On Why Diets Fail - Pt. 1
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Diet. Diet. Diet. I've met countless people who swear that if they could only get their diet under control, everything would be right in their lives. In fact, if you were to sample the population, they might even tell you that a diet is the end of all of the world's problems. The Secret of Life. That rare artifact that, if we are just able to get to it, would make everything okay.
When did being on a diet become the only way to live? And, on top of that, why is it that we jump from one fad diet to another? Whether it be Atkins, keto, Paleo, or some strange I-only-eat-bananas-every-second-Tuesday, these diets will all inevitably fail you. Why?
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You aren't being honest with yourself.
First thing I usually always ask my clients is why do you want to diet? Most people will generally give a pretty standard answer: "Well, I want to be healthier." Okay, that sounds good. Why do you want to be healthier? What is pushing you to make these changes? Do you have a family history of heart disease? Do you want to thwart the inevitable weight gain that you've seen in your family? Do you want to stay healthy and active to play with your kids? Most of the time, the answer is much less holistic.
Far too often, we've been lead to believe that our worth as a human is completely synonymous with how our body looks. If only I could be skinnier, I would have all the keys I want to a successful life and career. But why do we feel that way? Well, that's fairly simple. Models have traditionally been skinny, stick-thin, waif-like figurines walking down catwalks. Ads, magazines, and catalogues all market their clothing to women who fall into a very small subset of the population. Even the resurgence of the "curvy" girl, mostly thanks in part to celebrities like Kim Kardashian West, is a literal lie. Photoshop, cosmetic surgery and heavily controlled camera angles make it impossible to see someone for who they really are. So, it's no wonder that the modern woman can't catch a break. Regardless of your body shape, or your desired shape, you're in a constant lose-lose situation because what you are striving for is not reality. It is an impossible standard.
So that takes me back to my original point. If the reason you are on a diet is to look like one of these people, stop. Your diet will fail. No amount of dieting can do what lasers and Photoshop can do. Inevitably, you will find yourself dejected and frustrated and give up by binge eating five burgers (something, society would tell you that Kim K would never do, but I wouldn't be so sure...).
Instead of creating this vicious cycle, find a better, more honest, reason why you want to diet. Find something tangible that you can track. I want to lose weight to become a better runner. I want to lose weight to have more self-confidence. You have to find a reason that means something to you if you're going to succeed.
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We create an unhealthy relationship with food.
This is probably one of the biggest discussions I have with friends or clients. Diets have a way of creating an incredibly obsessive and unhealthy way of looking at food. I try to tell clients to treat food as fuel, not as a reward or punishment for what they have or haven't done that day.
Here's the thing. None of us are perfect. There will be days that our nutrition isn't perfect. Maybe we slept through our alarm and missed that morning workout, or we left our lunch at home. There will forever be modifications and last-minute changes to our lives. Any one of these things can happen spontaneously, so it's within our control to do our best to modify around it. But, for some of us, this creates a sort of panic.
Let me give you an example. After a long weekend, Betty forgot to set her alarm early on Monday morning. As a result, she slept through her morning workout. "I'm so stupid," she says, and, as punishment, she doesn't eat lunch because she doesn't feel like she "deserves" it for missing her workout. She goes home and immediately inhales a huge dinner because she's been starving since 11. Later on during the week, Betty knows that she is going out for a happy hour with the girls on Thursday night. So, that morning, she spends an extra 30 minutes on the elliptical because she needs to "earn" her happy hour. And, when she goes out that night, she indulges in chips and queso and, for good measure, drinks three margaritas. Sound familiar?
So, what's the biggest takeaway here? Creating this punishment/reward relationship with food is incredibly dangerous. It starts a slippery slope down the road to disordered eating. When you look at food in these two categories, you create an all-or-nothing environment, which can be largely more unhealthy than simply overeating. All-or-nothing quickly becomes a litmus test. Pass or fail. And if you fail, for many, all is lost. Instead of making one small positive or negative choice, many see it as everything is ruined. One cheat bite becomes a cheat meal, which becomes a cheat day, and before you know it, you've completely forsaken your diet. You've allowed yourself zero room for error. This kind of pressure on yourself makes it all too likely to fail.
If food is fuel, then you need fuel all the time. Not just when you feel you deserve it. Not only that, but the reward/punishment system tends to swing widely from Point A to Point Z, meaning that you will always tend to overindulge and under eat, neither of which will bring you dietary success.
Food trackers, such as MyFitnessPal, are inherently evil for those who find themselves trapped in this cycle. Now, hear me out. I love food trackers - I think they are an incredibly value tool for someone who is looking to change their diet. They provide incredible accountability to anyone who is unfamiliar with what they eat. It helps point out the weak point in someone's diet, in only the way that true empirical data can. You don't eat very well at breakfast? You'll quickly see the patterns and the trends and can make the steps to effectively correct it. For many people, I think that they are great tools. Unfortunately, that also means that many people live and die by the food tracker. You'll see people counting out individual almonds because the tracker says that they only have enough calories left in the day to eat five.
And here is why: "If you continue to eat this way, in 5 weeks, you'll weigh..." It's as if MyFitnessPal knows the future! If I just continue to perpetually starve myself into a 1,000 calorie daily deficit, MyFitnessPal tells me I will be at my goal weight in three weeks! Three weeks! A food tracker is only that. It is only as smart as the data that you input and that it provides. It doesn't know how well you sleep each night. It doesn't know how your adrenals feel. It is completely unaware of your heart rate average during workouts. What about your cholesterol levels? Blood sugar? Hormone levels? What I'm saying is this: MyFitnessPal only tells you "calories in, calories out." And for some people, that's all it needs to tell you. But, losing weight is so much more than that. If it were truly that easy, everyone would lose weight! All calories are not created equal (truly!), and everyone's body works a little differently. Calories only make up one portion of the pie that is your nutrition. But, unfortunately, many people seem to believe that that is the only thing that matters. And as such, we start the hamster wheel of the reward/punishment food cycle all over again.
So, what can we do about that? Well, for one, I think that everyone can learn something about themselves by using a food tracker. But, I also believe that the food tracker has a life span and, once we realize what is working for us, we should use it as a guideline only. As you learn more about healthy choices to make, you'll be able to make substitutions automatically, without having to consult the tracker.
Learn to look at food as your fuel. You are about to leave for a workout so you need to grab a quick energy bite. You just finished a hard workout; you need to replenish. Your body is exactly like your car - you have to keep it properly fueled for it to continue to be running reliably. If you keep your exercise and your eating consistent, you'll find that you don't need to focus on rewards or punishment. Keeping your daily calories consistent allows for the ebb and flow of life to happen and allows you to adjust naturally. And, hopefully, turn that negative obsession, into something life-changing and positive.
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Photography by David Lemon Photography