Why Diets Aren’t Working for You and What to Do About It

Magical Maeya

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I just couldn’t understand what was going on — and trust me, I tried.

Being the scientist that I was, I had designed and executed the whole thing like a proper scientific experiment. The food ratios were correct, the timing was impeccable, and I used blood monitors to accurately measure what was going on.

But here we were — my boyfriend morphed into Captain America and I became a slow, sluggish blob. It didn’t make any sense — we had eaten exactly the same things at exactly the same times and had polar opposite outcomes.

I chalked it up to having a slow adjustment period and continued to troubleshoot. But after 90 days, the results didn’t get better and the outcomes for us couldn’t be more different.

While his skin glowed, mine developed acne for the first time. His athletic performance accelerated while mine rapidly deteriorated. His body became a lean, mean machine while I felt bloated and heavy. He felt on top of the world the whole time, while I became uncharacteristically irritable.

What was going on?

I put my research skills to work and arrived at several conclusions but they were so contrary to popular dogma that it took a few more years of self-experimentation before I began to trust it and to know what to do about it.

Reason #1 — We are as different on the inside as we are on the outside

The way our body processes food is based on a complex set of factors — our genetic makeup, our metabolism, our gut bacteria composition, our hormonal profile, and our lifestyle factors (when we eat, how we sleep, etc.).

The inter-relationship between the factors affecting how your body uses food and stores food is so complex that it means that your body will have some inherent preferences and reactions that you just won’t understand or be able to measure.

For someone to say that this type of diet or this food is guaranteed to have a specific outcome is to completely disregard that fact. Yes, some things will work for a lot of people, but it still does not mean it will work for you.

That would be like saying it’s possible to create a person that every single person on earth is attracted to. It just wouldn’t be possible.

When it comes to food, it really isn’t one size that fits all.

Reason #2 — The same food can have very different effects depending on where and how it is made

I discovered something very odd when I moved to the US — I seemed to have developed a sudden and inexplicable sensitivity to all coconut products.

For someone who grew up in Malaysia consuming foods with copious amounts of coconut milk, shaved coconut, and coconut juice, this was rather perplexing.

Yet, this inexplicable sensitivity to coconut products would disappear just as suddenly when I returned to Malaysia or was anywhere else other than the US for that matter.

The same food having a different effect in different countries is apparently a common phenomenon and gluten-intolerant people frequently report that they can eat bread, pasta, and pizza in Europe with no issues but not in America.

It turns out, food processing practices in different countries can be dramatically different and certain American food products are banned in other countries as they include the use of various preservatives, chemicals, or hormones.

While I can’t say for sure why eating coconuts in the US makes me feel bad, the outcome has been the same 100% of the time. It seems that a coconut here isn’t always the same as a coconut somewhere else.

Reason #3 — There are many factors relating to weight and health that are not related to what you eat

A friend of mine has always had a rather perplexing relationship with her weight.

“It’s weird. I’ve been doing nothing but eating gelato, pizza, and pasta, and I lost 15 pounds.”

Basically, every time she has an emotional episode in life like a breakup, she eats very little but her weight balloons. Whenever she starts feeling emotionally safe and relaxed, like when she got a new job or is on vacation, she can eat whatever she wants and actually loses weight.

When you are emotionally stressed, your body responds by increasing stress hormones such as cortisol and insulin that are intended to help protect you. Prolonged elevated levels of cortisol, however, tells your body to store fat. Your body is basically saying, “There is danger, store food to prepare for it!”

Someone can design a specific diet to tell you exactly what to eat but they can’t tell you how your body will choose to store what you eat based on your emotional happiness at the time.

So, now what?

To be clear, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be intentional about what you eat. I think it is one of the most important things you can do for your health.

What I am saying, however, is that you shouldn’t let anyone else tell you what to eat for you to lose weight and feel good. Your body has been designed to do that and is the only one that actually knows what is going on inside you.

If you’ve spent your whole life listening to other people tell you what to eat, here are some tips to help you start to listen to your own body.

1 — Understand your baseline

As every scientist knows, you can’t measure success if you’re not sure what you’re comparing it against.

Identify how you feel when you are feeling really good and know what “normal” feels like for you. If you usually don’t feel sleepy after eating and suddenly do, your body is trying to tell you something.

2 — Pay attention

I’m going to tell you something that will save you hundreds of dollars — you don’t need expensive food sensitivity tests (which have dubious accuracy anyway) to know what foods don’t work for you.

In most cases, your body tries pretty hard to let you know. The biggest problem is that unless it’s an immediate and serious reaction, most of us just write those signs off and miss out on valuable information.

Here are some bigger signals that you should definitely pay attention to:

  • Foods that cause gastrointestinal issues — bloating, gas, constipation, and/or nausea.
  • Foods that cause a skin reaction or make your skin look worse.
  • Foods that cause you to gain weight (even though they are supposed to be “healthy”).

Here are some more subtle signs that most people miss:

  • Foods that cause an energy crash, make you sleepy or make you feel sluggish. This has proven to be the most common and accurate indicator for me.
  • Foods that give you a headache or a migraine.
  • Foods that affect your concentration or mental alertness.
  • Foods that make you feel irritable or emotionally less stable.
  • Foods or diets that cause a hormonal imbalance (e.g. your period cycle changes).
  • Foods that disturb your sleep.
  • Foods you crave suddenly and whenever you are stressed — You are likely reacting to an emotional need and not a need for nourishment.

Remember that something can make you feel bad days later. It’s important to look for repeated patterns over time.

Finally, most people are especially bad at noticing which foods make them feel great. These are in fact the signals you need to pay the most attention to since it is what you are trying to replicate:

  • Foods that make us feel full without feeling heavy.
  • Foods that make us feel energetic.
  • Foods that help us recover better from exercise.
  • Foods that improve our skin.
  • Foods that help us sleep better.

3 — Experiment

If you are so confused with food that you have no idea what makes you feel good anymore, the fastest way to hear the signals through the noise is to eliminate foods and slowly start adding things back to your diet one at a time to see how they feel.

If you’re not sure what foods to start eliminating, here are some helpful questions for you to ask:

  • What foods do I eat the most often? — if you generally don’t feel great, this may be the culprit.
  • What foods do I crave? — you should be suspicious of all cravings that come on suddenly and intensely as it is likely to be caused by flavorings or sugar. Real hunger builds slowly.

It’s useful to eliminate certain foods from the same category at the same time as they are likely to have the same effect. Some categories of common food intolerences are foods containing gluten, dairy, nuts, soy, corn, eggs, beef, corn, and shellfish.

4 — Source better quality food

Weight gain and health isn’t about calories in versus calories out. A cup of spinach is extremely low in calories but could be loaded with pesticides that can disrupt your endocrine system. Numerous studies have provided evidence that pesticides can disrupt your metabolic pathways and predispose you to weight gain and other diseases.

Buy organic produce, pasture-fed and finished animal products, and minimally processed foods to prevent your body from being bombarded with chemicals that actively cause your body to store fat.

4 — Fix your gut!

The biggest saboteur of your diet is actually your own gut. We are hosts to trillions of bacteria. The right strains will help break down and absorb nutrients while the wrong strains will create intense cravings and make us feel awful until we eat what they feed on. They do this by producing toxins that alter our mood, by changing our taste receptors, and by hijacking our vagus nerve.

Essentially, if you don’t fix your gut, your hardware is working against you and no amount of willpower will make any diet work for you. There’s trillions of them and one of you.

Take probiotics, eat fermented foods, and lots of fiber to bring in the “good bugs” and make them work for you.

The only diet expert you should listen to

The real skill in making food work for you isn’t in finding the right diet or even having extreme willpower, it’s in being able to tune in to your own body.

The reason diets don’t work are because they tell you exactly what to eat, but they can’t tell you how you feel after you eat it and how your body will change because of what you eat. No diet can tell you that, only your body can.

So, the only diet expert you should listen to — is you.

  1. Listen when your body tells you what foods make you feel good — eat more of that.
  2. Listen when your body tells you what foods make you feel bad— eat less of that.
“When you get into the body, it keeps you true “— Jennifer Reich

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