(HINT: NONE OF THEM INVOLVE LACK OF MOTIVATION OR WILLPOWER)
We decide, once and for all, it’s time to shed those extra pounds. Or, perhaps we want to improve our health, boost our energy, or lower our disease risk. In each of these scenarios, a targeted nutrition strategy is required.
It seems relatively simple, doesn’t it?
Find a Diet Plan + Follow Said Diet Plan = Achieve Goal
Collective cheer from public! Collective groan from billion dollar diet industry… Oh, how I wish it were this straightforward!
In this post, I’m going to lay out the REAL reasons many of us struggle to stick to a nutrition plan and what you can do about them.
You may struggle with all of them or only a few but, based on my coaching experience, few are exempt from the entire list.
Let me be clear: My goal with this list isn’t to give you an excuse to stay stuck.
My goal is to to help you IDENTIFY and ADDRESS your unique roadblocks before they happen so you can craft a nutrition strategy that fits your unique goals, lifestyle, and circumstances.
Note: I am barely scratching the surface in this post. In future posts, I will dive more deeply into each of these.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or therapist. Everything I write on this blog is for educational purposes only and is based on my research and experience helping women achieve their health and body composition goals.
#1 EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS
Heightened emotional states often trigger non-nutritious food cravings. These include:
When we’re experiencing any of the above emotional states, many of us seek food as a way to self-soothe.
Eating triggers the release of serotonin and dopamine, our brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Eating hyper-palatable foods, such as a chips, ice cream, cookies, etc., triggers these in far greater quantities than whole foods such as steak or broccoli (this is likely NOT a news flash, ha!).
It’s important to note that when we do something that makes our brain happy, you can bet that our brain remembers. Therefore, the more often we use food as a coping mechanism or a way to change our emotional state, the more we entrench this as a habit.
I’m not going to sugar coat this (pun intended, agh..), this is not an easy one to tackle.
- Therapy: Many of us have underlying emotional issues that we haven’t dealt with. I’m not a therapist but am a huge fan of therapy in all its modalities. I was NOT a fan until I kept working to find someone I felt comfortable with. If this is something you think you could benefit from, don’t stop with the first person who rubs you the wrong way. Shop around.
- Set your phone timer to go off every hour. Take a few minutes to get up and stretch, move around, take some deep breaths, drink some water, and possibly get some movement. This helps prevent the build-up of emotions that can lead to non-hunger food cravings.
- List of Non-Food Indulgences: I help my clients create a list of non-food indulgences that help change their emotional state. I also keep a list for myself. My list is short so I don’t need to carry it around but I have clients with much longer lists. They keep copies in their purse, in their car, and taped to their office computer. My personal list of non-food indulgences includes: 3-5 minutes of body weight exercises, a phone call to a friend or family member, or a 5 minute walk.
- We don’t want to make others feel uncomfortable with our new healthy habits so we choose to indulge alongside them rather than sticking to our plan.
- We want to maintain equilibrium in a relationship. Whether it’s a spouse, partner, or friend, we may be afraid that changing ourselves will alter the relationship dynamic.
- Talk to your friends about what you’re trying to achieve. Let them know that you are in no way judging their food choices. If they try to pressure you to indulge, you can jokingly tell them ‘Eyes on your own plate!’ or ‘This is what’s working for me right now’. Either of these should be sufficient to close the topic of your food choices.
- It’s important to note that the dynamics in a close relationship CAN change when one partner chooses to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Having said that, it’s not effective to try to pressure someone into changing with you. We are all adults who get to make our own choices. Instead, try to lead by quiet example. However, you need to be willing to discuss openly any insecurities that may arise from your partner as a result of your improved health or body composition.
#3 LACK OF PLANNING AND PREPARATION
We don’t take the time to prepare healthy food in advance so we resort to take-out, fast food, or other less healthy options.
We have a busy evening transporting kids to events and forget to pack veggies, a protein bar, or a piece of fruit and wind up eating a hot dog or nachos at the game.
We forget to eat before the party and wind up eating chips and stuffed mushrooms because we’re ravenous (I may or may not have done this…).
Cook healthy food in bulk on Sunday so you have the fixings for fast, nutritious meals throughout the week. Example: A roast in the crock pot, a batch of hamburger patties, and a roast chicken combined with a panful of baked sweet potatoes, a huge salad (without dressing), and containers of chopped veggies (or bags of thawed frozen veggies) will allow you to whip up a variety of meals in under 5 minutes.
#4 UNREALISTIC GOALS AND EXPECTATIONS
You decide you’re going to buckle down, get serious, and go ALL IN. Your latest plan involves severely restricting the type and amount of food you eat in order to get quick results. You are GUNG-HO. This time, you’re going to execute perfectly!
Fast forward to day 3. You didn’t plan for your business dinner and overdid it last night. You woke up late and didn’t have time to prepare breakfast. You’ve blown it. You go through the McDonald’s drive-thru and get a burrito and now you are officially ‘off the wagon’ (Reminder: There IS NO WAGON!)
Slow. The. Hell. Down.
Seriously. I know you want results yesterday. I get it. I’ve sooo been there. But it doesn’t work like that. White knuckling it simply isn’t sustainable over the long run (or even the short run). You know this. I know this! How many times have we all tried it and ended up miserable?
This kind of all or nothing approach doesn’t work. Even when it does, the results are temporary because no one can live like a Spartan long-term. Unless you plan to white knuckle it forever, you need to develop some patience.
A better, more effective, but admittedly less sexy approach:
Change one thing at a time (I recommend starting with breakfast). Eat mostly whole, real foods most of the time (skip the fake food and meal replacements!). You know, the stuff I talk about; food that looks like (because it is) actual food.
Focus on quality protein, a wide variety of veggies, a moderate amount of healthy fats with each meal. Eat fruit when you want dessert. Eat slowly and mindfully (not while driving, watching TV, or playing on your phone). Drink plenty of water. Limit alcohol consumption. It’s shocking how effective this simple, common sense approach to nutrition can be for those who are willing to give it a real shot. Bonus: You get a lot of non-scale wins such as clearer skin, balanced energy, improved mood, and deeper sleep.
#5 LOOPHOLES, EXCEPTIONS, AND A VICTIM MENTALITY
Our inner toddler or rebel is a powerful entity. When it hears the word ‘no’, it does not go quietly into that good night. Indeed it does not.
How many times have you told yourself, ‘I’ve been so good, I deserve this!’ or ‘I’ll get back on plan tomorrow’, or worse, ‘My metabolism is broken and nothing works so to heck with it.’
All of these are lies we tell ourselves to avoid doing the work that will lead us to our goals. Here’s the reality: You’ve been so good that you deserve to reap the reward of optimal health. Now is all we have. Tomorrow is a mythological creature that continually eludes us. Your metabolism is not broken. Your body may have adapted to all the crazy diets you’ve put it through over the years but it can be healed in time and with the right protocols (this is a big part of my work with clients).
Get honest with yourself. The stories we tell ourselves about why we eat what we do, why we gained weight, and why we stopped exercising aren’t helpful. They get in the way of clarity, growth, and living the life we truly deserve.
Listen. I get it. I’ve been there with myself and with my clients. I’ve heard it all. The beautiful part is that once you’re able to lift the veil on the stories you’re telling yourself, you’re free. Free to start fresh with grace, patience, and a sane approach.
#6 BAGGAGE FROM PAST ‘FAILURES’
I can’t tell you how many clients have told me ‘I’m not good at sticking to a diet and I doubt I will be this time’. They’ve lost and regained the same 20-30 pounds repeatedly over the past decade or two. They are scared to death to try again.
This is a completely human response; a protective mechanism designed to shield us from disappointment when we inevitably ‘fall off the wagon’.
Let’s recall #4 Unrealistic Goals and Expectations. When we take an all-or-nothing approach to healthy eating, we are destined to feel like a failure.
The reality is this: There will very likely be cookies, pizza, and chocolate in your future.
The idea is to plan for these indulgences, to make sure they’re worth it, to avoid feeling like a victim of our cravings or circumstances.
An overly restrictive, impatient approach ignites our inner rebel. A more relaxed, patient approach allows us to be consistent yet still enjoy the occasional indulgence without derailing our health or goals.
There is a lot of bashing of the concept of moderation. While I do agree that some foods can be a trigger for some and are best avoided for a time, I strongly believe that moderation is a skill that we acquire when we learn to trust ourselves over time.
#7 CHILDHOOD EATING PATTERNS
Kids who were taught to clean their plate or, more insidiously, had food restricted, may unconsciously struggle as adults with any nutrition plan that involves a ‘no’ list.
Depending on your experiences as a child, therapy in some form may be warranted. I have a good friend, Jenny Helms, who does great work in this area and there are many other wonderful practitioners as well.
Bringing awareness to the issue is key whether you pursue therapy or not.
If you were taught to clean your plate, remind yourself that this is no longer a requirement. Some will use cost to justify eating everything on their plate, yet these are often the same people who spend hundreds of dollars on diet plans, meal replacements, and other weight loss gimmicks.
If you need to, use a smaller plate. In any case, it’s absolutely fine, and highly recommended, to stop eating before you’re stuffed.
If your food was restricted as a child, for whatever reason, you may have unconscious fears of not getting enough. This was certainly the case for me. I grew up with brothers who devoured everything in the house like a swarm of locusts! I would hide food and eat my meals very quickly in order to get ‘my share’. It took me a long time to slow down and realize I wasn’t going to go hungry.
#8 PAST TRAUMA
Victims of past abuse or neglect may unconsciously use food for comfort and/or seek to preserve body weight as a measure of protection.
This one is related to #7 and almost always requires some form of therapy in order to heal. It is outside my wheelhouse. When I encounter evidence of past trauma in my coaching practice, I promptly refer my clients to a qualified practitioner.
I urge you to consider whether this may exist in some form for you.
Note: Past trauma does not have to be as overt as sexual or physical abuse. It can be a more insidious form of trauma such as verbal abuse, neglect, shaming, or bullying. Many times, clients blame themselves for lack of willpower or motivation when their issue is not having dealt with past trauma.
#9 SELF-LIMITING BELIEFS
I once had a client tell me ‘I’ve always been the fat girl and I’ll probably always be the fat girl’. Ouch. That was hard to hear.
As odd as this sounds, there are many people who feel defined by their health status or body composition who aren’t convinced they even deserve to change. This may relate to #8 Past Trauma or it may be a result of years of negative self-talk.
Either way, self-limiting beliefs contribute hugely to staying stuck. Unless you a) believe you can achieve your goals and b) believe you deserve to achieve them, you will likely continue to unconsciously sabotage yourself.
Self-awareness is key. Unless and until you become aware of your beliefs about yourself and your self-worth, you can’t break the bonds of these insidious belief systems. Journaling, therapy, talking to someone you trust and respect – all of these can be powerful tools for creating self-awareness and restoring belief in worth and capability.
#10 REDUCED GUT MICROBIOME DIVERSITY
Ok, I know this one is nerdy. However, recent research indicates that a prevalence of certain types of gut microbes can trigger cravings for certain foods such as sweets, fatty foods, or carbohydrates.
Keep in mind: Our guts are home to more than 1,000 species of microorganisms. These microbes are responsible for modulating our immune system, digestive health, and may play a role in body composition.
- Eat a wide variety of non-starchy and starchy veggies. Vegetable fiber is great for our digestion but also provides prebiotic fiber for our beneficial bacteria.
- Limit your intake of processed sugar. Sugar feeds the types of gut bugs that trigger cravings for more sugar. Make it easier on yourself and keep sugar to a minimum.
- Limit your intake of industrial seed oils. Canola oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, safflower oil – all of these can be damaging to our beneficial gut flora and cause inflammation throughout the body.
- Don’t go ultra low-carb for too long. Research shows that by avoiding foods such as sweet potatoes, potatoes, and other starchy vegetable fiber can starve out beneficial strains of microbes. This can lead to gut dysbiosis and other health problems. My baseline recommendation for most women* is not to dip below 100 grams of carbohydrates per day.
*There are those with certain health conditions such as epilepsy, certain forms of cancer, or MS for whom an ultra low carb or ketogenic diet can be extremely therapeutic.
If you’ve made it this far, that’s awesome! It means you’re ready to uncover some of the unconscious factors that may be hindering your efforts at maintaining a healthy diet or nutritional approach.
As I said, I’ll go deeper into each of these in future blog posts.
In the meantime, I’d be honored if you’d share some of your experiences with me and with others by commenting below, on social media, or in an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.