Why Sticking to a Diet Is the Wrong Mindset & What to Do Instead
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When people hear the word “diet,” they often think of extremely restrictive behaviors or eating trends that come and go. At various points in the last few decades, numerous diets have had their moments of peak popularity. Many people have tried a long list of the popular diets, but if they worked long term, you wouldn’t have to keep trying the next one.
As a registered dietitian, I rarely suggest a specific diet unless it treats a medical condition and has clear evidence that supports its use. If you have celiac disease, a medical team would recommend a gluten-free diet as treatment. If you have severe food allergies, you may be placed on an elimination diet to understand your allergy triggers.
Restrictive diets are very hard to stick to long term; eventually you run out of willpower without clear motivation, such as a medical condition.
As you can likely tell, I don’t like the idea of following a “diet” for weight loss and all of the emotional landmines that come with it. When clients come to me, saying they need to go on a diet, I work with them to dig deeper on their health goals, where the issues come up in their current style of eating, and what barriers are holding them back.
I don’t prescribe diets because I don’t believe in them for weight loss. Here’s what I recommend instead, and my best advice for maintaining a new way of eating long term.
Diet Approaches That Don’t Lead to Lasting Success
In years of practicing as an RD, the following scenarios are common pitfalls that I see when a person tries to change their diet to lose weight:
Skipping meals or snacks to cut calories
Sticking only to meal times with no snacks or limiting eating to restrictive windows of time
Trying to move immediately from eating all takeout and convenience foods to cooking all meals at home from scratch
Cutting calories by only eating vegetables, fruit, and protein
Drastically cutting calories in an unsustainable way or following a rigid diet plan, such as eating a narrow range of foods to drop weight quickly
Cutting out all favorite “treat” foods, such as ice cream, potato chips, or fried foods, with no plan to incorporate them.
Tips to Help You Succeed at Diet Changes
If you identify with one of the above scenarios, try some of these suggestions to see if they help you make changes.
Shift into healthier habits over time
Instead of going from eating mostly takeout and packaged foods to all home-cooked meals and half of Sunday spent grocery shopping and meal prepping, try ordering a meal kit with already-prepped ingredients to get in the groove of cooking more at home. Set up grocery pickup or delivery with healthy snacks and drink choices.
After you manage to cook some meals at home consistently, then you could try cooking some meals at home without the help of a meal kit.
Prepare ahead of time
Don’t let 5pm come with no plan for dinner, or you come home to a house with no handy snacks to eat when you’re already hungry and still need to prepare dinner. As a backup plan, have some healthier takeout options in mind in case you run out of time or energy to cook a healthy dinner.
Instead of defaulting to a takeout food that led to overeating in the past, such as pizza or Chinese food, try something like a portion-controlled burrito bowl with extra veggies added, or a Mediterranean plate with hummus, pita, chicken, and salad.
Plan to eat at regular intervals throughout the day
You don’t have to eat on a time clock, but try to eat balanced meals (some carbs, protein, vegetables or fruit, and healthy fats) on a semi-flexible schedule so you’re not starving by the next meal or snack. For a lot of people, that looks like eating every two to four hours throughout the day, or three meals with some snacks in between. It’s easier to make healthier food choices when your brain and belly aren’t sending you hunger alarms.
Learn what comfortably full feels like to you
You could try using a hunger scale if you’re not accustomed to what hungry and full feel like in your body. If you feel satisfied after your meal and eat a snack when you start to feel a little hungry again, you’re less likely to become ravenous and reach for snacks or foods that aren’t going to help you meet your goals.
Adjust habits over time
Temporary fixes to lose weight quickly generally leads to gaining weight back. Instead, you’re trying to change your habits to improve your health. It’s OK if it doesn’t happen immediately. Pick a few areas to work on first, and then gradually make other changes so you can maintain your progress long term.
Struggling with cravings?
You might not be eating enough throughout the day, or you might not be eating the right blend of foods and nutrients. If you’re craving sugary or carb-rich foods like donuts or french fries, make sure you’re eating enough fiber-rich carbohydrates throughout the day. Include a whole grain, vegetables, or fruits at every meal, like brown rice with a protein and vegetable at dinner, or a slice of whole grain toast and a piece of fruit with your morning egg scramble.
Consider your triggers
Think about what led to a food or drink choice that wasn’t part of your plan for the day. If you were eating due to stress, try doing some breathing exercises or taking a short walk before grabbing a snack the next time you feel that way. If you were eating because there was something free in the break room, think about snacks you could keep in your desk drawer to eat instead.
You’re not supposed to feel deprived
You don’t have to feel like you’re starving to change your eating habits for the better. If you’re thinking about food all the time, you might not be eating enough or not eating enough tasty foods.
To find healthy foods that are also delicious, try preparing foods in new ways. For example, try roasting or braising vegetables instead of blandly steaming them, or buy a new jarred sauce to jazz up a simple meal. You could also check out a new cookbook or try a new recipe site or food blog.
Eat some of your favorite foods without feeling like it’s cheating
You shouldn’t feel like you’re cheating when you include portions of foods that aren’t “diet foods.” If you really like them, you should include foods like desserts or fried foods sometimes. Try reducing the portion size that’s available to you by only purchasing a single slice of cake, a pint of ice cream versus a half gallon, or a single-serve bag of chips versus a large bag. If you really like pasta but tend to overeat it, add in vegetables or other sides so you naturally eat a little less pasta.
Eat the foods you like mindfully and without distractions so you really enjoy them, and then move on. No guilt needed.
Training Yourself to Stick to Diet Changes
You shouldn’t have to stick to diet changes on willpower alone. Remember why you started.
Think about your overall health, not a particular amount of weight loss or a certain body shape. Even if you don’t lose weight quickly, a healthier diet has other impacts on your health, such as improving your cholesterol levels, lowering your blood pressure, helping control your blood sugar, or improving your energy levels.
Make habits easier by having the right tools convenient to you. Keep a packed gym bag with your sneakers and exercise clothes handy, and pack your lunch for work as you clean up after dinner in the evening. You could prep snacks and vegetables on a Sunday night for the rest of the week, and keep less healthy options out of sight or on a higher shelf.
If you find yourself obsessing over your body and your weight, even with a gentler approach to healthier eating, seek help from a counselor or other mental health resource. If you think you could be obsessing, take a break from any tracking activities, like wearing a smartwatch, logging your foods, and weighing yourself. Consider working with a registered dietitian to make sure you’re eating enough to fuel your body properly.
You don’t have to stick to a restrictive diet to change your eating habits for the better. If you feel constantly deprived, hungry, or like you’ve made changes that aren’t sustainable, try some of our tips to get back on track to a healthier lifestyle.
Feeling overwhelmed? An expert can help! Reach out to a registered dietitian, or check out the Kickoff app’s nutrition features and learn how you can work with a certified expert to help you change your eating habits.