Tips to Ditch Dieting

“I’ve been on more diets than I can count. I gain weight, I diet. I eat cottage cheese and lettuce, hate every minute of it, lose weight, then think I’m done. I go off the diet and gain every ounce back. At least I don’t feel deprived once I’m off, but then I’m packing on the pounds that I needed to lose in the first place. It is a never-ending circle of frustration.” — Carol, age 55

“I hate feeling restricted by what I can and can’t eat. When I diet, I try to pick one of those plans that rely on special foods — liquid protein, packaged meals, something to make sure that I know that I won’t have to eat like this forever. I lose the weight (though it is getting harder to do every year), go back to my normal eating and gain it back. I keep trying, but no diet ever seems to work for me for very long.” — Jerry, age 62

Carol and Jerry are like so many of us who carry extra weight. We feel that a diet is about strict limitations, feelings of deprivation, misery, and self-shaming. We force ourselves not to eat and then wonder why our efforts are unsuccessful. Common belief says that a “diet” is about punishment, something to be endured. Over the years, we have been taught conflicting nutrition and dieting advice. It seems that for every expert who speaks to whichever food or diet is “good for you,” there is another saying the opposite. What has been foremost in all of our minds, though, is that a diet is not tasty; should be temporary, repetitive, and boring, and does not need to be healthy as long as the pounds come off.

“Sustainability” is the new buzzword in weight management. Nutritionists are now teaching that healthy eating is not about strict dietary restrictions, staying unrealistically thin, or depriving yourself of foods you love. Jackie Bellou Erdos, MS, RDN, who practices with Balancing Act Nutrition in New York City, says, “So many people who are ‘on’ diets have tried any number of eating plans that are unpleasant. After many bouts of suffering, they realize that being ‘on’ or ‘off’ a weight-loss diet is just not a long-term solution. A better weight management strategy is to feel good, have more energy, improve health, and stabilize mood as eating and exercise are modified.”

Contemporary research teaches “right” eating as maintenance of a healthy weight to avoid a variety of physical problems. It is now known conclusively that a proper diet has a profound effect on mood and a general sense of well-being outside of the realm of what has traditionally been known as comfort foods. Rather than comforting, data have linked the typical U.S. diet, filled will processed meats, packaged meals, takeout food, and sugary snacks, to higher rates of depression, stress, and anxiety. Eating an unhealthy diet may even play a role in the development of mental health disorders such as attention deficit, dementia, or mood and thought disorders.


Finding a nutritionist

Many people with weight management concerns have difficulty sorting through the available public information. Jackie Erdos suggests unsubscribing from social media sites about dieting to create a “clean slate and bring in more hope for success.” Eleni Ottalagana says, “A nutritionist will help individualize meal planning to make eating healthy and delicious without calorie counting or feeling deprived. [She or he] will encourage long-term success with focus on stress management, exercise, and finding time to be in nature and sunlight.” Nutritional consultation is now a part of many insurance wellness plans. To find an expert, visit your primary care provider for a referral to a specialist in your area of need, such as gastrointestinal health or intuitive eating. Only see a registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), which are official designations by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Fees for nutrition services are highly variable, so ask about the cost of consultation beforehand.

What constitutes a healthy diet?

Eating a healthy diet does not have to be complicated, Erdos says. While specific foods and nutrients have been shown to yield certain differential effects on weight, a person’s overall dietary patterns are essential to sustained success. “Eating habits are so ingrained from childhood,” she says. “So many of us were parented with messages creating a bad relationship with food. Developing a healthy plan of eating takes time to move beyond those ‘eating your broccoli or no dessert’ types of rules that were taught at the dining room table. As adults, we’ve now rebelled in ways that are not helpful and tend to keep us in a state of dis-ease with food. There is one good rule to remember: The cornerstone of a healthy diet pattern should be to replace processed food with real food whenever possible. Eating food that is as close as possible to the way nature made it makes a big difference in the way a person thinks, looks, and feels.”

This approach to healthy eating is gaining ground in a movement called “intuitive eating,” developed by nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Fundamentally, the process asks an individual to let go of the diet mentality and old thoughts about weight loss and instead develop a healthy relationship with food, including honoring hunger and feeding the body for all the right reasons. According to Eleni Ottalagana, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist with The Healing Roots in Austin, Texas, intuitive eating encompasses the body’s natural hunger signals to open a person to an understanding of food at a deeper level. She says, “Eating healthy foods leads to a natural sense of mindfulness, including eating at a slower pace, savoring taste, and allowing mealtime to be an experience with joy and gratitude for what is on the plate.”

As Jerry said with irritation when he learned about intuitive eating, “This sounds well and good, but I can’t keep up with all of these different prescriptions. My life moves in a hurry and I don’t have time to study nutritional science. Now I’m being told to become a granola head. What happened to ‘eat more protein, eat less fat?’ Mediterranean? High fat? Low fat? Right fat? I thought Paleo was an extinct dinosaur.” Fortunately, there are ways to eat well that integrate more effective weight management strategies into your every day.

Building a healthy diet

The Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid represents the latest nutritional science. Weight control and daily exercise provide the foundation of the plan, with fats from healthy sources — such as plants — in the widest part of the pyramid. Refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and rice, are found at the narrow top. Red meat should be eaten sparingly, with fish, poultry, and eggs presenting healthier choices. While extreme weight-loss diets, such as those Jerry follows, suggest otherwise, healthy intuitive eating balances protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Rather than eliminating certain categories of food, selecting the healthiest options from each category is emphasized. As Ottalagana says, “It is much more effective to stop focusing on numbers and calorie counting, which leads to shame and guilt. Maintaining weight can be difficult, especially in our fast-paced society. So many of us eat on the run and look for the ‘quick-fix’ packaged items. Most of these fixes are processed and packaged with additives, sugar, or refined carbohydrates. Busy days, for most people, lead to fast food or packaged food choices, which can be challenging to weight loss and maintenance. There are better strategies.”

Research suggests that especially as we age, individuals need better food, including more high-quality protein, which provides the energy to get up and go—and keep going—while supporting mood and cognitive functions. Most of us know protein in the form of red meat. Sustainable eating teaches a variety of plant-based sources for daily protein that ensure meeting the body’s needs while reducing the quantity of red meat in the day-to-day diet.

Controversy over the consumption of fats has been mounting for years. Contemporary conversations teach that not all fat is the same. Bad fats increase the risk of certain diseases, while good fats protect the brain and heart. Current research demonstrates that healthy fats, such as the omega-3s, are vital to physical and emotional health. Understanding how to include more healthy fat in a sustainable diet can help improve mood, boost well-being, and trim the waistline.

Carbohydrates are one of the body’s main sources of energy. To effectively sustain weight, more carbs must come from complex and unrefined sources, such as vegetables, whole grains, and fruit, rather than from the different forms of sugars and refined carbs that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients. Adding foods that are high in fiber, such as grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans, aids digestion and lowers the risks for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Also, proper intake of foods high in fiber improves skin and promotes weight loss. Depending on age and gender, nutrition experts recommend eating 21 to 38 grams of fiber daily for optimal health. In the United States, most of us get only about half that amount.

A plan for sustainable success

Moving to a sustainable healthy diet does not have to be an all-or-nothing/on-off proposition. Perfection is not required. As Erdos says, “You have to be ready to let go of the bad notion of dieting as restrictive. The feeling of being ‘on’ a diet is punitive and leads to feelings of deprivation and misery. A better goal is to counter the preoccupation with eating. With a sustainable mindset, nothing is off-limits and food becomes an integrated, rather than central, part of daily life.” Healthy eating comes in small, manageable steps, rather than one big drastic change. As small changes become habits, continuing to make healthy choices gets easier.

Both Erdos and Ottalagana caution, “Be careful of the number on the scales. When a person can realize she is in it for the long run and the marathon includes multiple factors in a complex process, then success becomes more than an event.” They suggest several steps.

Cook often, preparing your own meals.

Cooking helps you take charge and monitor what goes into the food you eat. Nutrition research says that food preparation yields fewer calories. Common sense says that cooking helps avoid chemical additives, sugar, and unhealthy fats found in packaged and takeout food.

Read labels and simplify.

Learn to identify the food that manufacturers package. Even food claiming to be healthy can contain large hidden amounts of sugar or unhealthy fats. Instead of counting calories, think of diet in terms of color, variety, and freshness. Focus on avoiding packaged and processed foods and opt for fresh ingredients.

Think in smaller portions.

Erdos says, “Honor hunger. Listen and remind yourself that you are feeding your body for all the right reasons. Understand what satisfaction rather than fullness feels like.” In the U.S., serving sizes have ballooned, especially when dining out. Rather than supersize anything, choose a starter instead of an entrée, then split a dish with a friend. At home, remember the visual cues that help with portion sizes. A serving of meat, fish, or chicken is about the size of a deck of cards. A half cup of rice or pasta is about the size of a light bulb. Serve your meal on a smaller plate.

Take your time.

Our brains require at least 20 minutes to tell the body it has had enough food. Slow down and stop eating before you feel full. Jerry said, “No wonder I never felt satisfied. It takes 20 seconds to chug down a protein smoothie. I can’t remember the last time I spent 20 minutes eating. Most of the time, I eat on the run.” Eat with others whenever possible. Dining alone is a trigger for most people to mindlessly overeat. After a meal, focus on how you feel. This helps foster healthy new habits and tastes. The healthier the food eaten, the better the body receives it. The more junk food consumed, the more discomfort and greater loss of energy.

Moderation and sustainability

Moderation means eating only as much food as your body needs. The goal is to feel satisfied rather than stuffed. For most people struggling with weight maintenance, moderation means eating less than we do now, although it does not mean eliminating favorite foods. Eating bacon for breakfast occasionally is considered eating in moderation if it is followed by a healthy lunch or dinner, but not if it is followed by a box of donuts and a sausage pizza.

To sustain an effective eating plan, Erdos says to stay cognizant of the question, “What draws me to make these changes?” Frequently answering this question allows an individual to stay attentive to health. She makes the following recommendations to make healthy eating habits permanent.

Plan ahead.

When you are trying to eat healthy, it is easy to become sidetracked by a busy day at work or by unexpected events in the evening. The better prepared you are with healthy snacks and preplanned meals, the easier it will be to navigate the difficulties of the day.

Give yourself a break.

This means no restrictions on your eating plan. The task is to keep unhealthy foods to a minimum. It is perfectly fine to partake in a less-than-nutritious meal once in a while. Enjoy it and move on.

Get creative in the kitchen.

Make sure your meals include a variety of satisfying food. Eating the same things every day gets boring and will lead you to grab for something at the last minute. Ottalagana says, “Eating whole, unprocessed foods is important for sustaining a healthy diet. Meals should contain a high-quality protein source, a serving of healthy fats, lots of vegetables and minimal fruit. These foods help to curb hunger, increase satisfaction, and eliminate swings in blood sugar, which stops cravings for unhealthy foods.”

Include lean protein and healthy fats in every meal and snack.

These nutrients provide energy, stabilize blood sugars, and help prevent crashes and dips that lead to overeating or less healthy choices.

Keep track of food intake.

Writing down food choices aids accountability and allows an examination of trends in mood and satisfaction with what you eat.

Talk to someone.

Whether friend, family member, or nutritionist, talk about your commitment to healthy, sustainable eating.

Want to learn more about healthful eating? Check out our Food & Nutrition section, then try some of our delicious recipes.

Jackson Rainer, PhD, is a board-certified clinical psychologist who practices with the Care and Counseling Center in Atlanta. He specializes in work with individuals and families dealing with chronic illness.

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