17/04/2013 13:37 BST | Updated 17/06/2013 06:12 BST

Why Your Diet Isn't Working: Part One

There is little more soul destroying than putting your all into something and seeing no progress. I receive emails and messages daily from frustrated dieters who, despite sticking to their plan 'perfectly', are not seeing any results and are one more disappointing weigh-in away from giving up entirely. However, despite blame generally being cast on to 'bad genes' or a 'slow metabolism', there are in fact a number of perfectly logical reasons for this apparent lack of progress. Over the coming weeks, I'm going to be exploring this phenomenon in a new multi-part series, imaginatively entitled, Why Your Diet Isn't Working.

In this instalment, I'm going to explore an issue that almost all of us are guilty of, me included.


In our culture of instant gratification, we all want immediate results, instant 'proof' that what we're doing is working. Logic and science go out the window as we ponder why, after a whole day of being 'good', we still haven't dropped a dress size by the following morning. Okay, an extreme example but you get the gist.

Poor comparisons are certainly an issue, not helped by shows like The Biggest Loser, which encourage expectations of abnormal (and potentially unsafe) weight loss. For those who are very overweight, progress will become apparent more quickly, simply because there's more to lose - both in terms of fat and lean body mass*. Those who are already close to their goal weight (or, as a more accurate measure of progress, goal bodyfat percentage) have significantly less fat to lose and need to maintain (if not increase) lean body mass. So as far as scale numbers go, it stands to reason that the leaner individual is going to see far less significant progress.

*Note: Lean body mass is the percentage of your overall weight that isn't bodyfat, i.e. muscle, bone, organs, water etc.

Everyone responds differently to diet and exercise programs. Comparing your progress to someone else's is (excuse the idiom) like comparing apples to oranges - it's completely irrelevant. The only way to find out what works for you personally is by giving it a proper chance before changing it and the only real bench-mark for gauging progress is your own 'before' photo.

This leads me to the issue of 'weight loss' versus 'fat loss' - they are not one and the same. This is particularly evident in no-carb diets, where the dieter will often see a dramatic loss in the first couple of weeks as they drop water weight. Despite a much more dramatic weight loss through cutting out carbs, the dieter will likely not have dropped much (if any) more fat than if they were on a more moderate diet. As soon as they reintroduce carbs into their diet, they'll gain all the water weight back. Suffice to say that for most dieters, that will feel like they're either making no progress or worse, that they're regressing (and so begins a phobia of carbs, but that's for another article). In short, using scale weight to gauge whether you're progressing or plateauing is a fairly useless and highly frustrating measure (other than for very overweight individuals). I write in detail about accurately gauging progress in my blog article, The Anti-Scales Campaign.

The impatient dieter will jump from one diet to the next, allowing each only a few weeks (if that) to prove its worth, whilst giving none any realistic chance of taking effect and feeling increasingly demoralised that 'nothing will work' for them.

A realistic expectation of weight loss is an average loss of 1-2 lbs per week (the leaner you are already, the smaller the number). This number is a good indication that it is fat you're losing, rather than lean body mass. Let me reiterate that fat loss is what matters - this is the permanent change and the change that will result in inch loss, dropping dress sizes and looking lean and defined.

Also note the term 'average loss'. Neither weight loss, nor fat loss is a linear process. It is common, especially in the already quite lean, to go for several weeks with absolutely no apparent change before experiencing a sudden drop in weight or rapid improvement in visible leanness. I will be coming back to this phenomenon throughout the Why Your Diet Isn't Working series, but in short, this is due both to hormonal factors and to an increase in lean body mass (water, muscle glycogen and sometimes muscle) masking a drop in bodyfat.

In my experience, impatience is the ultimate diet saboteur. Combat it by distracting yourself with goals that aren't physique based: getting stronger, having more energy, devoting more time to your own wellbeing, experimenting with recipes to keep your diet varied and exciting. Don't be your own worst enemy - focus on the process and the results will come!

To take a look inside my book on setting yourself up with a solid nutrition and training plan from the outset, visit charli-cohen.com/bookshop.

Stay tuned for Why Your Diet Isn't Working: Part Two, within which I'll be exploring how we self-sabotage without even realising it!