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Updated: Nov 11, 2022

Why do I always fail diets?

Well, short answer, you're not failing diets; diets fail your body.

Have you heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs? If you haven’t, it’s a model that suggests a human's basic needs need to be met before more complex ones can be filled. Included in the basic needs is water, warmth, rest and food. Going further up, there are complex needs like self-fulfilment, self-actualisation, and accomplishments.

If you think about a time you were on a diet, counting calories, restricting food, or on a “healthy lifestyle kick” - did you feel like you could fill more complex needs? Usually when people are dieting it’s a time where they:

  • Feel less connected to family and friends

  • Less able to focus on work performance

  • Heightened isolation and anxiety

  • Less likely to relax or feel at ease

  • Feel like a failure when the diet fails (you might feel accomplished while on the diet, but it always ends)

If that’s how you’ve experienced life when you’re trying to lose weight, it makes complete sense. When you diet, you’re less likely to be meeting the basic need of food and eating - it’s likely you’re not consuming enough energy.

You might be thinking “Well, when I diet, I’m eating healthy. I am eating enough!” to which I would say: Just because you are eating enough calories/energy, it doesn’t mean your body isn’t restricted - your body is hyper-focused, it knows you’re trying to change it and it thinks you’re in a famine.

If your body knows it’s in a “famine state”, which doesn’t mean really low intake of food - a famine state is even triggered by simply thinking about going on a diet. Your body has mechanisms to fight your dieting brain and make sure you seek out food. Here’s a few ways how:

Heightened digestion

In people who have dieted/are dieting the body literally “primes” itself for the moment of eating, kind of like a sprinter crouching before the starting gun is fired.

This happens with salivation even when there’s no food present - saliva contains digestive enzymes, so the body is preparing for food to be eaten.

In dieters, before and after eating there is an increase in digestive hormones throughout the digestive system. This is because the body knows it is in a “famine state” and it needs to be efficient while it has food.

Craving all the carbs

If you’ve ever been on a diet, you know the extreme carb cravings - bread, pizza, nachos, chocolate, sugar - which also tend to be foods people reduce while dieting.

Since carbohydrates are vital for so many functions, including energy, the body produces a chemical called Neuropeptide Y (NPY) which literally drives that urge to eat carbohydrates. This is why when you diet, you might end up eating more carbs than when you’re not dieting - your body knows you’re actively limiting them and so it fights back.

The function of NPY to make you eat carbohydrates is controlled by serotonin levels: It’s quite true that carbohydrates make you happy. If your body does not have enough carbohydrates, serotonin levels are low, and the body fights to increase serotonin and pushes out NPY.

If this happens sporadically, it’s no big deal - your body balances this pretty easily on it’s own, by making you crave some extra carbs at the next meal. But if you are someone who goes on and off diets, someone who tries to swap high carb foods for low carb foods, this is where your body becomes even better at fighting back. By making you crave carbohydrates even when you have eaten “enough.” This is because your body knows there's a future threat of carbohydrate deprivation.

In a future article, I am going to outline how you can help your body rebuild trust with you and reduce the threat of future deprivation.


We are a specialist eating disorders and disordered eating online clinic. We support people with troubled relationships to food with expert Nutrition Counselling.

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