The Only Diet Tip You’ll Ever Need

What to do in the sea of dietary advice

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Pictured: Healthy? Poison? Depends on who you ask

If you want to lose weight, there are a lot of tough choices. You’re meant to eat breakfast, get plenty of fat, make sure you never eat processed food, miss at least one meal a day (ideally breakfast), cut out carbs entirely, only eat pre-made meals labeled ‘diet’, and, of course, eat exactly what our ancestors ate — except not really because none of those foods exist any more. Just eat like our ancestors did.

You should listen to experts, because they know what they’re talking about, but also remember that the Youtuber with an impossibly beautiful life and a six pack knows more about dieting than anyone. Start eating only meat, and remember that if you fail it’s all your fault because meat is the perfect food.

It’s always all your fault*. That’s what makes dieting fun!

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Pictured: Yaaaaaaaaaay

If you’re feeling lost in a stadium filled with unnaturally pristine people screaming diet tips at you — “vegans are the healthiest people on earth!” — you’ve probably looked for diet advice on the internet.

It’s not an easy place to be.

The first thing to think about is who to trust. Do you listen to the person with dozens of degrees, or the guy with enough muscles to start his own seafood restaurant?

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“My secret is only eating on Sundays”

The answer is simple: there is no best answer. It’s actually quite freeing to realize that there is basically no one on the internet who is going to give you brilliant, personalized advice. It’s also fairly obvious when you think about it: personalized dietary advice is a complex equation. Your dietary needs are going to be different to those of most people, unless the online guru lives where you do, knows all of the shops, can tell you what’s available and seasonal, and can help you budget to meet your needs.

None of this can fit in a short blog post. Even less in a 280-character tweet.

The best thing to do is you’re looking for advice is to log off, stop tweeting at people like me, and book an appointment with someone who has studied diet. Depending on where you live, you can find accredited, registered professionals who have a minimum standard of education and training in diet who can give you MUCH better advice than the random blog you found online.

Internet forums can be great places for support and help, but you’ll never know if the person on the other end is actually as experienced as they say they are. Better to talk to someone who has actually studied the issue at hand, if at all possible.

This brings us to the biggest issue with looking for dietary advice — evidence suggests that most of it fails long term. One large study looking at over a million people across the world found that more than 60% of people had tried a diet, with very little success. This is repeated in the literature again and again and again: some diets work better in the short term, but after a few years they all get to the same point.

Long term, most diets fail.

To those of us who have tried dieting, this comes as no surprise. The first week of any diet is easy — you’re super positive, losing weight, happy and cheery. The third month in, when your imagination has passed through the happy phase and into the “murder everyone around you” place, it’s much harder to keep on chewing on your steamed chicken and broccoli.

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Pictured: Fine for a meal, depressing for a lifetime

The simple fact is that, regardless of what someone online advises you to do, the evidence shows that it probably won’t work long term. The best weight loss success tends to come from programs that impact multiple areas of your life, like an integrated diet and fitness regime or a professionally-supported diet plan.

There also isn’t really evidence that any single diet works better than any other. Some diets work a bit better short-term — in particular low-carb diets — but the long term outcomes tend to be the same for pretty much every diet out there. One review of the evidence comparing low-carb to a range of other dietary options found that after 2 years the initial benefits faded away, and the best evidence we have seems to support this.

It’s worth noting that there really isn’t much evidence for diets doing better on anything other than surrogate outcomes anyway. What this means is that we can show that one diet improves your cholesterol more than another, but there isn’t much evidence that it actually improves your life.

People don’t diet for their triglycerides: they diet to not have a heart attack. To fit into their wedding clothes. To go swimming without feeling self-conscious and afraid.

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Pictured: My personal reason for losing weight

We know that losing weight overall does definitely reduce your risk of dying, and improve your health in innumerable ways, but there just isn’t much evidence that this is the case for specific diets.

This makes perfect sense. Diet is about much more than simply the food you eat. Diet is socializing, it’s family, it’s celebration and culture and friendship and so much more. There’s a reason that many diets are built around ‘tribes’, it’s because changing what you eat long term is about changing virtually every element of your life.

The diet you choose may be the least important thing about losing weight.

Which brings us, at last, to the one simple tip for dieting. That holy grail that tells everyone exactly how they can lose weight, and easily.

Here we go.

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Stock photos for “building suspense” are mostly bridges

The tip is: do whatever works for you.

Simple. Effective. Incredibly annoying, useless and yet entirely accurate. There isn’t much evidence that diets are effective long term. There certainly isn’t evidence that a specific diet is the best way to go. The current best evidence suggests that, if you can lose weight doing something, you should keep doing it as long as it isn’t harmful to other areas of your health.

If Paleo is your jam — great! If you think going vegan is the way to go, do it! The most important thing to remember is that a diet is a lifestyle intervention, not just the food you eat. If you decide to eat only meat, it’s going to change who your friends are, where you shop, what you do on weekends. If you cut all processed foods out of your life, it might mean your days are spent very differently.

If a diet doesn’t fit into your life, it’s probably never going to work. Whatever change you make has to be at least as important as potentially losing time with friends and family, which is a huge commitment to make.

We know that losing weight — if you’re overweight — is probably the best path.

But how you get there?

The evidence suggests that’s entirely up to you.

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*Note: it is NEVER your fault. Dieting is fucking hard, and people who blame you for not following their absurd prescriptions are wrong.

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