By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
Seems like just when I think there couldn’t possibly be another fad diet, a new book comes out to prove me wrong. Yet over the long run, dieting is more likely to lead to weight gain than loss, or even maintenance. Take a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition where 163 women were followed over 6 years. The women who were dieting at the start of the study gained more weight over the course of the study than the non-dieters.
Since diets don’t work, doesn’t it makes sense that going against the typical “diet formula” will lead people in the right direction? Let’s take a look…
Rule #1: Start extreme: Almost every diet starts with their kick-start phase. This is the phase that is the most restrictive and also provides the biggest results. The problem is that once individuals stop losing weight at the same rate and move to the second, less restrictive phase they feel discouraged. And when weight loss plateaus, like it always does, it’s hard to stay the course.
Break it: Start smart: Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine followed two groups of women. One group was taught 8-week’s worth of weight maintenance skills before trying to lose weight, while the second group started losing weight from the get-go. Both groups lost the same amount of weight but a year later, the weight maintenance group regained less than half (3 pounds) the weight as the weight loss first group (7 pounds) did. Bottom line: learn the skills you need to maintain healthy habits before focusing on weight loss.
Rule #2: Avoid the “bad” food: Every diet has some type of ingredient or food group they ask people to avoid. It might be sugar, all processed foods, grains/wheat or different types of fat and carbs. Initially this works great because it’s simple and the “bad” food tends to be in lots of non-nutritious items. But a recent study in Plus One shows why food avoidance fails. Chocolate eaters were asked to abstain from eating chocolate for one week. This led to increased liking, desire to eat and increased consumption of chocolate once they could eat it.
Break it: Nourish yourself: Instead of focusing on what not to eat, which leads to feelings of deprivation, take time to nourish yourself with quality food. And find sensible ways to satisfy your desires for any non-nutritious food that you love.
Rule #3: Have a singular focus: Every diet has an angle as to what causes weight gain and health problems. But over time, just focusing on one aspect of diet ends up being ineffective because there are many pieces to adopting and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Break it: Focus on the big picture: In his bestselling book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell points out that epidemics occur not because of one isolated event, but a bunch of small things that add up. This is exactly what has happened with the obesity epidemic. So focus on all the pieces of the puzzle: what you eat, how much you eat, moving your body, stress management, sleep and so on.
Rule #4: Success = pounds lost: Dieting success is always measured in pounds lost. Yet this makes it easy for people to feel discouraged when weight doesn’t come off as fast as they want it to, something researchers call The False Hope Syndrome. In a 2012 study in Eating Behavior, middle-aged men and women who had higher expectations of becoming thin were significantly more likely to weight cycle.
Break it: Success = better quality of life: Feeling good, having energy, sleeping well, being more productive and enjoying meals are tangible benefits people can feel every day. While weight loss can be part of this, the scale and dreams of a 6-pack aren’t enough to motivate people to engage in healthy habits over the long haul.
Rule #5: The expert knows best: Most of the diets I’ve read about leave very little room for individual differences and personal preferences. Yet in one study, women who with autonomous eating style (driven by personal interests and values) weighed less than those with a more controlled one (focusing on external pressures to eat well).
Break it: Declare yourself the expert: As I see it, the job of health professionals is not to tell people what to do, it’s to coach them along their health journey. Only you can decide what is right for you. Because when you are in the driver seat, you can actually see where you are going and know where to turn to get to your happy place. When you are in the back seat allowing someone else to drive, you don’t have much control and probably won’t like where you end up.