Every year, losing weight ranks among the top New Year’s resolutions. And every year, we keep trying many of the same methods—and not surprisingly, keep getting the same disappointing results. The unfortunate truth is that most weight-loss strategies don’t work long term, and some can even make matters worse or cause other harms.
But that doesn’t mean trying to shed pounds is futile. Studies show that some approaches are, in fact, effective.
Here are five popular methods that often fail—and alternatives that are more likely to lead to long-term success.
1. Counting Calories
Tracking calories may be effective in the short term, but it typically results in frustration and failure in the long run. One reason is that calorie-counting is difficult to do precisely. While food packages and some restaurant menus list calories, they’re not always accurate. And many foods, such as those in home-cooked meals, don’t come with listed calories. Even with the help of apps, deconstructing these foods to tally calories is often tedious and time-consuming.
Calorie obsession can turn meals into a stressful exercise of counting and weighing, and can contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food that makes it even harder to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Another problem is that fixating on calories can take the focus off other factors that matter, such as the nutritional makeup of foods and how filling they are. A serving of jelly beans, for example, has fewer calories than a serving of nuts, but the nuts are more weight friendly (if consumed in moderation) because they don’t cause a spike in blood sugar that leaves you feeling hungry.
INSTEAD: Keep a general eye on calories and portions, but also pay attention to the overall nutritional quality of foods, which includes the amount of added sugar (the less, the better), fiber (the more, the better), and protein (which can help fill you up). Consider how healthful and filling the foods are, and how you feel after eating them.
Keeping a food journal is a good way to do this. Research shows that that logging what and how much you eat and drink each day can improve long-term weight control by making you more aware of your dietary patterns and identifying where you need to make changes.
The types of exercise that most of us do burn relatively few calories. Studies find that moderately intense aerobic exercise such as walking for 30 minutes a day, five days a week—the amount recommended for good health—typically produces little or no weight loss. Shedding pounds requires more vigorous and sustained workouts than most people are willing or able to do. Even if we manage to ramp up our routines that much, our bodies may compensate by increasing appetite and slowing metabolism, effects that limit how many pounds we lose.
Viewing exercise as a weight-loss method creates unrealistic expectations that make us more likely to give up on physical activity. And it turns exercise into a type of punishment, a price we must pay to slim down and something we’re therefore inclined to avoid.
INSTEAD: Think of moving your body as a way to enhance the quality of your life. Focus on the immediate benefits such as better sleep, less stress, or a feeling of empowerment. One result may be that you find it easier to make healthy, weight-friendly food choices and to resist emotional eating. And you’ll be more likely to stick with exercise for the long haul. The payoff for this perseverance is huge: Regular exercise reduces the risk of a long list of maladies from colds to cancer, and while it may not melt away pounds, it can prevent weight gain and improve your appearance by increasing muscle mass.
3. Eliminating carbs, fat, or other categories of foods
Weight-loss approaches that demonize entire categories of food may work temporarily, but they’re rarely sustainable over time. A number of studies comparing restrictive diets such as low-carb and low-fat have found that there are no clear winners. After about a year, people on competing diets wind up losing roughly the same amount of weight.
Whether the forbidden foods are cheese and chocolate or cereal and corn, restrictive diets often leave us feeling deprived. Banning foods that we enjoy can do a number on our brains, causing us to crave the foods even more. Sooner or later, most of us yield to temptation. For some dieters, this process can trigger binge eating.
INSTEAD: Pay attention to the general quality of your diet. Emphasize whole foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seafood, and lean poultry, and minimize highly processed foods (sometimes called “ultra-processed” foods) such as chips, cookies, refined grains, soda, hot dogs, and fries. Research suggests that this eating pattern is effective for not only managing weight long term but also optimizing our health.
Such an approach provides lots of leeway, allowing for countless combinations of foods and varying proportions of fats, carbohydrates, and protein. The result is an increased likelihood of finding a weight-friendly way of eating that works for you without making you feel deprived.
4. Eating “fat-burning” foods
Regularly we hear about foods, ranging from avocados and apple cider vinegar to grapefruit and green tea, that purportedly have special powers to melt away pounds. Like demonized foods, fat-burning foods appeal to our desire for simple solutions. Typically, though, the research behind the claims for these “superfoods” is preliminary and funded by entities with a financial interest. While some of the foods may have small effects on appetite or metabolism, there’s little evidence that any of this translates into actual weight loss.
INSTEAD: Focus on incorporating general categories of foods into your diet, such as vegetables, fruits, beans, seeds, nuts, and fish, rather than specific items. Choose foods within these groups based on what you like—not what you think you must eat.
Foods low in energy density—meaning they contain fewer calories per bite—may be especially helpful. Examples include salads, broth soups, beans, plain yogurt, and most fruits and veggies. Such foods, which are relatively high in water, give you more bang for your calorie buck, allowing you to fill up on fewer calories. A number of studies show that a low energy-density diet is effective for controlling weight. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/nbu.12280
5. Taking over-the-counter weight-loss pills
Weight-loss supplements often contain a hodgepodge of ingredients such as caffeine, green tea extract, and raspberry ketone. Like other dietary supplements, they’re only loosely regulated, and manufacturers aren’t required to prove their products are safe or effective. Nor is there any guarantee that supplements contain what’s listed on the label. Some products have been found to contain banned substances such as ephedra.
Overall, the limited evidence that exists shows that a few ingredients in supplements may lead to a few pounds of weight loss in the short run, but we don’t know whether they help long term. Adding further to the uncertainty, levels of ingredients vary from product to product in the unregulated supplement market and aren’t always disclosed. What’s more, it’s often unclear how combining a particular ingredient with multiple substances, as supplements typically do, influences effectiveness.
The same goes for safety. Even if an ingredient has few or no side effects when used alone, it may interact with other ingredients to cause harm. But because there hasn’t been rigorous—or in some cases any—testing, there’s no way to tell. In short, taking a supplement for weight loss is a leap in the dark.
INSTEAD: If you’re a candidate, consider prescription weight-loss medications, which research has shown to reduce bodyweight significantly and keep it off if the drugs are continued. The newest of these, such as Wegovy, control appetite by mimicking hormones that signal to the brain we’re full. However, the drugs come with potential side effects and can be expensive. And they’re intended only for those who have obesity or who are overweight and have at least one condition such as diabetes.
Another effective option for people in this category is weight-loss (or bariatric) surgery. Like prescription medication, surgery results in substantially greater weight loss than what’s typically achieved through diet and lifestyle changes. In addition, it can produce dramatic improvements in health, including reversing diabetes and lowering the odds of developing it. Surgery is also associated with reduced risks of cancer and premature death, and improves high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol, sleep apnea, and other conditions.
Though the safety of bariatric surgery has improved greatly in recent years, it nevertheless does have risks and possible side effects. It’s therefore important to carefully assess how these stack up against your weight-related health risks and the potential benefits.
Yet another option that’s been proven effective is intensive behavioral therapy, or IBT, which focuses on changing behaviors that contribute to excess weight. Working with a health professional such as a therapist, nurse practitioner, or registered dietitian, people receive guidance and support for issues like devising eating and exercise plans, setting goals, self-monitoring, identifying challenges, and developing strategies to deal with them.