Weight loss is a big deal in America. A survey, commissioned by biotechnology company Gelesis, showed that 51% of Americans want to lose weight by diet and exercise, which is great! But barely half as many (25%) say they are seriously working toward that goal. That’s a pretty big discrepancy between Americans’ weight-loss desires and behavior. But I believe it’s because most people have tried so many different diets and approaches and none of them stick. People are tired of the stress and overwhelm these approaches have created in our lives. Chronic disease (overweight and obesity are also considered chronic diseases) in America has been on an upward trend for decades and is only expected to get worse. That may be surprising to you considering how massive the health and fitness industry has become over the years.

Why aren’t more people getting healthier?

People aren’t getting healthier because the majority of what has been offered to them as a solution for decades has been strongly linked to diet culture, made up of mostly restrictive, intense, and unsustainable practices that are well-intentioned, but overall ineffective in the long run. Our society also has a picture of what health should look like that is so distorted. We’ve created an insanely difficult standard to live up to long-term when it comes to the way most people believe women should look. Don’t be mad at yourself for taking these approaches or believing the lies about what health looks like. Don’t be mad at your trainer or your health coach who tried to help you lose weight either. They are trained to teach you to count calories, cut out carbs, go on a special crazy diet, stick to a strict exercise routine, and any number of other rules to get “healthy.”

I once believed those things I was taught as well because they do often produce results. The problem comes when you realize that when people get tired or overwhelmed with life (and they usually do), those results go out the window and they revert back to pre-results. Why? Because those approaches are not sustainable for most people.

Ways we try to lose weight and why they don’t work

Our bodies are much smarter than we give them credit for. Still, they can be tricked into temporary weight loss, which is why we have what we refer to as “diet culture” to begin with. It’s a combination of two things. Number one, we are busy, overwhelmed, and most of us are impatient. Number two, some really smart people figured out how to trick the body into weight loss quickly (or relatively quickly). That’s just supply and demand. Basically, we’re in this situation because when we realize ourselves or a health professional tells us, “you need to exercise and eat healthier,” most people say, “is there a pill for that?” We asked for an easier way, people came up with shortcuts.

So we have thought for a long time that we may have this weight loss thing hacked, but as more and more years go by, we’re seeing that people are just stuck in a perpetual cycle of dieting that less than 5% of people globally are seeing actual success with.

We try to lose weight in all sorts of ways:

Low carb diets
Low fat diets
Juice cleanses
Extreme calorie restriction
Diet pills
Eating “health food” that isn’t healthy
Skipping meals
Drinking protein shakes or weight loss shakes
Drinking diet drinks
Extreme restriction
Eating anything as long as you stay under your allotted calories
Using artificial sweeteners
+ more

How these efforts are damaging your body:

When we think about food, we think about our weight, maybe our energy. We think about calories in and calories out for weight loss, we think thin means healthy. We usually accept that vegetables are good for our health but many people don’t know why we need them or what they do for us. Carbohydrates, protein, fat (macronutrients) – they aren’t just categories to track for weight loss or muscle gains. Macro and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are pieces of an intricate system that requires each and every tiny little molecule in place to go through its ongoing processes without malfunctioning.

Related post: speaking of macronutrients, you may be interested to learn more about my favorite one: The Truth About Carbs.

Your body has seven core physiological processes:

Assimilation and Elimination
Cellular Communication
Cellular Transport

Your behavior sends messages to your body through the foods you eat, your surroundings, the movement you do or do not do, and the stress you experience. Within your body is a system or network of organ systems — immune, endocrine, nervous, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, reproductive, and so on. The seven core physiological processes listed above affect all of the body’s organ systems. None of these systems work independently. They are all linked. This means that when a message we send our body over and over causes a malfunction in one system, it can affect something else in another system. Imbalances in any of these processes and systems can cause an imbalance in all of these processes and systems. These imbalances are the source of most chronic illnesses, including obesity.

When we try to trick our bodies into weight loss, we are essentially hacking our systems. But the problem is, you can only hack into a system so many times before that system goes haywire. Aside from psychological and emotional damage, perpetual dieting also damages the body biologically. Ongoing restriction and imbalance in diet can lead to unhealthy changes in body composition, hormonal changes, reduced bone density, menstrual disturbances, and lower resting energy expenditure.

Certain diets can increase the likelihood of all kinds of chronic diseases and with every diet you try you decrease the likelihood that the next diet will work.

We cannot reduce our health to a number on a scale, it is far too complex for that. Diets don’t work because they don’t actually address the problems and, if used habitually, they create even more problems.

What to do instead

It’s a back-to-basics health-first approach.

Close your eyes and imagine – well, read this first, then close your eyes and imagine ditching every food rule you’ve ever been taught and, as a result, becoming the healthiest and happiest you’ve ever been. Probably seems silly to you because you’ve been told you need strict rules and structure to get your desired results. But that’s just not true.

There’s been a bit of a whole-food movement in recent years and I believe people are starting to get a clearer picture of the villain role that processed food plays in their lives. But it’s time to take it a step further. It’s not just whole food that gets you to a healthier place or helps you lose weight. It’s whole foods that are low in caloric density and high in nutritional density. That’s those macro and micronutrients I talked about earlier that your body needs.

Calorie density is a measure of the calorie content of food relative to its weight or volume. It is also called energy density. When you eat foods that have a low caloric density you can eat more and become fuller with fewer calories. When you eat more calorie-dense foods like meat, cheese, and oil, you fill up very little of your stomach and you’ll still be hungry. That’s why we tend to eat too many calories on a standard American diet. Check out Forks Over Knives’ example of calorie density below.


calorie density

How to avoid calorically dense foods without rules

When I say avoid, clients write that down or make a mental note, “new rule: don’t eat ______.” That’s not what we want for your overall health. The key is to focus on eating the most nutritious food you can eat. When we focus on more nutrient-dense foods we automatically end up avoiding calorically-dense foods. This allows us to eat large volumes of food and stay satisfied, energized, and on track to health and consistent weight loss or maintenance. There are no rules, just seeking the healthiest food most of the time.

Calorie Density Chart

Looking at this chart may trigger that rule reflex for you, so be mindful of your thought process. What I want for you to get from this is an awareness of what you’re consuming, not an obsession. Take this information and file it under “this is WHY I want to eat nutritionally dense foods” in your brain. Not in the “eat this, not that” file. Throw that file away. These are just the facts that support your decision to eat nutritionally dense foods. Again, not rules to follow.

Foods Calories/Pound
Vegetables 60 – 195
Fruit 140 – 420
Potatoes, pasta, rice, barley, yams, corn, hot cereals 320 – 630
Beans, peas, lentils (cooked) 310 – 780
Breads, bagels, fat-free muffins, dried fruit 920 – 1,360
Sugars (i.e. sugar, honey, molasses, agave, corn syrup, maple syrup) 1,200 – 1,800
Dry cereals, baked chips, fat-free crackers, pretzels, popcorn 1,480 – 1,760
Nuts/seeds 2,400 – 3,200
Oils 4,000

Jeff Novick with Forks Over Knives wrote, “Research has shown that people can freely eat foods that are 300 calories per pound or less and not gain weight. People can consume relatively large portions of foods that are between 300 and 800 calories per pound and still lose or maintain their weight depending on their individual activity levels and metabolism. The intake of foods with a calorie density of 800-1,800 should be limited as these can contribute to weight gain and interfere with efforts to lose weight. Additionally, the intake of foods over 1,800 calories per pound should be extremely limited as these foods can very easily contribute to weight gain and obesity and can also greatly interfere with efforts to lose weight. ” 

Health over the number on the scale

Have you ever thought about what health really means to you? If no one had ever told you what health is – what size health is, what look health is, what routine health is – what would you say health is? Health (including weight) is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Yes, there are some undeniably healthy habits, foods, and weight ranges one should be in for their height (can’t deny the science). But two people can do the exact same things and have very different results.

That means eyes on your own papers, ladies! No more looking to see what that other woman is doing to lose weight. She’s a whole different person with a whole different body and a whole different set of circumstances. Focus on your life. What routines, habits, and tweaks would benefit YOU and your family specifically. Don’t go searching for other people’s routines and habits.

Think about what kind of physical activity would fit nicely into your days. Decide what kind of meals you would enjoy making. Maybe you want fast and easy. Or perhaps you like cooking and have more time to spend in the kitchen. Maybe you need a morning routine. You could be the type with more energy in the evenings, maybe you need an evening routine. Would some sort of stress relief practice help you? Is there some self-care you could be doing that might improve your life? All of these things will aid in your weight loss and maintenance and a lack of them might prevent it. It’s all part of a healthy lifestyle.

How to approach healthy weight loss

Everything in your life affects your health and weight. Just like the body’s organ systems and physiological processes, it’s all linked. Nothing in our lives operates in a vacuum. Our jobs, relationships, health, hobbies…they all impact each other and they all impact our health, including our weight. Take your time with growth and improvement, it’s a lot to take on! One little percentage of improvement a day will move mountains in your life over months and years. The easiest and healthiest approach to improving it all is to ask ourselves these questions regularly:

What am I doing that isn’t necessary?
What is the slightly better choice in this moment?
Am I focused on my life or someone else’s?

One small step after another is all it takes. No need for a complete upheaval of your life. You don’t need stressful restrictions or overwhelming daily checklists for health. Just begin and continue to be curious about how each aspect of your life could be slowly and gently improved over time.