So, you’re thinking about starting a new diet this year? You’ve tried many before and nothing has ever seemed to stick? From veganism, paleo, keto, and 5:2, there are so many diets out there promising you the result you want, but are they all they’ve cracked up to be?
Dieting for weight loss can be a difficult and frustrating process for many people so if this has been you previously, you’re not alone! I typically see this “All or nothing” approach to nutrition where you start off strong and motivated, but quickly struggle to stick to this new nutritional approach long term. This approach usually relies on willpower and motivation, but the reality is they are poor emotions to drive actions and sustain behaviours long term.
In this blog, we’ll explore the science behind why diets “don’t work” and provide evidence-based strategies and tips for losing weight and eating for your health without relying on willpower or motivation to help you avoid the dieting cycle ensuring you continue to get results.
Fast facts: Did you know…
- Would you believe that nearly a quarter of Australians follow a diet? That’s nearly one in four so trust me, you’re not alone.
- According to recent research, 23% of Australians follow a diet of some kind. In addition, 24% of Australians will try a new diet this year.
- The keto, gluten-free, and vegetarian diets were the top trending diets of 2022, with 10% of Australians planning to try each of these regimes. The low FODMAP and paleo diets come in joint second place, with 8% interested in testing these this year.
First, let’s address the myth of willpower
Willpower is often seen as a personal characteristic that determines whether someone will be successful in sticking to a diet. However, research suggests that willpower is not a fixed trait and can be strengthened through practice and training just like building your strength and muscle in the gym. In other words, you can increase your ability to resist temptation and make healthy choices by building up your willpower muscle.
One way to do this is through self-control practices, such as mindfulness meditation which can help you become more aware of your thoughts and emotions and better able to regulate them.
Other strategies that have been shown to help build willpower include:
- setting specific, achievable goals
- getting enough sleep, and
- engaging in physical activity, which can improve self-control by boosting brain function and reducing stress.
Another important factor that can influence your ability to stick to a diet is your mindset. Many people approach dieting with a negative mindset, focusing on what they can’t eat or what they’re giving up which can be seriously demotivating. Instead, try adopting a positive mindset by flipping your thoughts on their head and focus on the benefits of eating healthy such as increased energy, improved digestion, and reduced risk of chronic disease.
Using the “add more” method rather than removing things from your diet will feel less restrictive and you’ll no doubt find yourself snacking less, feeling fuller and having more energy. Try adding more lean protein to your meals, more fibrous vegetables, and whole foods. Not only will this increase satiety, which is your sense of hunger, but the act of adding rather than restricting will also drive adherence.
Is motivation the only way to reach your goals?
Motivation is a complex psychological concept that refers to the driving force that inspires us to act towards a goal. It can be internal, such as a desire to achieve a personal goal, or external, such as a desire to earn praise or rewards.
There are many different theories of motivation, but one popular theory is the self-determination theory, which proposes that people are motivated by three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
- Autonomy refers to the need to feel in control of one’s own life and decisions.
- Competence refers to the need to feel capable and effective.
- Relatedness refers to the need to feel connected to others.
While motivation can be a driving force, it can also be unreliable and difficult to sustain over the long term. This is because motivation is often influenced by our mood, energy levels, and other external factors.
For example, you might be motivated to stick to a diet when you’re feeling energised and positive, but that motivation may wane when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
Additionally, relying on motivation alone to stick to a diet can be a risky strategy, as it can be difficult to predict when you will be motivated and when you won’t.
Have you heard about atomic habits?
Instead of relying on motivation, it’s often more effective to focus on building habits and creating a supportive environment that makes it easier to stick to a diet.
For example, you might set specific, achievable goals, track your progress, and enlist the support of a friend or family member to help you stay on track. You might also try setting up reminders or cues to help you remember to make healthy choices, such as packing a healthy lunch or keeping a fruit bowl on your kitchen counter.
The science behind why diets “don’t work”
Have you ever removed all the foods you enjoy from your diet only to find yourself a few weeks later in an all-you-can-eat food frenzy of the foods you removed and proceed to label it as a “cheat day” to normalise yourself falling off the wagon?
Many people find themselves caught in a cycle of restrictive dieting followed by dysfunctional eating, sometimes for years.
A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2016 found that restrictive diets can lead to feelings of deprivation and ultimately lead to overeating and weight regain. This is known as the yo-yo effect, in which people regain any weight they have lost or even gain more weight.
A review of studies published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders in 2017 found that dieting and weight cycling are associated with an increased risk for developing disordered eating and other psychological issues.
Reasons why diets may not have worked for you
Food access and affordability
One thing to consider is that diets can be expensive, and good quality foods like high-quality meat, locally sourced seafood, and organic fruit and vegetables may not actually be accessible to everyone. If you live in a remote or regional area then certain food may be considered a luxury compared to folks living in the city.
And, you also might not have space in your fridge, freezer or pantry to store the foods a certain diet calls for, such as a plant-based or keto diet.
Being a social butterfly
Social factors can also play a role, as it can be difficult to stick to a diet if your friends and family are not supportive or do not follow the same eating habits. Have you ever visited your grandparent’s place and felt rude but turned down the food they prepared including dessert? The social pressure to eat can make it incredibly difficult to stick to your macros and calories.
Your mind matters
Emotional well-being is another important factor, as negative emotions such as stress and anxiety can lead to emotional eating whereby food is consumed as a comfort to ease the feeling of stress or anxiety.
A diet approach popularised by the “bodybuilding community” is eating clean all week and having a “cheat day”. This usually leads to an overconsumption of all the foods you enjoy, which have been eliminated from your diet during the week and subsequently can lead to disordered eating as mentioned above. Labelling anything as “cheating” has negative connotations. You wouldn’t cheat on your partner, so why would you cheat on your diet?
So how do you avoid this unhealthy dieting cycle of, restrict, binge, repeat?
Creating a healthy approach to meals and snacks
Instead of following a strict set of rules, focus on making small, sustainable changes to your eating habits that you can stick to over the long term.
Here are eight ways to get started:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables, if you’re currently eating two or three portions, increase this to four or five.
- Focus on food quality. Swap your fattier cuts of meat to leaner protein sources, cut back on refined sugar foods and limit processed foods to once or twice a week. You may find it helpful to read the nutrition labels on any packaged food.
- Find a diet that works for you and your lifestyle. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to healthy eating, so it’s important to find a diet that you can enjoy and sustain over the long term.
- Don’t make food ‘the devil’. Another key to sticking to a diet is finding ways to incorporate foods you enjoy in moderation. It’s important to remember there’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods, all foods can fit into a healthy diet if consumed in moderation. Instead of depriving yourself of the foods you love, try to find ways to fit them into your diet in moderation. This will drive the feeling of not feeling like you are on a “diet” which psychologically will make it easier to adhere to in the long run.
- Are you really hungry? Paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues could be your golden ticket to staying on track. Many people who struggle with dieting tend to ignore these cues and eat based on external factors, such as the time of day or what’s available. Instead, try to tune into your body’s natural hunger and fullness signals and eat only when you’re hungry and stop when you’re satisfied.
- It takes time for your brain to register your food. Slowing down the rate you consume food will not only help drive mindful eating, helping you avoid overeating and making it easier to stick to a diet, but it’ll aid in digestion, improving gut health.
- Plan ahead. Getting organised with your nutrition will help you stay on track, food prep is a popular way to save time, and money and keep you from swaying if things don’t go as planned in the week – you can check out our useful article here which is a beginners guide to food prep.
- Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip up. It’s normal to have setbacks and make mistakes when you’re trying to change your eating habits. The important thing is to not let one mistake derail your entire diet. Instead, find an approach you enjoy, and you can see yourself sticking to it for a long time, driving adherence and long-term lasting results!
It’s important to note that whilst the research suggests that diets may not be effective in the long term, it doesn’t mean that healthy eating and lifestyle changes are not beneficial for overall health and well-being.
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