Why is it that the so-called “best diet plan” seems to work for your friends — or seemingly the entire world — and yet it never works for you?
Or maybe better yet: why do 8,745 new diet books seem to be published each year?
Both questions have the same answer. You’ve heard the old analogy about a square peg in a round hole: You can try to wedge them together, but it’s just not going to work out.
You are not alone. At some point, everyone has “failed” on a diet. Success is about adjustments.
The same is true of most diets and your life. Your living situation, job, day-to-day schedule, and your taste preferences create a specific set of needs. Your diet has to conform to them—not the other way around.
Yet so many popular nutrition approaches seem to want the opposite. They want you to follow their plan. Do what we say and you’ll look like you’re from South Beach, they tell you. So you eat their foods, make their recipes, and do it all according to the schedule that their book (or website, or whatever) instructs you to follow.
At least, that’s the idea. Slowly but surely, reality creeps in. The foods you’ve been making — sometimes by choice and others by force — start tasting worse. Meanwhile, the foods you gave up seem even more alluring—and you still see them every time you walk through a grocery store or drive past a restaurant.
You might cave slowly, going back to your old ways one small habit at a time. Or you might give it all up in a single moment of “to hell with this!” frustration. Either way, you wind up back where you started, doing the things that you used to do.
The best diet plan needs to start with you. Because a diet is more about changing your habits than it is eating some superfood or removing something you might enjoy. So to succeed, you need to make sure that the habit you’re trying to change isn’t so rigid and ingrained that it causes you to break.
We identified some of the most common “personality types” we see with our clients, and create solutions to help you find the best diet plan that fits. Whether you are a carb-lover, nighttime eater, snacker, sugar-lover, or just plain crazy busy, there is a way to build out a plan so that your diet feels less rigid and more like eating.
Getting started with building your own plan is simpler than you think. In fact, you can kick off the process today by asking yourself four questions.
Start here: What went wrong in the past?
Everyone always wants to jump to the plan, but that approach is inherently flawed. In order to know what will work for your body, you need to honestly assess what has not worked in the past. And then figure about why.
It’s also important that you don’t feel bad about past failures. You are not alone. At some point, everyone has “failed” on a diet. Success is about adjustments. Those diet misfires make great teaching tools that will inevitably help you discover your best diet plan — if you let them. Your mistakes of the past will make the solutions of the future more clear.
For example, a big reason why so many diets fail is that people tend to chase extremes in order to reap immediate results. “People will combine a strict low-carb diet with aggressive workouts and drop weight dramatically, which is reaffirming,” says Leigh Peele, trainer and author of The Fat Loss Troubleshoot. ”But what usually happens after a few weeks or months is that they binge and gain back even more weight.”
There are some people who will thrive on highly restrictive diets like keto or Paleo or veganism. But studies show that the average person spends about 6 weeks following one of those protocols—followed by 14 weeks off of the plan. This is why so many people wind up gaining weight when they diet.
What happens after you go all-out for a big diet change and fall off the wagon is a two-pronged blow to the ego. One makes you feel frustrated about the past; the other totally demotivated for changing in the future. Peele explains it like this: “You wind up feeling even more discouraged, and thinking, ‘I’ve done everything, but I can’t lose weight.”
Odds are that the better answer is a less-flashy one. “Not everyone is so quick to take a moderate approach,” says Peele. “All the research shows that extreme restriction doesn’t work [over the long term] and that the best eating plans are moderate diets that are easy to fit into your social life and everyday routine.”
Instead of setting out to overhaul your lifestyle, first, take an honest look at it.
Does a desk job keep you keep you sedentary for most of the day? Do you eat most of your meals at restaurants?
For better or worse, these habits are a part of your daily schedule—which means that they aren’t going to be easy to change right away.
“It’s hard for people to do something that’s not part of their daily norm,” says Peele. “You have to train yourself to go out of your comfort zone.”
Notice, however, that we didn’t say ‘impossible.’ You can change your behaviors—but it will take some time.
Translation: If you’re not super active, don’t sign up for hour-long workouts every day of the week. If you eat out a lot, don’t expect to turn into Gordon Ramsay overnight. Learning some simple meal prep tips instead may help you a lot.
If you’re a desk-jockey who wants to be more active, start with a goal of consistently hitting some realistically achievable number of workouts per week. Two or three is great, but even one is an improvement. And try to get more steps throughout the day. The number of calories you can burn through non-exercise activities like walking is substantial.
“Start somewhere,” Peele says. “And to me, the best place to start is by learning what your daily normal life is, and not pretending you’re somebody you’re not.”
Question 1: This is your best diet plan — what do you love?
One thing people often have a hard time believing is that you can make almost any diet requirement work. We’re not talking about health requirements like avoiding gluten if you have celiac or peanuts if you have an allergy.
What we mean are those non-medical needs that you have in order to keep your sanity, like “I have to have pasta with my family sometimes” or “I have to eat dessert.”
Look. Can you love carbs and still lose fat? Yes. Can you eat dessert and still lose fat? Yes. In fact, when I reached the leanest point I ever achieved in my life—we’re talking single-digit body fat percentage territory—I was eating cheesecake once per week. How? By making adjustments elsewhere in the plan.
Whether you’re a carb lover or chocoholic, you can make just about anything work (you’ll see several examples of other situations later under question #3). It is possible to build a diet plan that meets your needs, prevents weight gain, and helps you lose fat and gain muscle. But there is some work involved.
The best diet plan is a byproduct of a little “give and take.” You figure out what you must take, and then balance that out by giving in other ways. After all, if it was a simple as eating whatever you want, no one would be frustrated by dieting.
Diets work on a continuum. For the most part, protein stays consistent. The exact amount will different for each person, but there is a mountain of research that shows the importance of protein in both fat loss and muscle gain.
The magic oftentimes occurs with carbohydrates and fat loss. We know that both high-fat and high-carb diets can work for any goal. But they can’t necessarily work for any person. As we’ve discussed before, some people respond well to carbs and others don’t. Or some people exercise in a way that makes it easier to eat certain foods.
What’s important is that you understand that the more carbs you eat, the less fat you will eat. Or the more fat you eat, the fewer carbs you will consume. This is the concept of “dietary balance.”
Here’s how it works:
Let’s say you’re someone who loves to eat pasta with your family at night. Ok, no problem. Because pasta is a carb-heavy meal, you’d then adjust the other meals during the day to be high in protein and non-starchy veggies.
That way you have ample room for the extra carbs come evening, and you haven’t overloaded with fats (because you know you have a carb-bomb coming at night).
If done right, the total number of calories you consume will be on point without restricting a food you love. We have plenty of clients that can eat pasta every week, even when trying to lose a lot of weight. Our job isn’t to restrict the foods they love; it’s to adjust everything else.
When it comes to exercise, doing what you love—rather than what you think you have to do—can help you be much more consistent. You don’t need to start doing Instagram-worthy crazy intense workouts. Just try to do more of the activities that you enjoy. Peele asks her clients to think about what they liked doing in as a kid. Did you like riding your bike to school? Playing varsity tennis? Swimming at the YMCA? Whatever it is, start there.
“I’ll even ask if people like Wii or standing video games,” she says. “Whatever it is, I’ll try to help them work that into their daily norm, and then make it a habit.”
Question 2: What do you want to achieve?
Are you trying to lose weight or gain it? Build muscle or maintain the body you have? Knowing what you want to achieve is an important part of picking a diet.
The first step: use the SMART technique to simplify the process. Different industries have different interpretations, but here’s what you need to know:
- Specify your goal: What is it that you’re trying to do? Weight loss is not specific enough. It might be that you’re trying to lose 15 pounds in 6 months.
- How are you going to measure your goal? This could be: I will weight myself every 2 weeks. You need to be able to measure progress, but don’t do it in a way that will drive you crazy or cause you to jump off the plan. Just remember, weight can be deceiving, so it’s good to have a few different ways to measure. For instance, if you weight stayed the same but you lost inches and your body fat decreased, that means you lost fat (and probably a lot of it). Make sure you know what success looks like (and it might be different than what you expect).
- Make it actionable. In other words, don’t make the barrier to achievement too high. This means that your actions could change over the term of the goal. The action might start with weekly check-ins with a coach, or use an app to help you succeed, or just making sure you eat protein each and every day. The action does matter. What does, is that you do it, repeatedly, and it feels easy.
- Who will keep you responsible? Accountability is a big part of dietary success because change is hard. It’s OK to admit that because it’s hard for everyone. Don’t leave it up to you alone to have success. Whether you follow a plan with a friend (even if you are both doing something different) or set reminders in your phone (something I do for all new habits), build a system that has a safety net.
- Time: Set realistic goals so that you don’t get easily discouraged. Healthy weight loss oftentimes means just 1-2 pounds per week. This doesn’t seem like much, but if you applied it to your goal of 15 pounds in 6 months, you would end up being successful far in advance. This is important because most goals aren’t unrealistic, they just follow broken timelines. Weight loss will always have built in plateaus. So it’s important to play the law of averages. Some weeks you might lose 5 pounds, and other weeks you might stand still. So if you apply the law of averages, you can know that you’re staying on track in the big picture. It’s why we don’t freak out when we have a week where the scale doesn’t change. If we have a month where it doesn’t change (or body fat doesn’t change or measurements), then we have to make adjustments.
Beyond the strategy, a good place to start is calculating how many calories you burn every day. (Using a fitness tracker or app like MyFitnessPal can help. And don’t worry: this isn’t something you have to do long term. All of our clients have a choice if they want to track or not, but this can help set you on the right path) Next, think about whether you’re currently losing, gaining, or maintaining weight. From there, you can start making adjustments to your diet.
For example, if you burn 1,800 calories a day without working out, try cutting out an extra 200 calories—say, a serving of rice—from your dinner. That might not sound like much, but Peele says that it’s a mistake to do something drastic—like cutting your calories down to 1,500 while starting a new workout that will net you a 2,300-calorie burn.
“You can keep your calories about the same or deduct just a little,” says Peele. “This way, you aren’t making very aggressive changes that you can’t stick to. You’re just making a logical shift. It may not be sexy, but it really works.”
Question 3: What are your lifestyle preferences?
Now that you know your goal, have anticipated some of the challenges you’re going to face in achieving it, and what you have to have occasionally along the way, it’s time to get started. Here is how you can find the best diet plan for your lifestyle…and make it stick.
Forget superfoods or so-called diet secrets. Focus on sustainability and consistency.
Violate either and success drops significantly.
The Best Diet Plan for…Carb-Lovers
First, remember that there’s nothing wrong with eating bread or pasta. It’s just about how much you’re eating relative to everything else. We’ve talked about how adjusting your carbs (and the amount of fat you eat) throughout the rest of the day can create leeway to enjoy more carb-heavy meals like pasta.
Another helpful tool is what we call the “Good/Better/Best” continuum. It’s a hierarchy you can use to make upgrades with just about any type of food.
For example, if you’re someone who loves eating bread, you could think of white bread as level 1 (“good”). Trade up to 100% whole wheat bread and you’re at level 2 (“better”). Trade again up to a sprouted whole grain bread like Ezekiel, and you’re at level 3 (“best”).
These sort of switches won’t reduce your calorie intake. But they are a pathway into eating more nutrient-dense foods. Those additional nutrients might provide additional satiety (the feeling of fullness), which may ultimately help you eat a little less.
Notice the terminology, though. White bread is not bad. That’s not a typo. It’s not nutrient dense, so it doesn’t carry many health benefits and won’t fill you up like the other variations that are loaded with things like fiber. But it also won’t instantly pack on pounds. This is an important distinction and something that is overlooked too often.
Making more substitutions for the “best” version doesn’t mean you have to completely go without the “good” versions.
If you’re a carb-lover, find one meal per day that you’re likely to indulge in more of the “good” carb options. This might be pancakes at lunch, a sandwich at lunch, or pasta at dinner. And you can change the meal you emphasize each day. Then, the rest of your meals should consist of lean proteins (whether fish, meat, chicken, plant-based sources, or other), vegetables, fruit, and some fats like nuts, seeds, or olive oil.
This will provide daily flexibility so that you’re never too far on the restriction side but still build the good habits (more protein and vegetables, for example) that are the foundation of any successful diet plan.
The Best Diet Plan for…Nighttime Eaters
Yes, it’s true. Eating at night does not mean you will pack on pounds. And for some, it’s actually ideal.
Your job isn’t to eat on someone else’s schedule, it’s to eat by when you’re hungry. It’s something that all of our coaches preach to their clients. After all, many people wake up in the morning and say that they never feel hungry, but are craving food at night. And many others get up and feel famished, but don’t desire as much in the evening. Both “craving” cycles can be satisfied with completely different approaches.
If you’re a night time eater, here’s what you can do:
1) Don’t stress over breakfast. You don’t have to eat if you’re not hungry. Eating breakfast has no direct effect on weight loss, and a recent study showed that when a group of women who weren’t eating breakfast took up the morning meal, they simply gained weight (from the higher caloric intake). And you don’t have to worry about whether that’s somehow going to adversely affect your metabolism for the rest of the day. It doesn’t. Breakfast is a preference. It works for some but doesn’t work for others.
2) Work on shifting your calories toward the nighttime. If do you wake up and want breakfast, you can still enjoy the meal, but cut the portion in half and leave the rest of those calories for your evening meal. You can do the same thing with lunch. Less in the middle of the day leaves you more room to dig in at night.
The bottom line? Don’t be afraid to eat at night. The timing of your eating matters less than the total amount you eat. If you’re eating a lot of food toward the end of the day, but not exceeding your targeted total for the day, then you’re doing fine.
The Best Diet Plan for…The Snacker
For years, the grazing method (eating 5-6 smaller meals or snacks) was all the rage because of theories about how it would boost your metabolism. Those theories turned out to be misleading but snacking and smaller meals still work. The key to effective snacking is making sure that you are in control of how much you eat (the size of “snacks” has nearly tripled in size in the last 20 years) and making sure that you are eating when you’re hungry, and not just because you feel like you need to sneak in another meal.
Some people snack because they are legitimately hungry and prefer to eat smaller portions spaced throughout the day. But other people fall victim to snacking triggers like frustration or boredom. So your first step is to examine what’s setting off your snack attacks.
If you’re a compulsive eater who’s more likely to chow down simply when you’re bored, one approach could be to steer clear of having a lot of pre-packed foods on hand. Peele recommends buying raw foods. This way, you’ll have to go out of your way to cook them if you want to indulge.
Meanwhile, if you’re someone who gets hungry often and does well with having several smaller meals throughout the day, then protein may be your friend. Research shows that snackers who switched to high-protein foods lost more body fat. Brian Murray — a head coach at Born Fitness — chalks it up to satiety.
“If you give someone a snack that’s more protein-dense then let them sit there for a little while, they’ll generally be fine with a smaller portion,” Murray says. “If you give someone a bag of chips, which can total in at 1,000 calories, it’s possible that they’re going to make their way through the whole thing.” You can make some high-protein snacks like PB&J Protein Snack Balls and have them ready when you need them.
The Best Diet Plan for…The Sugar-Lover
If you have a sweet tooth, you have several ways to help satisfy your needs (or break the habit, if you so choose). As you’ll see, they aren’t all mutually exclusive, so you could use elements of each.
Option #1: “Eliminate.” Peele gives her clients this rule—you can only eat sweets outside of the house. This means you can enjoy that slice of key lime pie with your friend, but you can’t buy a carton of ice cream and stash it in the fridge. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind—or at least, out of easy access.
But what if you’re not able to eliminate all of the sugars and sweets from your house? Perhaps you share your living environment, or you entertain a lot and have sweet snacks on hand as a result. If that’s you, consider…
Option #2: Reduce. Buy smaller-size portions of the packaged sweets you have on hand. The smaller size helps enforce portion control. “Think about a gallon of ice cream,” Murray says. “If you wanted to, you could get pretty far through it. But if you eat one 200-calorie chocolate bar, in the grand scheme of things that’s not really a big deal.”
Murray says this approach can also be helpful for people who get chocolate cravings, which can take on an almost addictive-like quality.
Option #3: is Replace. Can you swap your favorite guilty pleasure with something that hits on the same nodes in terms of flavor and texture? “This is why I love shakes and smoothies,” says Murray, a self-confessed former ice cream craver. But instead of turning to Ben & Jerry when a craving strikes, he whips up a protein shake with lots of ice. It feels ice-cream-esque, but with way fewer calories and more satiating protein. Or you can go with a long-time Born Fitness favorite: protein ice cream.
The Best Diet Plan for…The Busy Lifestyle
Let’s say you’re working two jobs, or you’re a mom who’s on the go from dawn to dusk. You don’t have time to cook once Monday morning rolls around. What you need is something healthy, that you can make relatively quickly, and then turn to over and over again throughout the week.
In this case, spending just a little bit of your weekend on meal prep can help set you up for success throughout the week. Pick one or two recipes that you cook once but can enjoy several times. “Eggs on-the-go,” which is basically a souffle of eggs and veggies, are an option you may like. And making them is easy. You simply chop up the ingredients, bake them in the oven, then store them in the fridge. Now you have a high-protein meal ready whenever you need it. We created a guide for simple meal prep, which you can follow here.
If meal prep isn’t your thing, you can strategically make bigger portions and turn every meal into 2 meals. When you make dinner at night, double down on the portion size. Before you even serve the food, take half, and then store it in your fridge. This becomes your lunch for the next day. And these meals don’t have to be complex. Think simple meals — like fajitas — where you grill or sauté some vegetables, add a source of protein, and you’re good to go.
You may also find food delivery services helpful, but they can be expensive.
Whatever your struggle, when you build a diet to fit your life (rather than trying it the other way around), you’re in the driver’s seat on the road to positive change. That alone can make a huge difference. “Once you feel like you have control over the outcome—that it’s not just up to the whims of the diet gods—that’s when you’ll stop feeling stuck,” says Peele.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and the author of You Can’t Screw This Up. He is the founder of Born Fitness, and the co-founder of Arnold’s Pump Club (with Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Pen Name Consulting. An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was previously the Chief Nutrition Officer for Ladder, the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. According to The Huffington Post, Bornstein is “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, and E! News.