Bring up any diet strategy, and you’ll hear people say, “it doesn’t work,” or “dieting is really hard.” Chances are, they’re right! But different diets are tricky or ineffective in different ways. The details thereof tell a lot about how valuable a diet’s ideas are, and what if anything we can do to make it work.
Some diets are hard for biological reasons: they run counter to what the human body naturally does, or introduce elements that otherwise cause the body to resist the goals of the diet (such as weight loss). Calorie-restrictive and low-fat-high-carb diets fall into this category. If you follow the traditional advice of “eat less and exercise more,” your body will respond to the deficit of calories in several frustrating ways: hunger, with constant urges to eat; fatigue and disinterest in physical activity; a slowdown in metabolism that means you need to work even harder to burn off weight. If instead you keep your caloric intake steady but shift its content toward everyone’s favorite “healthy whole grains,” you’ll have similar problems with a different cause. Ingesting those carbohydrates, especially wheat, causes blood sugar to rise, in response to which the body secretes more insulin, which in turn increases appetite, accelerates accumulation of fat, and slows down metabolism and physical activity.
Given those symptoms, it’s no surprise those styles of dieting are “hard” or “don’t work”! Your biology fights back in full force against what you’re trying to do, until you give up, binge, etc.
Low-carb dieting doesn’t have the biological problems. With adequate calorie intake including lots of fats and proteins, you feel full, metabolism and physical activity increase, and the body goes into fat-burning instead of fat-storage mode. However, low-carb living is hard in a different way: there are social and environmental obstacles to contend with.
I recently did some travel for work, helping some folks go live on a new computer system. It gave me a chance to observe just how little the world around me is calibrated for a low-carb lifestyle…
- Fast food on my way to the hotel from the airport: mostly sandwiches and breaded meats on the menu. No forks and knives visible should I choose to strip my burger of its bun.
- Breakfast at the hotel the next day: literally every item on the menu comes with some form of carb, be it toast, hash browns, pancakes, or the like.
- At the site for work: snacks for staff consisted of bagels, pretzels, muffins, and candy bars. Lunch was sub sandwiches with chips and cookies.
- Dinner that evening: I ordered as Paleo a dinner as could be imagined–medium-rare steak and grilled asparagus. But a basket of garlic bread appeared along with it anyway!
And so forth! These things aren’t insurmountable, of course. I could request plasticware, decline the hash browns, ignore the bowls of candy. But having to make those decisions has a cost: it depletes willpower. As anybody who’s succumbed to checkout-aisle impulse purchases knows, when you make choices and resist temptations, it runs down your mental energy in a way that makes the next choice or temptation to come along that much harder to deal with. In many of these situations, there’s an additional cost in the form of social pressure: it feels strange (and for a personality like mine, exacts mental tax similar to exerting my willpower in the first place) to be the one person in the room peeling his roast beef out of his sandwich to eat it. So I might pass on the hash browns, but before long find myself indulging in the odd snack-size Milky Way.
(As an aside: Low-fat dieting suffers from this too, albeit to a lesser degree. Nobody bats an eye at someone choosing the chicken breast over the beef patty, not the way they do if you order the sandwich but discard the bun. But to the extent that you get choice-drain from scanning menus for reduced-fat options and ordering the “lite” salad dressing, the environmental struggle stacks its difficulty on top of the biological problems with the diet.)
That’s the sense in which low-carb dieting is hard: the ubiquity of excessive carb consumption today makes temptation constant and draining. To be successful with it, you need to work at building up habits that help you slide by these decisions with minimal effort. Certainly, plenty of people will find that too difficult and abandon the lifestyle. But the way I see it, building habits to overcome environmental and social obstacles is far more feasible a proposition than battling against biology. The latter is the path to diet drugs and bariatric surgeries!