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Why we're so obsessed with rigid diets like keto

Swear by keto, Whole30 or intermittent fasting? We hate the word "diet", but love to enforce rules around what should we should eat. Here's why we're obsessed.
Illustration of woman pulling food from a jenga of food items.
Eating comes down to making a lot of decisions, many of them in rapid succession. Abbey Lossing / for NBC News

Whether you’re in favor of food rules or totally against any sort of structured plan, it’s pretty hard to deny that we Americans crave them. Proof is in the popularity of programs, like the Whole 30, the ketogenic diet, the carnivore diet, intermittent fasting, and others, which promote eliminating entire food groups and/or following certain (often strict) guidelines. Do we like a good no-sugar, no-grain, no-alcohol challenge or is there something else at play?


Eating comes down to making a lot of decisions, many of them in rapid succession. “We make over 200 food choices a day,” says Gary Foster, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer at WW, the new Weight Watchers. Everyone is familiar with this dining out scenario: “Can I start you out with an appetizer?” “Would you like to see the specials,” “Do you want to look at the wine list?” “Can I get you another round?” “Do you want to see the dessert menu?” and so on. There’s a lot of effort involved in making decisions, and so many choices can make us feel overwhelmed. It’s not just food choices that tax our brain. Consider how much easier it is to get dressed when you’re away from home with just three outfits compared to how you rack your brain every morning staring at a closet full of clothes.

The appeal of these programs is that they give you a prescription to find your way out of eating habits that feel uncontrollable.

“Our minds crave things that are easy and require little thought because they are constantly juggling so many different tasks. Deciding what to eat is just one more thing to do,” says Susan Albers, PsyD, author of "Eating Mindfully" and clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Martin Binks, PhD, associate professor and Director of the Nutrition Metabolic Health Initiative (HMI) at Texas Tech department of Nutritional Sciences puts it this way: “It’s easier to make a yes or no choice,” explaining that it’s simpler and less stressful to make binary decisions rather than to get into nuanced ones. Food rules can simplify things. When the waiter drops by with the bread basket, a keto dieter can quickly and easily get to “no thanks” compared to all of the variables a flexible eating style might require: “What other starchy foods am I eating? How hungry am I? Is the bread whole grain?” The more variables there are, the more complicated it is for your brain to make a decision and this, he says, explains part of our obsession with food rules.


Life is chaotic and often unpredictable. Enter rigid food rules. Research suggests that predictability helps us reduce stress and keeps us calm by allowing us to feel more in control of our environment. Put it this way: When you feel like your eating habits are a little too loose, a structured plan can help give you an “I’ve got this!” feeling by providing a clear, step-by-step path to drop the excess weight or get your daily pint of Ben and Jerry's habit under control. If you think about it, when you’re lost in the woods and you’re worried about getting out before dark, would you rather let Google maps guide you from point A to point B with detailed directions or would you be cool with finding a directional marker (maybe a familiar rock?) and figuring it out? The appeal of these programs is that they give you a prescription to find your way out of eating habits that feel uncontrollable, explains Foster.


Most plans eliminate or limit foods you crave, like chips, cookies, ice cream, mac and cheese, and more (unless you’re making multiple ingredient substitutions). Cravings are complex, but they’re more environmental than biological, and as you know, many of us struggle with them. There are several factors that can set you off: a memory, a picture (say, Instagram or an ad on your computer), a smell (think of the Cinnabon effect), or just seeing something in your pantry. Cravings are largely learned; they aren’t driven by bodily needs, Binks explains. If you remove the prompt, you can diminish cravings, he says. This may explain why people feel they can successfully manage cravings when following a set of rigid food rules — because, “poof,” you’re not making mac and cheese for the family or keeping brownies in the house so the cue that sets you off is gone.

Beyond eliminating the triggers, the foods that are allowed are generally whole, unprocessed ones. Almost always, processed and sugary items are cut. Dana Small, PhD, professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, Director, Modern Diet and Physiology Research Center at Yale School of Medicine, says that processed foods are actually harder to resist than whole ones. Nature doesn’t really pair carbs and fats in the same amounts and ratios found in foods like French fries and pizza, and Small — who has studied brain scans of participants as they decide how much to pay for certain, modern indulgences (from cheese to chocolate chip cookies to white bread) — says our brains aren’t evolved to deal with the metabolic signals these combo foods trigger. In other words, when we eat these types of foods (let’s say potato chips), our brain circuitry lights up more than when we eat carbs or fats alone — even when everything else (like calories and how much we enjoy that food) is the same. Rigid food rules that cut out modern day processed fare is one way to lose weight and minimize cravings.


The initial success you might feel on a structured eating plan can feel empowering and exciting, but the problem, say experts, is that these programs don’t build in a backup plan for those times you’re out with friends and everyone orders nachos. We live in the real world, so you can never fully eliminate all the various triggers that prompt cravings, which, over time, can make them feel more intense. Just think of what happens when told, “Don’t think about the color blue.” Chances are, something blue came to mind. If you repeated this phrase to yourself several times a day, you may notice a heightened awareness of blue objects. The same goes for cravings. All your favorite foods on the “do not eat” list become difficult to ignore.

Plus, these plans are often unrealistic and can damage someone’s relationship with food. In some cases, obsessive dieting may interfere with quality of life.


If you’re trying to lose weight or put healthier habits in place, initially, a structured plan can help. But experts agree that results may be short-lived because most rigid eating programs don’t account for things like holiday meals, a night out with friends or the office doughnut platter. “The downside is that people often butt up against situations and environments that don’t support or downright conflict with the plan,“ explains Albers. A keto dieter goes to a birthday party and what happens next? What’s the plan for dealing with the birthday cake? “Without the plan B, the structured diet is thrown out the window or people feel like they’re failing,” says Albers.

Though structure and guidance may be beneficial, it’s just as important to learn how to be flexible and enjoy food mindfully in order to achieve long-term results and stay emotionally and physically healthy Here are some pointers for finding the right mix:

  • Find a plan that appeals to your taste buds. If you’d never dream of giving up a turkey sandwich, look for a program that includes it — at least in some fashion (say, in a cassava flour wrap).
  • Have a backup. It’s unrealistic to think you’ll never partake in an off-plan food, and that’s okay. Give yourself the flexibility to have those food experiences, and then return to the approved foods if you’d like. But don’t feel defeated in these moments. The rules are impossible to follow, so it isn’t you, it’s them.
  • Create a healthy foundation. Getting healthy is about more than losing weight and eating well. It encompasses staying active, minimizing stress, getting appropriate sleep, and making sure your relationships are in good shape and tended to. Don’t become so overly focused on the eating aspect that you downplay these other important pillars.
  • Be aware of red flags. Albers says the worst-case scenario is when a structured program leads to isolation or obsession or a difficult relationship with food. If you find yourself turning down dinner plans with friends or limiting social opportunities because your food program is too limiting, it’s a sign you may need some help repairing your relationship with food.
  • Decide what’s working. And what’s not working. Maybe you’ve developed a healthy breakfast rhythm by following a set of rigid food rules, or maybe you’ve eliminated some unnecessary snacking. Once you outgrow the plan, there’s no need to set aside the positive behaviors that are serving you. The program may involve an all-or-nothing mentality, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allow to borrow what’s working and abandon what’s not.

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