How to Stay on a Diet

Expert diet tips to keep you from being a diet dropout.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 26, 2008
5 min read

Will this be the year you lose weight for good, or will you end up a diet dropout? Most dieters start out with great intentions for diet success -- hitting the gym every day and cutting calories to a minimum. But before long, when the results are not fast enough, and maintaining the routine gets tough, they throw in the towel.

Typically, people last about six months on a diet -- even less if the plan is really strict, says Catherine Champagne, PhD, RD, a researcher with Louisiana State University's Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

"When diet plans differ immensely from previous eating patterns, restrict favorite foods or entire food groups, dieting usually lasts for a much shorter time," she says.

According to the experts, these are the four leading causes of diet dropout:

1.Choosing the Wrong Diet

Choosing a restrictive diet that doesn't fit your lifestyle is a major reason for giving up on weight loss efforts, says Holly Wyatt, MD, Colorado University's program director for obesity research and education. When the diet is too difficult in the first place, sustaining it long term will be almost impossible. Factor in boredom, and all it takes is one misstep to cause a dieter to give up.

"There is no one perfect diet that is the best," says Wyatt. "Instead, look for a sound diet plan that you can live with, day in and day out." It should also allow you to enjoy small portions of your favorite foods.

Diet Success Tip: Diets that work are diets that last. Don't think of your eating plan as a "diet" you can go on and off of. Choose a healthy plan that fits your lifestyle -- one that you can see following for the rest of your life.

Successful losers understand that whether they're trying to lose weight or maintain the lost weight, theirs is a lifestyle of constant vigilance.

"Losing weight and maintaining it is among the most difficult things people can do because it has no end," says Gary Foster, PhD, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University in Philadelphia. "To succeed is to make the vigilance part of a regular lifestyle."

2.Unrealistic Expectations

Failing to lose weight quickly enough is the Achilles heel of most dieters, says Champagne. Weight loss may take longer than anticipated, or your diet may need adjustments along the way.

"Most dieters want to lose large amounts of weight and aren't happy unless they lose 30%-40%" of their body weight, says Wyatt.

When you set the bar unrealistically high, she says, it can feel like you failed when you don't meet your goals. And when you think of yourself as a failure, this can trigger a return to old eating habits.

Diet Success Tip: You might not fit into those skinny jeans, but keep in mind that losing even a little weight goes a long way toward improving your health. Research has shown that losing 10% of your body weight (for example, going from 200 to 180 pounds) can have big payoffs for your health.

"Medically, 10% weight loss can lower blood pressure, cholesterol [and] triglyceride levels, improve glucose sensitivity and sleep apnea," says Wyatt.

In addition, it can help you feel better about yourself.

3.Dieting Without Exercise

Some people just don't like to exercise, or have physical limitations that prevent them from doing it. But if you don't want to be a diet drop-out, you need to find some form of physical activity you can do most days of the week.

"If there is one behavior that predicts weight loss success, it is being physically active on a regular basis," says Foster.

Further, physical activity brings many health and psychological benefits aside from weight loss.

Diet Success Tip: Exercise does not have to happen in a gym - try gardening, dancing, walking, bike riding, or playing tennis, whatever you enjoy. Start slowly and gradually increase your intensity. Check with your doctor if you have physical limitations. Working out in the pool, for example, cushions joints and adds the extra benefit of water resistance. One of the simplest and easiest ways to exercise is to trap on a pedometer and count your steps throughout the day, aiming for 10,000 each day.

4.Not Changing Your Environment

Willpower alone won't cut it. To be a successful loser, you need to create a diet-friendly environment at home, work, and socially.

"It is hard to continually push away from the wings at happy hour, candy on your desk, or a house full of temptations. If you want to succeed, you need to make changes in your environment so you are not constantly dealing with or resisting temptations," says Wyatt.

When you can't eat the same things as your friends, or your family doesn't support your weight-loss efforts, this makes dieting more difficult, says Champagne.

Diet Success Tip: Seek support from your family, friends, and co-workers. And, Wyatt suggests, remove temptations wherever you can. Stock your kitchen with nutritious foods so you have ingredients on hand for healthy meals and snacks. Take nutritious snacks and meals with you when you're on the go so you'll be prepared when hunger strikes. Remove the candy dish from your desk, skip happy hour with your friends -- do whatever it takes to set yourself up for success, even if it means hanging around with different friends.

Experts offer these additional weight loss tips:

  • Keep track of your progress. Besides exercise, experts say, the second most important behavior is self-monitoring. "Tracking how much you eat and weighing in a minimum of once weekly is critical to weight loss success," says Foster. Experts suggest giving yourself a "safe" weight range. When your weight starts going beyond the range, scale back on calories and/or pump up the exercise. And don't delay. "Get back on track quickly before the lapse in behavior results in going off the diet plan," says Foster.
  • Jump-start your weight loss by following a fairly strict plan for a short time. This can give you quick results to strengthen your motivation. After this short-term period, switch to a more sustainable plan, says Foster.
  • Make small, gradual changes instead of totally revising your eating habits. Try a new change each week, and build upon your success.
  • Reward yourself (but not with food) when you achieve small goals, such as losing 5 pounds or exercising five days a week.
  • Forget about "dieting." Instead, think about strategies to satisfy your hunger for fewer calories. Eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein can help manage your appetite.
  • Identify what led to your weight gain and address it. For example, if you overeat because of stress, consider a stress management course. Develop a strategy to address areas in which you're vulnerable so you can set yourself up for success.
  • Don't get discouraged if you regain a little weight after your initial loss. Some studies have shown that about 80% of dieters will have some regain, says Foster. "Nobody advocates yo-yo dieting because it is better to change behaviors, lose weight, and keep it off, but we do know that weight cycling does not lower metabolism or appear to cause adverse psychological effects," Foster says.