The Only Diet That Works
By Shane Trotter. Originally published on www.breakingmuscle.com
Recently, I’ve been shocked to hear some of the attitudes and beliefs swirling around the news. Popular articles circulate with discouraging messages like: “Obesity research confirms long term weight loss almost impossible.” Within these articles are statistics that should give us pause. Of those who have deliberately lost weight, 5% or less have kept it off after 10 years. Over 90% of people who lose weight have gained it back within three to five years. While these statistics are troubling, lets pump the brakes before conceding defeat and calling Domino's.
The notion that long-term weight loss is virtually impossible is ludicrous. If the weight can come off, then it can stay off. What these statistics highlight is the fundamental cultural flaw in how we approach health, fitness, and weight loss. “Give me a diet that works quick!” “What’s the easiest way to burn calories?” “Can I eat only cookies, but less than 2500 calories a day?”
We must approach health and wellness as continuous endeavors. As Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote, “The journey is better than the inn.” This is the secret to life, truly. While we must be guided by a progression of goals, we must understand that there is no final destination. The second we stop striving, thinking, adapting, and growing, is when we begin dying.
Likewise, the greatest mistake of nutrition and diet is making changes that are not sustainable in the long term. When we don’t have the patience to make gradual shifts, gradual habit changes, and a commitment to lifestyle change, then we are doomed to fail. Thinner is not always healthier, but with a nation facing obesity-related disease in epidemic proportions, we cannot afford to label weight loss “near impossible.” Long-term weight loss is not only desirable, but rewarding and likely, if approached from an understanding of the lifestyle change it entails.
Your Diet Will Fail
For the sake of this article, I’ll ignore the actual definition of diet (what you eat), and instead use “diet” to refer to organized structures of food and drink consumed or not consumed with the intent to lose weight. Most have some experience in dieting, and the typical yo-yo cycle of dieting and then not. People tend to fall into one of two groups:
Never Diet: This group is secretly unhappy with their health, but will tell you they aren’t going to be one of those crazy health nuts. They perceive healthy changes as painful and food as extremely rewarding.
The Resolution Crowd: Most people fall into this group. It is characterized by grandiose dreams and spurts of effort interrupted by longer spurts of not caring or excuses. Excuses range from, “It’s the holiday season, so I’ll eat whatever I want all day for 2 months,” to “I didn’t know I shouldn’t eat fast food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Every few months, this second group will get really pumped up about a gimmicky quick-fix, like a fad diet or a Fitbit.
People like the idea of looking and feeling better, but our cultural patterns are unhealthy, and the popular routes of losing weight are flawed. Strategies like starvation diets, elimination diets, or calorie counting tend to emphasize force of will and tedious discipline over habit control and flexibility.
I’m sure you’ve heard that it all boils down to burning more calories than you bring in. Well, kinda. Counting calories is a great way to lose weight while also getting less healthy. People tend to use calorie counting to justify smaller portions of less nutritious foods all day. It’s also a great way to ruin every experience. Obsessive tracking of “calories in” and guessing at “calories out” based on estimates of basal metabolic rate and caloric expenditure is not living. But that is the eventual point all calorie counters reach.
Traditional diets don’t work because they aren’t a commitment to a lifestyle, just a quick fix.
Crash diets are an even more awful experience. You walk around feeling deprived all day, constantly looking at people and thinking they must be happier than you because they can eat what you used to. This strategy is doomed to fail. What’s worse, crash diets slow your metabolism down. Your body actually burns calories while digesting foods. When you suddenly stop eating or radically reduce calories, the body goes into survival mode and stores fat for energy while slowing the metabolism. Consequently, when the levies finally burst and you slide back to your old eating habits, you’ll end up weighing even more than before because your metabolism has slowed.
The excuses are everywhere:
”I’m too busy not to eat fast food.”
“Candy is always around at work.”
“I only have time to grab a Pop Tart in the morning.”
“It’s not the holidays if I’m not eating cookies every day. ‘Tis the season to gain 5-10 pounds!”
These thoughts win when pitted against raw willpower. It boils down to this: If it’s not sustainable, then the mind will beat you down until you just give up. You need small, daily victories and a new lens to see the world.
Change Your Lifestyle, Not Your Diet
The secret lies in your approach. We live in the age of instant gratification, but lasting change can’t be found in the microwave. This is another secret of success in life. Want to learn better? Read and study consistently, rather than cramming. Training for athletic goals? Consistency is the variable that will push you past plateaus. Want more emotional intelligence and a balanced mind? Daily meditation over long periods of time, while not a magic bullet, is the best training I’ve experienced.
When it comes to long-term nutrition and maintaining weight loss, what is most important is that you never “diet” in the first place. Whatever change you make needs to be something that can be sustained forever. If you love ice cream, make it a weekly treat. Eat pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. Mentally, there is strength in knowing you will have these things again. No grand experience is off the table. Sustainable change is about your day-to-day habits that make up the majority of your actions; environmental cues that lead to a routine, and are followed by a reward. The cues for eating are obvious. Hunger, or even noticing sweet, savory foods cues eating said foods, and a rewarding taste bud dance.
Most people start trying to lose weight by eating less. Step one for long-term weight loss and health isn’t to eat less, but to replace less nutritious foods with more nutritious foods. Eat things that are less processed and have fewer ingredients. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, eggs, and meats are natural and not built in a lab. Err on the side of real. Do not count calories, quantities, etc. At first, just replace. Can you replace a pop tart with an apple and peanut butter, a bowl of oatmeal, or a smoothie? Can you replace a burger and fries with grilled chicken and a sweet potato, or a chopped salad?
Finding healthy meals that you like is a very exciting, fun experience. There is a little research and trial and error necessary, but that’s part of the fun. Remember, this is a process. I recommend checking Pinterest, Fit Men Cook, and googling healthy crockpot recipes. Over the course of months and years, you may feel inclined to replace what was once a healthier option with an even healthier one. Chicken thighs and sweet potatoes might be replaced with a dinner of salmon, asparagus and zucchini. It’s a lifelong journey which allows for constant refinement, and the flexibility to go have Tex-Mex and margaritas with your friends, or pop by your favorite burger joint from time to time.
Form Better Habits
Attacking lifestyle habits is also necessary for continued success. While it’s true that you cannot outwork your poor nutrition, moving is a key component to weight management and a healthy life. If you can, make it a daily habit to get a 15-minute daily workout. Finding an active hobby like racquetball or rock climbing helps. Having more muscle raises the metabolism, so adding strength work is also worth your while. More than anything, habitually move. Walk the dog, sweep the house daily, get a standing desk, walk everywhere that’s less than a mile, and generally make it a habit to move throughout your day. Examine your daily routine, and I bet you’ll find some obvious missed opportunities to move.
Another key habit is to make a meal plan every week before you do your grocery shopping. What will you eat for breakfast? Can you make a little more at dinner to bring for lunch the next day? What healthy snacks can you keep on hand at all times so that you aren’t in a bind? Less than an hour of planning on Sunday can make a nutritious week easy. When you get to the grocery store, try to stay on the periphery. When you sit down to eat, slow down. It takes time after swallowing to feel full. Allow time between bites for conversation, and you might find yourself eating less.
Finally, the easiest and possibly most important habit change is to drink much more water. After that morning coffee or tea, water should be about all you drink on a habitual basis. The only use of brute willpower I suggest is cutting soda. In my experience, replacing soda, sweet tea, or Gatorade with water has too monumental an effect to ignore.
The Snowball Effect of Positive Change
I’ve seen enough people have radical, lasting change with this approach to believe in it. More important, I’ve never seen any other approach work over the long term.
Committing to lifestyle and habit change builds positive momentum by the accumulation of many small victories. As you lock new habits in, or find a healthy recipe you like, or complete that daily workout, you feel stronger. Each win gives you momentum and strength that is essential in fighting the daily onslaught of people trying to derail your progress. Understand that when you shift your lifestyle, society will push back. Staff meetings will continue to offer donuts, and everyone will comment when you don’t take one.
Social support can be a very strong ally. Success is more likely if you can do this with your significant other, or find a like-minded community among your colleagues, gym, tennis club, or whatever. Social support builds even greater strength and accountability to maintain new, good habits. As you begin to feel better, your habits take root, and your support system strengthens, the thought of losing all your progress will be far too painful to stomach. The momentum is too strong to fight.
Control Your Health Narrative
Sustainable weight change and health requires you to change the tape playing in your mind. If you listen to the typical victim mindset society perpetuates in the fight for control over what we eat, you’ll lose. They’ll bemoan the $61 billion weight loss industry, as if people trying to help people eat better and exercise is a bad thing.
Don’t get me wrong, we have a few manipulative, immoral poachers in this world who exploit people’s desire to improve. However, far more troubling is the much larger industry built on manipulating you to eat their product, and then hooking you with mixtures scientifically engineered to excite your brain’s pleasure centers and create addictive behavior. Billions of dollars are put into creating a path that makes poor health a near certainty. Schools make you sit all day, fill the halls with baked sweet sales and vending machines, and are surrounded by nothing but fast food chains. Walk into a grocery store, and research says you will probably turn right, where the store likely has their produce section. Why do they send you to the produce first, when it’s the only stuff likely to bruise from jostling around your cart? Because studies indicate that if you get healthy produce, first you’ll be more likely to excuse loading up on sugary sweets once you hit that aisle. Before you know it, you’re habitually buying those oatmeal cream pies. Oatmeal is good for you, right?
This is the bad news. It won’t always be easy. The good news is that once you accept that, it’s not all that hard. The biggest inhibitor in weight loss tends to be one’s personal narrative and worldview. There are such things as thyroid issues and slow metabolism, but they’re not nearly as common as most want to believe. I’m amazed at how many people are convinced this is their problem, while they snack all day on bite-size candies while sitting from sunup to sundown.
Sustainable change will not happen until you see your life for what it really is. Eating in a sensible way seems crazy in our upside-down, extremely unhealthy, totally absurd culture. We must have a paradigm shift in how we as individuals see the world, or we’ll never have long-term success. Change can’t survive until we see the irrationality of candy, treats, and fast food for every meal. We should push for this shift to be taught in schools so that all children have a model of a saner approach to health.
The Best Diet is Lifestyle Change
In the end, long-term weight and health management is challenging, yet simple. Change must be gradual, consistent, and sustainable. All that is required is to be mindful of what you eat. When you eat treats, notice that you did it, and notice the frequency, and then return to your healthy habits. Understand it is a lifestyle change, not a diet. Your health must be a personal value, like happiness. People think if I get this promotion I’ll be happy. I need these shoes, that new deck, a new car, and then I’ll be happy. The reality is happiness and success are not endpoints; they are ways of doing things.
Likewise, nutrition and movement must become a part of who you are and how you see the world. Reconnect with the movements and actions that make you human, and with the foods humans were made to eat. You are not being deprived, you’re reconnecting with who you were meant to be. Operate from strength and don’t let anyone tell you that something is impossible for you.