Yo-yo dieting. On the wagon, off the wagon. All in vs. "I don't even care". Keto, intermittent fasting, juice cleanses, carb cycling...
If you are like me and many of my clients, you've cycled through one or more of these approaches multiple times, only to find yourself back where you started. Each failure adds another layer of frustration, shame, and disbelief that anything will ever work for you long-term. It becomes harder and harder to make yourself try again for fear of another disappointment.
Why do we keep jumping on these new diets when we know from past experience that they don't work for us? Or, if they do, it's short term results followed by food obsession, rebound weight gain, and a frantic search for a new plan "on Monday", "after the holidays", or "when life calms down".
Reasons We Keep Trying New Diet Plans:
We've been trying to lose weight most of our lives. Most of us aren't even aware that we get to be happy with the body we have, regardless of size, shape, or number on the scale. This is a topic for another blog post but it's a point I want you to ponder.
We're impatient. We don't want to take the time to get curious and figure out which foods/macros OUR body responds to without making us feel neurotic or overly restricted.
We've learned to tune out our body's signals. Many of us have been dieting for so long, we're no longer sure when we're hungry, full, having a craving, or trying to fill an emotional void.
We don't trust ourselves. Since we've "failed" all those other times, how could we ever trust ourselves to figure out our own unique approach? Creating our own plan feels so absurd, it doesn't even occur to most of us. Instead, we turn to what's worked for other people, one-size-fits-all programs, and anecdotal evidence from friends and bloggers.
We value convenience over cooking. We've been conditioned to believe that food should be fast, cheap, and delicious with no dishes and no prep time. We'd rather find a shortcut (shakes, protein bars, frozen meals) if we have to give up drive-thrus, than shop, prep, cook, and clean.
What We Really Want
If you sit with this for a moment, you'll realize something important: Just as much as you want a body you feel great in, you likely desire peace just as much. Peace with your way of eating, freedom from food/diet obsession, acceptance and appreciation of your body, and the bandwidth to focus on the things you genuinely value in your life (relationships, family, career, hobbies, volunteer work).
The amount of time and energy many of us spend thinking about what/how much we SHOULD eat, rationalizing indulgences and making excuses to ourselves, undereating, overeating, getting "back on track", and alternating between researching diet blogs and filling our Pinterest accounts with dessert recipes is robbing us of precious time to focus on the things that matter (literally anything else, tbh).
All of this is EXHAUSTING. It's a waste of our intellect and our gifts, and it keeps us laser focused on our bodies as a symbol of our worth.
What To Do Instead
The ideal eating strategy is one that:
- promotes our health
- supports healthy body composition
- considers our preferences
- doesn't make us feel like we're missing out
- puts food/diet in the lane it deserves in our life so we can raise our gaze to matters of importance (literally everything else)
The Formula (No Skipping Steps):
Step 1: Let go of the way you see yourself in relation to dieting, food, and willpower:
Stop saying things like: "I start strong but always end my day making bad food choices" or "I tell myself I won't eat the ice cream but it never fails that I'm off to the kitchen after dinner" or "I have to go the grocery store when I'm full or I'll buy the entire snack aisle". These are narratives that don't serve you. While they may describe patterns you've had in the past, they will only continue if this is how you persist in defining yourself. Saying things like this to ourselves is a self-imposed limitation. We keep ourselves stuck without meaning to.
Instead, start to define yourself as someone who:
- makes one choice at a time, not thinking ahead with trepidation or looking back with regret;
- understands that every single choice, big or small, matters because it is a practice to build integrity with myself;
- is learning to make conscious choices as the adult that I am, not allowing my inner rebel/teenager to drive the bus;
- is learning to nourish and respect my body;
- is practicing the attitudes and behaviors of the person I want to become;
- is able to manifest change in my life from a place of gentleness rather than shame or fear.
By redefining yourself in this way, the behaviors you want to cultivate will naturally flow from here. Is this a one and done? Absolutely not. This has to be a daily decision to redirect old narratives to new ones that serve us. Stop listening to your brain. Start talking to it instead.
Step 2: Experiment with Real Food (and limit/ditch the nonsense):
Start to play around with different combinations of whole foods until you figure out the types of meals you GENUINELY look forward to eating. I recommend using the Precision Nutrition Meal Guide as a framework to begin experimenting.
A willingness to experiment, to try new foods, to explore new recipes is key to this process. Haven't tried cooking parsnips or fresh salmon? Buy some and hit up Google!
When I first started Paleo, I didn't know what half the things were on the produce shelves. I challenged myself to buy one new vegetable each week and figured out how to cook it. Over time, I created a large repertoire of delicious whole foods and meals that never get boring and no longer feel hard.
Limiting the amount of processed, sugar laden, nutrient devoid junk will make this process so much easier. Those foods are specifically designed to light up the dopamine (pleasure) centers of our brain which makes them addictive and oh so easy to over-consume.
Make no mistake: This is intentional on the part of food manufacturers. When we eat these hyperpalatable foods consistently, our brain comes to expect a dopamine hit. It's hard for real food to compete with this.
It's only when we reduce/eliminate food products and processed food that we're able to taste the vibrant flavors inherent in whole, natural foods. A carrot actually tastes sweet - who knew?? But it certainly won't taste sweet after downing a large soda. You get my point. Make it easier on yourself and limit the non-food foods as best you can.
When we take the time to discover the foods we love from a real food template, we gift ourselves with ARMOUR against the modern convenience foods culture that is all around us. How cool is that?
Step 3: Let go of healthy = deprivation:
This simply isn't true after you take the time to experiment and explore in Step 2. I'm not blowing smoke. My diet used to consist primarily of bread, cereal, "healthy" muffins, and soy protein bars. When I transitioned to real food, I made sure to not restrict the quantity. It was the first time in my entire life that my focus was on NOURISHING my body, rather than trying to trick it, shame it, restrict it, or strip it of grossness. I cannot tell you what a breath of fresh air it was to learn to trust that I wouldn't overdo it even if I didn't set a limit. The reality is, it's not easy to overeat a plate of steak, green beans, and roasted root vegetables with butter. But I didn't know that because I'd never tried. My life is different now and I credit this approach 100%.
Finding the real food combinations that honor your preferences while supporting your goals does take a bit of tinkering and can be interesting if you decide to view it that way. I tried beets. I didn't really like them so I tried them again cooked several different ways. Guess what? I really don't care for them so I don't eat them! I found I absolutely LOVE mashed parsnips, sweet potato medallions roasted with coconut oil and cinnamon, and egg/sausage casseroles brimming with onions, mushrooms, and fresh herbs. I love what I cook because it's food I LIKE. If you're curious how I cook, check out my approach to simple meal prep.
I insist my clients create meals that are filling, satisfying, not overly complicated, and don't leave them looking around thinking, "I know I got calories, but now I want something GOOD!". I don't let them get into ruts. I don't let them avoid social occasions, eating out, or travel. Why? 1) We need joy and connection and 2) The real world has wine, donuts, and chocolate fountains. Unless we figure out how to eat in a way we love and practice being around temptations that we know don't serve us, this will not be sustainable.
Here's the thing: This process requires action, not more research. Experimentation, rather than more thinking. But this doesn't just work for me. I can assure you I have no magical pot of willpower that you don't have!
I was on Skype today with a client who I've been working with for about 5 months. April has lost 32 pounds and many inches and clothing sizes over these months. She said this new way of eating now feels so intuitive that she forgot all about that FOMO and deprivation until shje had lunch with a friend who was lamenting a food she was missing. She said it was in that moment she realized this is just her preferred way of eating now.
April is not unique among my clients. I help each of my clients find the foods they love that help them feel amazing, reach their goals, and rebuild trust in their hunger and fullness cues (no calorie app required!).
Step 4: Trust Yourself and Trust the Process
You may be thinking, "That's all well and good for April but you don't know how much I LOVE french fries and nachos!" April likes french fries too. She still eats them on occasion and she does so consciously, joyfully, and without a lick of regret afterward! I'll encourage you, if you're in this place of uncertainty, to revisit Step 1 and spend some time there.
I've helped so many of my clients navigate this process who believed to their core that they were beyond help.
They each thought they were uniquely broken, failed too many times, had broken their metabolisms, were too old to make changes, couldn't lose weight no matter what, and were incapable of following through on anything.
Step 5: No More "I'll Get Back on Track on...":
Your new mantra should be: "This is the LAST time I'm starting over."
- Lean into this. This is freedom. Permanent freedom from diet prison.
- Set aside past experiences (what you're viewing as failures) and approach this with the patience of a beginner. Be willing to practice just as you would if you were learning any new skill you want to master.
- Listen to what your body is telling you even if you're not sure what it's saying.
- Get back on the same team with yourself. Your body is doing it's absolute best for you in every moment. Honor that.
- Focus on nourishing yourself, not depriving.
- Slow down. Chew. Breathe.
- Let go of old stories. Your past does not define you. Be here now.
After a lifetime of diets, these steps, this process, may sound tedious. But I promise you that this is your work. You don't need more information except that which you will get through action, experimentation, and feedback. And let's be honest: What's the alternative? Another diet? We know how that story ends. Let's write a new story.
Oh, and start today. Mondays are notoriously unreliable. ;)