A common expression is that we’re “going on a diet.” The phrase suggests that, like a vacation trip, there is a beginning and an end. We dream of the day we will reach our weight goal and how wonderful it will be when we don’t have to lead a life of painful deprivation.
In the back of our minds, there is a comforting little tape playing, promising us that when our weight loss campaign is over, we’ll be able to stop counting calories, carbohydrates, or fats. We long for the day when we no longer have to clench our teeth as we refuse a favorite dish that always causes us to salivate in our sleep. We reach for the carrot and celery sticks without anticipation or enthusiasm while torturing ourselves with visions of the special treats we’ll enjoy when the diet is over.
Allowing ourselves to think of a diet as a delineated, restricted period within our total life span is a sure avenue back to tent city (that refers to what we wear, not where we live). To have any hope of attaining permanent weight control, we must approach it as a lifelong effort, watching our intake day after day, week after week, year after year.
You feel your heart sinking in your chest. You think “If I have to live like this all the time, it’s just not worth it!” That little voice promises you that you are different. You can relax because now you know how to lose weight, you can do it anytime you want. Gain five pounds and you’ll go back on your diet and be back to goal in no time at all.
But you won’t! Think back over your chequered weight history. We all believe that once our weight is down, it will be so easy to go on a short diet if we gain back a few pounds. It doesn’t work that way, though, does it? We start gaining a pound here and a pound there, but then there are some special events coming up and a diet would be so inconvenient. We don’t go back “on” our diet until we’ve gained enough weight to develop the self-disgust that warrants a new period of serious deprivation. We have become a full-fledged member of the yo-yo club, that vast majority of dieters who cannot keep the weight off for more than a few weeks.
The reasons we go “on” and “off” diets are numerous: they are boring, depressing, and very uncomfortable. They set us apart from friends, family, and coworkers who continue to snack, to feast, and to celebrate. We resent how diets make us feel and how they impact our daily lives.
Let’s look at the whole picture from a different perspective for a minute.
Instead of “a diet” envision a way of eating that involves living on a diet for the rest of your life. While the prospect may appall you, don’t say you can’t do it just yet.
First, consider another wide-spread concept many of us accept. To lose substantial weight in a relatively short time, we need to select the diet that seems to fit us and then stay with it, religiously, until we’ve reached our goal.
Let’s now take these two concepts, squish them together, and then turn them upside down.
We are not “going on a diet.” We are starting our diet-for-life. We then pick a diet, any diet at all, and make the commitment to stick with that diet for one week, and one week only. At the end of the week, we are going to pick an entirely different diet to which again we only commit for a one week period. This continues for virtually the rest of our lives with selected diets changing on a weekly basis.
What does this accomplish? A whole bunch of things:
1. By selecting a different diet each week, it removes those common misgivings that maybe we should have gone in a different direction. We worry that we’re not getting the right nutrients or that we’re going to get sick or develop a rare disease. We read the diet ratings and panic at the warnings posted for all the popular programs. With our new approach, you don’t have to fret about if you made a good or bad choice because you’ll be making a new choice in a week.
2. If there are particularly painful “No-Nos” in this week’s diet, resolve to try something next week that allows a currently forbidden fruit. For example, a primarily protein regimen has been found successful for many participants who often lose five or ten pounds in a week. However, they miss the vegetables and salad they enjoy. The next week could then be a vegetables and salad only routine, also successful for rapid weight loss but a bit lean on the protein your body needs for self-repair.
You may then find yourself craving some good bread so you switch to the Subway diet for a week until your craving is satisfied. Move on to something completely different – the cabbage soup diet or liquid shakes. Since there are literally thousands of diets, a few are bound to include the food you crave.
You are never more than a week away from having what you feel you absolutely must have in order to keep going. You can include spartan fad diets that move fat quickly and you can include calorie counting or Weight Watcher diets that allow almost anything so long as you adjust your intake to stay within the totals specified.
3. The frequent changes in your eating patterns keep your body off-balance. Give the body enough time and advance notice and it will adapt to anything, turning protein into carbohydrates and storing even low calorie carbohydrates as little pockets of fat. By totally changing what you eat on a regular basis, the body gives up trying to figure out how to thwart you and spends its time efficiently processing what you give it. You are effectively using your smart little mind to outmaneuver your smart not-so-little body.
4. The constant changes force you to buy food in smaller packages. It’s pointless and wasteful to buy those family packs of anything. That will help you with overall portion reduction, a must for any serious dieter. Your shopping goal is only to purchase items that you can consume within a week. If you see something that you particularly want but is not on your allowed list, make a mental note to find a diet for next week that can accommodate it.
5. The need for a new diet each week requires that you read and research a lot of diets. The reading acts as reinforcement for your goals and will assure your continuing education on nutrition and fitness. When you see something that intrigues you or just makes a lot of sense, try it out. Perhaps one week will involve barely restricted eating but require a lot of exercise. Go for it – it’s only a week.
6. You are in the happy position of having wide choices available but also the needed structure of an organized plan to follow. The regimented eating is within each week’s diet; the power of choice is operative when you decide what the next week’s program will be.
7. Can you stay on a diet permanently? Yes, you can, because you’re not restricting yourself from anything for life, just for a week at a time. Should you stay on a diet for the rest of your life? Yes, you probably should as long as you are getting a balance of foods from an intelligent mixing of alternative diet plans. If you like one diet more than another, or if one particular program works exceptionally well for you, by all means cycle that diet into your routine on a regular basis. Just make sure you don’t use the same plan more than once a month or your body is going to be ready for it and Zap! you find it no longer works so well.
8. Can you over-diet? We have all seen (although they seem to be harder to find these days) overly thin, cadaverous dieters with sunken cheeks and loose skin. That can be avoided by making your selected diets very diverse so you are never without needed nutrients for very long. For example, many retirement homes and assisted living co-ops produce thin seniors with pallid skin and protruding abdomens. Replace their mushy, high starch meals with any of the myriad high protein and vegetable-fruit diets and their color will improve, their energy increase, and their tummies fade.
9. Can you ever be too thin? Visit an eating disorder facility and you will see the results of anorexia nervosa, not a pretty sight and highly dangerous from a medical standpoint. If you have a history of overweight, you may tell yourself that being too thin will never be in the cards for you. However, there are not infrequent cases of the perennial heavy who becomes anorexic through dieting too much with resulting anxiety about gaining back even an ounce of the flesh so painfully discarded. If you have a distorted body image, and reliable friends are concerned about your being too thin, get professional help.
10. It all comes down to using your brain intelligently. When you are at your heaviest, with the most to lose, the logical choice is a rather spartan program that will get the fat moving quickly. As you lose, more moderate programs can be interspersed so that your skin and cheeks have a chance to adjust and fill in as your weight stores become redistributed. If a particular part of your body is resistant to reduction, exercise may become a more important part of your plan than simply a dietary approach. Once you are hovering at your ideal weight, simple calorie counting or support group involvement may be all you need.
The secret is to be rational about it all and use that wonderful mind of yours to set the program for your not-so-intelligent body with its insatiable appetite and poundage conservation cravings. Don’t try to cheat unless you want to cheat yourself and then be honest and admit that, for whatever reason there is, you want to avoid further weight loss. When you want and need to lose fifty pounds, an ice cream and chocolate diet is not rational. When you are at ideal weight or below, a stringent fad diet makes no sense.
Will all this mixing of diets result in consistent weight loss? There is never consistency in weight loss because there are just too many factors involved: water retention, digestive inefficiencies, the amount of energy expended, and individual body quirks. Over time, you will lose steadily but there will always be some ups and downs along the way.
Once the concept of “going on a diet” has been discarded, a lifelong eating plan can be embraced, guaranteed to leave you in control of your weight for the rest of your long slender life.
Virginia Bola is a licensed psychologist and an admitted diet fanatic. She specializes in therapeutic reframing and the effects of attitudes and motivation on individual goals. The author of The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual, and a free ezine, The Worker’s Edge, she recently published a psychologically-based weight control e-workbook, “Diet with an Attitude” which develops mental skills towards the goal of permanent weight control. She can be reached at [http://www.DietWithAnAttitude.com/index2.html] She provides support and guidance in use of the workbook through her regular blog, http://dietwithanattitude.blogspot.com