“Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food.”
Why Dieting Doesn’t Work
Diets are born to fail. Think about it. If I told you that you could have the perfect body and perfect complexion but you had to avoid all desserts, couldn’t drink wine, had to say goodbye to all breads and grains, and had to boost your leafy green vegetable intake to 70% of your total calories would you do it? How long would you last at a 100% compliance rate?
I think I could make it about two weeks before I started cheating. And once I start cheating, there goes the diet! There is a ton of research that shows that frequent dieting actually increases the risk of gaining weight.
A very interesting study on twins in Finland found that those individuals who dieted more actually gained more weight than their twin who did not diet.
Why We Eat What We Eat
As a clinician I often ask a patient about appetite and dietary preferences as this gives me a good indication to their particular constitution. We generally eat what we like, and a body out of balance will consume foods that are “out of balance.”
How many of us take refuge in “comfort food,” sweets, processed foods, or alcohol when we want to feel better or change the feeling we are having in our bodies. I can’t tell you how often I find myself opening the refrigerator or a cupboard looking for something I can put in my mouth as a distraction from boredom or anxiety I might be feeling in the moment. I deal with this by having very little sugar (my vice of choice) in my house.
One of the refrains I hear from patients is “I know I should eat better,” often said with a dollop of shame thrown in. All of us know that we “should” be eating more vegetables, less processed, less sugary, and salty foods. However, actually doing that as virtually anyone who has ever tried a diet knows, can be exceedingly difficult. Many times poor eating as well as the diets we go on are simply a reaction to unconscious anxieties or habits.
The Proper Mindset to Make a Diet Work
First off, it’s important we get rid of the word “diet.” I have found through many trials with patients as well as my own exploration that simply re-framing from “diet” to “experimentation” can work wonders.
This subtle psychological shift means that we are no longer trying to adhere to some authors rigid standard, but instead taking a curious approach to see how changes in our intake of food affects us on a physical, mental, and emotional level. When we experiment we become curious about causes and affects.
Give Yourself a Time Frame and Escape Clause
Several months ago I started experimenting with the Paleolithic or “Paleo” diet which consists mainly of grass-fed pasture raised meats, fish, lots of healthy fats, vegetables, fruit, roots, and nuts, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar, and processed oils.
I’d heard about some great potential benefits and I wanted to see what would happen. I decided to give it a specific time frame. This is very important as it gives our mind an escape clause. It’s much easier to endure an 11 mile hike when we know there is a warm shower, great meal, and a soft bed at the end of it. I chose a 30 day time frame and roughly an 80-20 compliance rate. This means that I would eat only the foods listed as acceptable by the Paleo diet 80% of the time. The other 20% I could eat whatever I wanted.
I chose to arrange things so that I would eat 100% Paleo for six days, and the seventh I could eat whatever I wanted. Knowing I had this “escape clause” allowed me to power through six days a week, knowing I could eat all the pizza and beer I wanted on the seventh day. Lo and behold I felt so good that many of those seventh days I would only partake in a small amount of sugar or half glass of wine.
I found that even with my cheat day built in, I stopped getting tired in the afternoons and my body had a much more defined look. I liked that! Of course if you are dieting to deal with a serious medical condition or doing a very specific fast or cleanse you may require a higher or even a 100% adherence rate.
Understanding the Costs of Change
There are a million diets out there most of which promise to make us skinnier, healthier, sexier, happier, you name it, all with a minimal amount of effort and based on scant scientific fact.
The fact is, changing food intake is freaking hard! Some of my worst “dietary experimentation” memories involve me going over to my friends house and nibbling on carrot sticks and celery while everyone else savors a great meal with beautiful wine topped off with a some dessert that I could practically taste!
Not only are there social costs to changing the the type of food we consume but there are personal costs as well. I love coming home after a stressful day of school or work and pouring myself a glass of wine. It’s not just the sedating effects of the alcohol, it’s the ritual that reminds me that my work day is over and it’s time to settle down.
You may have to come to terms with the uncomfortable feeling of an unsatisfied appetite. It’s important to recognize that you may encounter these and many other discomforts along the way.
The Benefits of Process and Making Your Experimentation Fail-proof
We are all unique human beings with different dietary requirements. What works for one person, may not work for another. I can guarantee it will take time to find what works for you. Write down your reasons for changing things up.
Spend a few minutes going a little deeper than you ordinarily might. If you want to change your diet so you look good in your bikini once summer rolls around, write that down. Describe how you might feel if you succeed. Also write down how you might feel if you fail.
What if you stick to your diet 100% and don’t lose the weight you wanted? Here is where the benefits of “process” are far greater than the “result.” When we are process focused, failure becomes an impossibility, and change is inevitable consequence.
The Real Secret to Longevity
Don’t get carried away with any diet or way of eating. All the research shows time and again the most important factors in healthy long lives are meaningful relationships, satisfying work, and feelings of subjective well being.
It doesn’t matter how much kale you eat if you’re not doing things you love or spending quality time with people you care about. Spend time cultivating happiness not just health.
Does dieting make you fat? A twin study.
Pietiläinen KH, Saarni SE, Kaprio J, Rissanen A
Subjective wellbeing and longevity: a co-twin control study.
Sadler ME, Miller CJ, Christensen K, McGue M.