. We focus on the PROCESS that allows us as trainers to get a blood sample or weight on our animals. Getting an animal to allow a trainer to stick them with a needle and hold still long enough to fill a vial for analysis doesn’t just happen because we do it and reward them. The PROCESS takes many different steps and time, all the while the trainers are reinforcing the animal for each step along the way, building trust and consistency.

So, when I tried to reward my weight loss, this was me focusing on the results, not the process. Think about it, reinforcement encourages behavior. Losing weight isn’t a behavior. What behavior am I encouraging? Stepping on the scale?

Instead, I need to reinforce the PROCESS, the ACTUAL BEHAVIORS that will result in losing weight. What are some of my old habits that allowed me to lose weight during the pandemic that I am not practicing today?

Moving more was key. But just jumping from no working out to working out three times a day was not realistic, or sustainable. I wasn’t even stretching during my writing and work sessions. I’d just sit in front of the Zoom screen or my computer screen for 3, 4, even FIVE hours at a time. So, I implemented a reinforcement schedule for practicing movement breaks, once an hour. I gave myself points that collectively earned those rewards I originally planned for losing weight. Instead of rewarding my weight loss, I started rewarding the habits that would lead to weight loss. Then, when I stepped on the scale, it didn’t matter if it had gone down “enough” or even at all. I was practicing healthy habits.

And I’ll be honest. Doing it this way hasn’t made the number on the scale go down faster, nor have I seen “dramatic” changes in my body. My clothes are still a little tighter than I’d like. But you know what is happening? I’m drinking more water and practicing getting up to move or stretch during long writing sessions. My eating habits are getting better. I am not snacking at 10 pm and then trying to get to sleep right after. My sleep is getting better: I am in bed for at least 8 hours and I’m waking up with more energy. I’m meditating and starting to let the practice seep into other areas, such as mindfulness when I’m eating (or when I’m hungry), and when I feel stressed. Slowly but surely, I am feeling more empowered, more encouraged, and more engaged in my own self-care.

I don’t need a diet. Because diets don’t work. I’m working on changing my habits. Reinforcing the healthy ones, changing the ones that don’t work for me, and improving my life, one step at a time.

3 Responses

  1. This was just what I needed to read today, PJ! I just learned that for the first time in my life, I have high cholesterol. I’m determined to “fix” it through exercise and healthier eating, not medications. You not only reinforced my determination, but also gave me some good strategies for sticking with it. Thanks! Hope all is well for you. Always good to see you in my emails.

  2. I LOVE this article, PJ!
    So on point, for what I’m trying to practice myself.
    I think rewarding process, over the perceived result, is more compassionate as well.
    Thank you!

  3. Wonderful post! As I was reading this and we were talking about it earlier I was thinking “Yeah reward that weight loss, great idea!”. But the realization that it’s wrong was wonderful.

    I’m facing something similar. I’m training my art practice daily but I’m not completing paintings, just like many of use don’t see the weight drop off. But, I have my habits in place and I know that if I keep showing up daily and rocking my habits those paintings will start showing up again.

    Thank you

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