8 Ways to Improve Diet Adherence

By Aadam | Last Updated: March 4th, 2021

Diet adherence is obviously important. If you can’t stick to a diet, you’re not going to be very successful with your goals.

It doesn’t matter if one day scientists discovered The One Diet To End All Diets if that diet consisted of eating lettuce and pig penises for eternity.

Thankfully for us (and pigs around the world), we know all diets can help you lose fat as long as you can stick to it. And it’s not what diet you follow but how well you can adhere to the diet that matters most. 

In one study, researchers noted how well participants adhered to a diet was strongly associated with weight loss in one of four popular, yet varying, diets: Atkins, a low-carb, high fat diet; Zone, a more balanced diet consisting of 40% of calories from carbs, 30% of calories from protein, and 30% of calories from fat; Ornish, a very low fat (<10% calories from fat), high carb vegetarian diet; and Weight Watchers, which uses a ‘points system’.

 Another study found similar results. Researchers concluding:

Regardless of assigned diet groups, 12-month weight change was greater in the most adherent compared to the least adherent tertiles. These results suggest that strategies to increase adherence may deserve more emphasis than the specific macronutrient composition of the weight loss diet itself in supporting successful weight loss.

Not only is adherence important to how much weight people lose during the dieting period, it’s also a good predictor of how well someone maintains that loss in the long run. 

In this study, diet adherence during the weight loss phase predicted weight maintenance at two years. The high adherers regained only 50% of the weight they lost, while the low adherers regained 99% of the weight they’d lost.

Ok, so diet adherence is important. Cool. But how can you actually improve diet adherence?

Gee, I thought you’d never ask, here are a bunch of suggestions that can help.

1. It should fit your dietary preferences

As I noted above, all diets–regardless of their macro composition–can induce fat loss (as long as you’re adhering to a calorie deficit). What matters most is how compatible it is with your dietary preferences.

But not only your dietary preferences, it shouldn’t stray too far from the type of foods you’re accustomed to, and enjoy, eating. 

In one study, researchers found that adherence to the Mediterranean diet was highest among those whose standard diet was most similar in composition to the Mediterranean diet. Another study found adherence to one of four diets was better when the participants were eating a diet that reflected the macro composition of their normal diet. 

Now, to be clear, if your ‘standard’ diet consists of McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner then you probably need to sort that shit out. The point here is: you shouldn’t unnecessarily restrict foods or eat in a way you don’t enjoy.

Do you enjoy eating carbs? Then going full-blown keto is probably a bad idea. Do you like the taste of spinach but despise kale? Then eat spinach and rest easy knowing you’ll never have to eat another bite of kale again. HOORAY.

Don’t make dieting harder than it needs to be. By eating the foods you enjoy, you’ll find sticking to the diet easier.

2. Get real with your expectations

Thanks to a lot of the nonsense spouted by the fitness mainstream, people have severely unrealistic expectations of how long it will actually take them to achieve results. And when there’s a mismatch between expectations and reality, the likelihood of giving up is higher.

In this study, over 50% of participants who had unrealistic expectations of their goals dropped out within a year of starting their diet.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set lofty goals for what you can achieve. Need to lose 100 lbs? Ok, set that as your big goal and then be realistic with the amount of time you’re going to need to get there. (0.5-1% total body weight loss per week is a good target to aim for.)

An ambitious goal with a healthy dose of realism will work in tandem to keep you motivated. Oh, and a large heaping spoonful of patience because this shit takes time. 

3. Set up your environment for success

Change your environment and your environment will change you.

People downplay how important one’s environment is to their success or failure. If your house is filled with high calorie, hyper-palatable foods, there’s a very good chance you’re going to eat them even if you have healthier alternatives available.

Simple solution: don’t keep tasty, energy-dense foods in the house. If you’re serious about your goals this is the simplest thing you can do to set yourself up for success. 

If, for whatever reason, you have to keep these foods in the house, take them out of the packaging and keep them in an opaque jar and keep that jar out of sight.

Food packaging plays a huge role in food association and driving us to eat. This is why we immediately recognise our favourite foods at the grocery store and why food packaging catches our attention. By removing the trigger (packaging) you also remove the association, and this can help reduce chances of you eating the food. 

4. Track your progress

One of the reasons people give up on their diet (and fitness goals) is because they feel like they’re not making progress. And the reason for this is because they have no tangible way of quantifying progress.

Oh, you “feel” like you’ve stopped making progress? Sorry to burst your bubble, buddy, but feelings aren’t data. Instead:

  • Weigh yourself every morning.
  • Take bi-weekly or monthly progress photos
  • Take body measurements
  • Keep a training log so you can see your strength increasing
  • Use a pedometer (like a Fitbit or a simple steps app on your phone) to track your activity. In one study, overweight women who used pedometers lost six times more weight than women who didn’t use pedometers. (This doesn’t mean buying a pedometer will magically make you lose weight. They help because they allow you to measure your current actions and then realign or adjust them so they’re more conducive to your end goal.)

Having quantifiable data will give you a better insight into whether you’re making progress or not.

5. Identify your hunger window

For example, you may not be hungry early in the day, but you’re ravenous in the evenings. So, skip breakfast and push the majority of your day’s calorie intake to dinner. Conversely, if you find that you do better with breakfast, but you’re not hungry at lunch–eat breakfast and skip lunch.

Eating more when hunger is high and eating less (or not eating) when hunger is low or nonexistent is a simple way to stay on top of your calorie intake.

6. Sleep

A good night’s sleep can make you feel on top of the world, capital A awesome, and like you can stop a speeding bullet with your bare hands. A poor night’s sleep has the exact opposite effect. Not only does it make you feel capital S shitty it also makes self-control harder (sauce) because it increases hunger and cravings and impairs decision-making.

Meaning: you’re far more likely to say ‘fuck it’ and end up balls deep in the cookie jar. The same cookie jar you shouldn’t have in your house in the first place because I explained what would happen if you did earlier in the article.

Fuck, are you even reading?

So how exactly does a lack of sleep affect hunger? There are two hormones that control appetite: ghrelin and leptin.

When ghrelin levels increase, it triggers a strong sensation of hunger; conversely, when leptin levels increase, it blunts appetite.

In his book, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker discusses a number of studies by his colleague Dr Eve Van Cauter on sleep (or a lack thereof) and appetite regulation.

In one study, Van Cauter recruited a group of young healthy adults that were given eight-and-a-half hours of sleep for five nights. Then, the same group were only allowed four to five hours of sleep for five nights.

They were provided with exactly the same type and amount of food and their levels of physical activity were kept constant.

Each day the participants’ sense of hunger and food intake were monitored along with their circulating levels of ghrelin and leptin.

Van Cauter discovered that “individuals were far more ravenous when sleeping four to five hours a night. This despite being given the same amount of food and being similarly active, which kept the hunger levels of the same individuals under calm control when they were getting eight or more hours of sleep.”

Poor sleep decreased the ‘satiety hormone’ leptin and increased the ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin. So even though the participants were given adequate amounts of food to stave off hunger, their body continued signalling them to eat because the ‘I’m full’ signal wasn’t working.

As Matthew Walker goes on to say:

From a metabolic-perspective, the sleep-restricted participants had lost their hunger control. By limiting these individuals to what some in our society would think of as ‘sufficient’ amount of sleep (five hours of sleep a night), Van Cauter had caused a profound imbalance in the scales of hormonal food desire. By muting the chemical message that says ‘stop eating’ (leptin), yet increasing the hormonal voice that shouts ‘please, keep eating’ (ghrelin), your appetite remains unsatisfied when your sleep is anything less than plentiful, even after a kingly meal.

Ok, cool, so a lack of sleep increases hunger but does it actually mean people eat more?

Well, Dr Van Cauter has a study for that too.

In this study, participants underwent two different conditions:

Four nights of eight and a half hours’ time in bed, and four nights of four and a half hours’ time in bed.

In both conditions, participants were limited to the same level of physical activity and given free access to food.

When participants were sleeping four hours per night, they consumed 300 calories more each day than when they were getting a full night of sleep.

But hold the fuck up Dorothy, because this shitstorm ain’t over yet. 

Not only do sleep-deprived individuals crave more food–the type of food they crave tend to be the high-calorie sort.

As Matthew Walker notes:

Weight gain caused by short sleep is not just a matter of eating more, but also a change in what you binge eat. Looking across the different studies, Van Cauter noticed that cravings for sweets (e.g., cookies, chocolate, and ice cream), heavy-hitting carbohydrate-rich foods (e.g., bread and pasta), and salty snacks (e.g., potato chips and pretzels) all increased by 30 to 40 percent when sleep was reduced by several hours each night.

Note from Aadam: while the author refers to these food items as ‘sweets’ and ‘carbohydrate-rich’ foods, I want to clarify that all the items listed above contain just as much, if not more, salt and fat–i.e., they’re hyper-palatable foods. So it’s not that people crave ‘carbs’ and ‘sugar’ when sleep deprived, they crave calorie-dense foods.

So, poor sleep results in what I call the Circle of Absolute Fuckery.

You don’t sleep properly → hunger levels increase → you crave calorie-dense foods → whoops, your leptin’s all fucked, so now you don’t feel satiated → you eat said calorie-dense foods → UH OH, MOTHERFUCKER, remember leptins screwed so you’re not satiated from eating the calorie-dense foods → CALORIE SURPLUS → NOPE, still hungry → eat more of calorie-dense foods → CALORIE SURPLUS INCREASES → WELP, I’d love to stop eating but my leptin is still screwed → CALORIE SURPLUS INCREASES.

I mean, really, if you’re still not convinced of the importance of sleep after seeing the Circle of Absolute Fuckery, I don’t know what to tell you.

If you are shook, don’t worry because I wrote out some tips to help you improve your sleep. Here ya go.

You’re welcome. Now go get some fucking sleep.

7. Set a moderate calorie deficit

Yes, I know, you want to be lean like yesterday. Unfortunately, you can’t force fat loss, and the more aggressive the deficit, the harder it becomes to stick to your diet.

Start with a moderate calorie deficit, ~15-20% below maintenance. So, if your maintenance intake is 2500 calories, this would mean a reduction of ~370-500 calories.

This doesn’t mean aggressive dieting doesn’t work. In fact, some studies suggest it can be super effective (sauce, sauce). The problem is most people don’t know how to implement an aggressive diet properly and without the right support and guidance, they end up backfiring. So stick with a moderate deficit (or, I dunno, hire me to coach you?)

8. Focus on your weekly calorie intake

Have you ever had one bad day of eating then decided everything is ruined and instead of getting back on track, you keep eating like an asshole until Monday comes around where you start the cycle all over again?

Well, this strategy will help you stop doing that.

Instead of a daily calorie approach–hitting a certain number of calories every day; use a weekly calorie approach–staying within a certain number of calories by the end of the week.

So, if you require 1800 calories per day to lose fat, you’d multiply this by 7 to get your weekly calorie target. (1800 x 7 =12,600 calories).

Focusing on your weekly intake versus daily intake stops the all or nothing mentality to your diet and helps you see the bigger picture.

For example: let’s assume you’re dieting on 1800 calories. You have an unexpected work dinner and end up eating 2500 calories. Even though you went over your target calories by ~600, if you get back on track the next day–you’ll still be in a calorie deficit by the end of the week.

Or, if you know you’ll be going out on the weekend and it’ll be hard to accurately track your intake–you can adjust your calories leading into the weekend to keep your weekly calorie totals in check.

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Need help with your goals? I can help.