I just got off the phone with a coaching client who has struggled with weight loss for decades. I teared up as I reflected on our conversation, as I remember the cycle she was going through, so well: Each new diet promised that all-too-elusive success. I can still taste the sparkly sense of hope, purity, and excitement of a new diet regime: This time it would work. This was going to be the magic moment when everything changed.
The new regime felt so good—especially in the beginning. But it inevitably failed and the old habits came back, along with familiar feelings of shame, incompetence, frustration, and hopelessness.
Most of us know that diets don’t really work. By “diet,” I mean any special food regime that is designed to help you lose weight as fast as possible—a special regime that typically isn’t sustainable for the long term. The latest evidence-based wisdom in weight loss shows that losing weight quickly, contrary to previous beliefs, is a good strategy for decreasing the health risks associated with obesity and poor eating habits. However, you need to have a realistic strategy in place for the long term or you’ll return to your old habits and possibly gain even more weight when you do.
Like so many others, my client had tried every diet and the boomerang cycle of losing and gaining weight over decades had left her feeling powerless and incapable. We find enough things to criticize about ourselves and a perceived inability to sustain a healthy lifestyle can be incredibly demoralizing. Isn’t it your fault when you can’t control our appetite or stick to a diet?
No. It’s not your fault. It’s inevitable. Diets are usually extreme ways of eating that achieve short-term results, often at significant sacrifice. You feel totally unsatisfied after a meal. Or you spend hours making special menus and buying special expensive food. It works for a very determined, disciplined period of time, but you can’t wait until the diet ends because it’s totally unsustainable.
I overcame the dieting seesaw in my own life many years ago (thank God, literally). Doing so is about a paradigm shift, in which you establish a new relationship to food and become much kinder to yourself. It’s also about understanding your unique needs around food, instead of following some one-size-fits-all plan.
I don’t mean to minimize how very real the challenge of weight loss is. Studies show that when you lose weight your body increases appetite signals to try to regain its equilibrium. This is very challenging. Yet I believe that changing how you approach and think about food is the only strategy that works to achieve and maintain a healthy weight over a lifetime.
Here are three key principles that have worked for me and my clients:
1. Stop going to extremes.
Any time you make extreme changes to your lifestyle, there’ s a predictable boomerang effect. You feel so deprived or stressed by the extreme discipline that at some point you have a breakdown and ditch the diet—typically with a vengeance that involves a lot of calories, fat, and sugar. Some people feel so hopeless after years “failing” to maintain positive lifestyle changes that they have this sort of breakdown while successfully making moderate changes.
In these cases I tell people not to be too hard on themselves, that it’s natural to have this sort of thing happen, and to simply start again with the good habits they’ve built. This is revolutionary to some people. After all, once you’ve fallen off the wagon, doesn’t it mean falling back on your supremely bad habits and staying there for months?
It doesn’t have to. Don’t criticize yourself, don’t shame yourself, and don’t beat yourself up. Just start again. It’s really no big deal. If it happens again, and it probably will, it’s still no big deal. Just start again. No shame talk or insults are allowed. Use this phrase instead: “I’m normal and this is predictable. It happens to almost everyone, and it’s OK.”
2. It’s essential to enjoy what you’re eating.
No healthy lifestyle pattern will stick for a lifetime if you don’t enjoy it—and life is too short to eat food you hate. Don’t try to replace the cheeseburger you crave with a salad, unless you actually like salads. (I, for one, do not. They are not nearly satisfying enough.) What could you eat that’s a healthier choice than a cheeseburger? It might just mean skipping the cheese and the fries, or having a salad on the side—something I do all of the time, but only at restaurants because I find it challenging to throw together a salad at home.
Find healthy alternatives that still satisfy you, and that you still look forward to. It takes time for your taste buds, cravings, and habits to adapt. If you crave sweets and are trying to quit sugar, substitute a more natural source of sweetness like honey. That’s progress. I did that for a long time and now I’m finally at a place where I no longer crave sweets. It took time to get here, and I don’t miss them now. This feels so much better than deprivation.
3. Choose changes that you know you can sustain.
My client had recently had success with a highly regimented, very nutritious meal plan. She spent time grilling vegetables, grilling chicken, and doing all kinds of other food preparation. “The meals were so beautiful and so colorful,” she said. “I was continually posting them to social media.” The problem? As a busy businesswoman, she simply doesn’t have time for this in her life. As soon as the supervised weight loss program was over, she stopped cooking these meals.
If something doesn’t fit into your life, don’t bother with it. Sure, it’s useful and important to form new habits around food and eating—this process will be part of your journey. But only take on changes that are realistic for you, and that you are capable of doing for a long time.
When you think of trying something new and healthy, like adding a green smoothie to your morning routine, ask yourself these questions: Is it easy to do? Do I enjoy the taste of it? Can I see myself doing it regularly, without too much trouble? If the answers are largely yes, the habit could be the fit you’re looking for.
When you’re contemplating lifestyle changes around food and exercise to help you achieve weight loss, apply these principles to increase your probability of lifelong success:
•Choose food options and alternatives that you enjoy.
•Be honest with yourself about whether a certain new habit or food choice is a good fit for you.
•No shame—just reality and truth.
(P.S. I am posting this to my blog 4 months after the original article ran on my Psychology Today blog. The client I mentioned at the beginning has been consistently enjoying successful weight loss while following a sane eating and exercise plan, one that relies on what’s essentially “normal” food rather than extremes. I didn’t come up with the plan for her; she chose a support-based diet program in her local area that stood out for its practicality, ease and lack of gimmicks. For the first time in many years, she isn’t obsessing about weight and food. Hallelujah!)