Diets are popular for a whole handful of reasons. They promise magical weight loss, quick fixes, happiness, glowing skin, un-bloated bellies, a perfect life…diets are like a really bad boyfriend. They make lots of promises and never follow-through, leading to failure and disappointment.
People choose to go on diets primarily to lose weight and reach their fitness goals. There are SO many diets out there, all with their own unique “rules”, all promising to be THE best way to reach your goals. However, what most diets have in common is that they are not sustainable, and this why they most often lead to failure.
I can’t stress enough how different each and every one of us is, and how HUGE of a role this plays in health and wellness. We all live in different places, eat different things, work different jobs, have different stressors, sleep different amounts, take different medications, do different activities and workouts, have different genes…the list goes on and on. Each of these individual factors makes us unique, and because of this we each react to different kinds of eating and lifestyle patterns differently. With all of this in mind, does it make sense that these “diets” we see would work for us just because they promise to? No. Cutting out gluten may work for one person, and cutting out all dairy may work for another, but that doesn’t mean by any means that it will work for you.
Lets look at a quick dieting scenario:
“Amy” was trying to lose a few pounds, and decided to start the Whole30 diet because a lot of people on Facebook and Instagram seemed to be doing it and were losing a lot of weight. And for goodness sake the website straight up says, “THIS WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE” so who wouldn’t want to try it?! So Amy starts the Whole30 diet, following all of the clearly defined rules, cutting out the indicated food groups, and eating what and how the program told her to. Two weeks go by, and she’s lost a few pounds, yay! A week later, Amy’s friends want to go out for dinner and drinks. She has been depriving herself of all the foods she really loves (ice cream, bread, even Greek yogurt and whole grains), so going out to dinner and drinks provides a lot of temptation. She says to herself, she’s going to be “good”, she is going to follow the rules. ( I think we’ve all been here at some point.) So she goes out, and surprise surprise, she totally over does it, eating all the things she’s missed the past three weeks of her diet. This one night then snowballs into Amy going back to her old eating habits, not really learning anything about food, nutrition, or her body. Just that she lost a few pounds, gained them back, and now is back to square 1.
This all too familiar scenario highlights a lot of the primary problems with diets:
- RULES. 99% of diets consist of a list of rules that must be followed. As humans, we do not respond well to rules. The saying “rules are meant to be broken” is actually pretty accurate when looked at from a human nature perspective. Even as kids, we always knew that rules were temporary, which made them easier to follow in the moment. They are focused in the short-term, often don’t align with our thinking, aren’t educative, and to lead into our next point, are not sustainable.
- SUSTAINABILITY. Diets are not sustainable for a few reasons. They don’t take into consideration your current lifestyle, personality, behaviors, are often drastically different from your current style of eating, and are deprivation oriented.
- BEHAVIOR CHANGES. Diets do not promote behavior changes. The key to making any kind of plan or style really stick and be successful is to promote positive behavior changes. Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have different habits associated with food. To make lasting and sustainable change, we must look at our current behaviors and habits, and strategically work to adjust them to increase the likeliness for success.
- CUTTING OUT FOOD GROUPS. Unless you have a specific reason for cutting out an entire food group, I would NEVER suggest for someone to do so. I could go on and on here, but I will just say that if you ever come across a diet or meal plan that instructs you to cut out entire food groups (such as dairy, grains, legumes, gluten, etc.) proceed with caution. Not only is this unsustainable, but this practice is highly irresponsible and can be harmful to your health.
- COOKIE CUTTER. Diets do not take into consideration your current lifestyle. They are not unique to you, but “cookie cutter.” In order for a diet or any kind of health change to be successful, it must fit into your current lifestyle. Another note about human nature; we are not programmed or built to do the difficult thing. It makes our bodies work harder. This is why exercise can be so unpleasant and mental blocks so powerful. The more cohesive and customized to you the lifestyle changes, the higher the chance of success.
If I shouldn’t diet, what the hell should I do?! In my own life (and when consulting with clients), I focus on creating my own healthy lifestyle, that is unique to my needs, my life, and my goals. My primary goal is to help the body function at its best in the environment that it’s in. There are a few key factors when starting this journey:
- REMOVE NEGATIVE FACTORS. First I try to remove as many negative factors as possible; address sleep, stress, hydration, and in the process learn to listen to your body. These all play huge roles in overall health and also how we react to food and exercise. You may want to work out 6 days a week, but find that your body does not love that schedule. You may start lifting weights, and find that both your body and mind react positively! The process of removing negative risk factors and learning to listen to our bodies helps to form a really great mind-body connection that will support and aide us as we go on to build our healthy lifestyles.
- FOCUS ON WELLNESS. Focusing on wellness is crucial in creating a sustainable healthy lifestyle. Wellness helps to intersect physical health with mental health, and highlights the connectedness of all parts of our lives. It helps maintain a balance. Health is not independent, it affects relationships, family, work, money, happiness, and vice versa. Wellness is an active process where we become aware of these interconnected factors, and work to make positive choices towards a more successful and well-rounded existence. This way of thinking is very different from what a lot of individuals practice, and can really help to put health (esp. diet and exercise) into a new and motivating perspective. Incorporating wellness in creating a healthy lifestyle can be a great aide to building sustainable positive behaviors.
- WORK WITH YOUR CURRENT LIFESTYLE. This is crucial in working towards sustainability. As said above, diets don’t take in to consideration your current lifestyle. If the changes made can work fluidly with your unique life, you are much more likely to maintain them and have higher rates of success. If you really HATE kale and spin classes, we are not going to incorporate those into your life. Those are not sustainable choices. If you love lifting weights and broccoli, we are going to work with those to create health behaviors that you enjoy and will stick with. Instead of looking to diets to guide your eating, try focusing on patterns. Eating patterns give good nutritional guidance and education, while leaving a lot of wiggle room for us to work with incorporation into our own lives.
- DEFINE YOUR VISION & CREATE GOALS. This is one of my favorite components of building a healthy lifestyle, and I think one of the most crucial for maintaining balance, wellness, and success. To define your vision, imagine your ideal life – What is your family like? What do you do for fun? Where do you live? What is your health like? What is your job? What do you contribute to the community? Are you happy? Creating goals that you are passionate about and that align with your vision is an amazing way to continue making progress, self-monitor your success, and stay focused and committed. When creating goals, let your vision guide you. Start by making long-term goals that relate directly to your vision, and from those long term goals, create a series of short-term goals. Short-term goals serve as stepping stones to get from where you are now, to your vision. It is much easier to incorporate exercise or healthy eating into your life when you are thinking about the future, what you hope to achieve, and the important role that each factor plays. By describing your vision, and then setting goals that work together to make that vision a reality, is in my opinion, the most effective way to take steps towards building a healthy lifestyle that is filled with sustainable behaviors that encourage positive choices that will benefit all aspects of your life: physical health, mental health, social relationships, family relationships, work performance, happiness and feelings of real achievement…really everything.
Don’t just diet and lose a few pounds, build your own healthy lifestyle that will benefit you and all parts of your life. Set yourself up for a lifetime of success, in all areas of your life. Be happy, be healthy, be balanced, be the creator and the controller, do what you love, and achieve your goals.