Want to lose weight? Go on a diet! Atkins, Paleo, Zone, cabbage soup -- pounds will melt away!
At least, that's the default way most Americans think about losing weight: find a specific eating system that categorizes your food into "good" and "bad," don't eat the bad stuff ever again, and you'll unlock the keys to weight loss and happiness. Then it's back to normal life, only now you're skinnier and everyone loves you!
Except that's not what happens at all. Diets are more like a prison where you're the warden and inmate -- you give yourself time in the hole when you make a "bad" food choice, casual mental lashings are dished out on the regular, not to mention the constant feelings of guilt, which you try to bury under a pile of Choco Tacos, thus starting the cycle all over again. OK, there probably aren't Choco Tacos in actual prison. But you get the point.
Can you drop pounds on a restrictive diet? Sure, that's just arithmetic -- when you consume fewer calories than you burn, you're going to lose weight. So why don't diets work in the long run?
"Restriction" sounds unpleasant (because it is)
Dieting usually conjures up images of deprivation, starvation, and an all-or-nothing approach that's meant to be temporary. Then it's back to business as usual -- which usually leads to gaining the weight back. Obviously, that's not going to work for long-term results.
"The big buzzwords now in nutrition are behavior modification," says Jim White, a registered dietitian and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios. "Anybody can jump on a diet for a certain amount of time, but to really change behavior for now and for a lifetime, it takes a lot of behavioral therapy and people learning why they eat the way that they do."
That sounds like a heavy undertaking, but it can be as simple as taking small steps and evaluating everyday behaviors one at a time. White suggests looking at your triggers: do you drink too much when you go out with friends? Do you head straight to the pantry after work and gorge on your favorite snacks? Most people have at least a couple areas where they can improve with simple tweaks, whether that's only sticking to one or two glasses of wine instead of the whole bottle, or eating more protein-packed snacks throughout the day so you're not starving as soon as you come home.
"When it comes to behavior modification, rather than following this diet where I can’t have this or I can’t have that, work on what you have, and start to limit a lot of the behaviors," he adds.
Diets tend not to account for long-term planning
Setting goals for yourself is great, and can actually help keep you on track, but the key is setting attainable goals that are also sustainable. That's why you gave up your ambitions of being an astronaut after a brief infatuation with the idea of attending space camp.
Restrictive diets doom you before you start. "Willpower only gets you so much in this life when it comes to dieting," White says. "People do feel good when they are starting a diet because it’s exciting... but it’s usually cutting out a lot of their favorite foods, and a lot of people can’t hang on because it’s too strict."
Falling off the wagon leads to people beating themselves up and feeling guilty, which starts a downward spiral of feeling bad, eating poorly because you're feeling bad, and feeling worse. Which leads to...
Dieting stresses the hell out of you
When you go on a diet, it ends up consuming your every thought. What can I eat? When can I eat it? Who do I have to avoid so that I don't cheat? That's a pretty miserable way to go through life -- eating should be pleasurable, not torture -- plus it creates extra stress, which can exacerbate a weight problem.
"If you’re stressing yourself out way too much with your weight-loss efforts, it’s not going to be sustainable," says Dr. Eduardo Grunvald, program director at UC San Diego's Weight Management Program. When you're stressed, you're more likely to crave sweet food and overeat, which can make you more likely to keep the pounds on. If you're constantly chastising yourself about what you should or shouldn't eat, yeah, you'll probably be more stressed than usual. Plus, it makes you want to give up much more quickly.
People aren't the same, so why would one diet work for everyone?
Here's a (very) brief list of the more notable fad diets in recent history: cabbage soup, grapefruit, low-fat, Atkins, South Beach, Zone, Paleo, vegan. Each is different, yet each claims to be the ideal eating patter. But ideal for whom? Would a 20-year-old man see the same results as a 70-year-old woman?
Of course not, and put in those terms diets seem even more ridiculous. "Everybody should have a different plan," White says. "There are so many factors that go into a meal plan: your exercise levels, your weight, your past history, your food likes and dislikes, your food allergies, how you tolerate certain macronutrients." No diet is one-size-fits-all, and it's important to pay attention to how your body responds to different ways of eating.
The bottom line is sustainability
This is the sticking point with virtually all diets -- they just aren't designed to last. And if something seems too difficult and too miserable, you're not going to stick with it, no matter how excited you are to start.
Dr. Grunvald says the people who have the most success with weight loss are people who make changes that are sustainable to their everyday lives. "If you’re doing something that’s not sustainable, then it’s very difficult to keep doing what you’re doing," he says, and that makes even more sense if you're on a diet to lose weight. After all, even those who've had tremendous weight loss success can't keep losing weight forever.
At the end of the day, losing weight and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is all about choices -- choosing fruits and vegetables over processed, sugar-laden food, or going for a run over finding another show to binge. But these choices should be conscious efforts to better yourself, not to feel restricted and miserable. Besides, sometimes the pleasure of eating a Choco Taco is totally worth it.