Don’t Diet This January {What to do Instead}

Why You Don’t Want to Go on a Diet

Very simply, diets don’t work.
To be more specific, over 85% of people who go on a diet wind up gaining all of the weight they lose back. That’s a pretty bad track record. Roughly 2/3 of them wind up weighing more than they did in the first place. Why? Well, diets aren’t lifestyle changes. They are restrictive and put your body in a state of mental and physical stress. They hurt your metabolism. They compromise your mood. They reduce your nutrient intake. They suck the fun out of your social life. That’s why I advocate you don’t diet this January.

Don’t diet this January

More reasons not to diet:

  • Diets are mentally stressful, causing irritability & tension.
    • This in turn harms relationships and reduces productivity
  • Diets and food rules keep you from enjoying your social life.
  • They slow your metabolism, making it harder to stay at a healthy weight after.
  • They make you think you always need to be depriving yourself to be healthy.
  • They decrease nutrient intake and therefore increase risk of illness and chronic disease.
  • In athletes and active individuals, they raise the chances of injury.
  • 35% of “occasional dieters” progress into pathological dieting, (disordered
    eating) and as many as 25%, advance to full-blown clinical eating disorders.

    • At least 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with eating disorders and millions more struggle with binge eating disorder.

See more stats here.

Now, you may be thinking that you aren’t dieting, or don’t plan to in January, but there are many diets in disguise. People in the industry know that diets don’t work, but still want to make money on their products or by drawing attention to their magazines and articles, so they discuss and promote “flexible” diets.

If you plan on any of the following… they’re still a diet!

Diets in disguise

  • Intermittent fasting, or skipping meals or entire days of eating so that you wind up thinking about how hungry you are vs. nourishing yourself and moving on with life.
  • Paleo, or eating like cavemen may have, sort of eaten (ignoring what the human body requires now, with genes having adapted since then).
  • Veganism not related to a chronic disease, animal welfare or environmental concerns (creating an excuse to restrict yourself from foods you enjoy in order to lose or maintain weight).
  • Whole 30, aka stopping eating food groups or enough fiber for a month so you binge afterwards and hurt your digestive tract.
  • Counting “macros” (aka the macronutrients which are the energy nutrients carbs, fat and protein) – aka weighing every gram of food you eat all day long like a slave without considering nutrient quality or how your body’s needs fluctuate day to day.
  • Weight Watchers, or counting points because it sounds better than counting calories and because they are good at marketing.
  • Shakeology/Beach Body, or using supplements meant to be snacks as meal replacements while pretending you’d rather drink protein powder than eat a nourishing meal.
  • Completely sugar-free (or insert other food/nutrient) January, to stop honoring your body’s needs for nutrients and just binge on February 1.

My #1 question for anyone before they begin a new diet or exercise pattern:
Is this something you could do for the rest of your life?

If the answer is no, why would you waste your time, energy and often money on that diet, forced fitness routine, or goal? And if you think you could (without “cheating” as diet culture likes to call it when we’re actually flexible and just enjoy a treat or something that isn’t 100% nutrient dense) really take time to think of your next birthday, holiday, Friday, and yourself when you’re 75. Do you really want to still be weighing your food on a scale to count every gram of what you’re eating all day long when you’re 75?! Or counting weight watchers points when you’re on a relaxing vacation?

These habits teach you nothing about fueling your body the way it needs to be fueled and everything about suppressing your personal feelings of hunger, appetite, fullness and satisfaction (yes, all of those things are different). They result in lack of nutrient quality and lack of food enjoyment, providing all of the same drawbacks as listed in the beginning of this post.

Case Study: Calorie Restriction Doesn’t Always = Weight Loss

I had a client when I first wrote this post who was stuck counting macros due to an obsession with losing a tiny amount of fat (that isn’t visible to anyone but him) around his lower abdomen. He, for close to 2 years, had stuck to a 1600 calorie diet with a restrictive amount of carbs and fat and excessive amount of protein while exercising every single day of the week.

He has seen absolutely 0% progress toward his goal of leaning out and gaining more muscle, but now has a poor attention span, fear of carbohydrate foods other than vegetables, oats and brown rice, and only dines out 3-4 times per year, basically when his family forces it for special occasions, in which case he winds up binging.

He doesn’t have a clinically diagnosed eating disorder because he’s still in a “normal” weight range and doesn’t look emaciated, but should he be diagnosed with one? Most definitely. Currently we’re working on him understanding that not only does he not honor hunger, but has no clue how to honor fullness anymore. No matter what he puts on a plate, he finishes, because that’s what his plan tells him he “should” be eating at that meal. Maybe he’d stop 3/4 through breakfast if he paid attention to fullness cues and then would eat a snack 3 hours later when he started to feel hungry again. But, because of the counting obsession, he is just learning how to pay attention to those feelings again.

Three Steps to Set New Year Health Goals

First things first, what is it about your health that you really need to improve? If you’re still thinking “I need to lose weight” versus “I need to fuel better for exercise”, “I need to manage my blood sugar or cholesterol”, “I need to reduce anxiety”, “I want more energy”, or “I want to increase my self-confidence”, you’re still not getting it.

What does weight loss promise to people? It promises happiness, acceptance, confidence, that you’ll be more loved/well-liked, perfection etc. But, are those things found by reaching a lower number on the scale or smaller clothing size? Nope.

For some weight loss also may promise a faster marathon or triathlon, or better physical health. But do those things occur by taking things out of your diet versus ensuring your diet is adequate in essential nutrients that fuel your muscles and cardio-respiratory system? Definitely not. Set goals this year that aren’t related to your weight, but that are related to making you feel your best. It’s what is on the inside that counts, especially inside your head!

How can you take better care of yourself in the New Year?

Step 1: Set a realistic goal not related to weight.

It can be for any of the things I mentioned above or more. Again, things real markers of health such as freedom from digestive discomfort, decreasing stress or anxiety, having your most enjoyable athletic event (or fastest- as long as you’re enjoying it), reducing your LDL cholesterol, loving yourself more, being more confident, etc.

To be realistic, recognize you won’t achieve it in one week or month, so let’s look further out. Pick 3 or 6 month goals. It takes about 90 days for a conscious effort to turn into a habit (remember habits are things that are just part of your life, not something you try to do).

Step 2: Set an action plan.

How are you going to achieve your goal? Those conscious efforts I just mentioned. I recommend having 2-3 small things you work on at a time. Examples include:

  • Make it to yoga once per week for stress reduction and injury prevention. Yoga is found to reduce blood pressure and improve breathing, too. Oh, and don’t give up after one class. Try a few instructors and styles before you throw in the towel.
  • Cancel your gym membership. If you hate the gym, find something you like doing for fitness! Join a tennis league with a friend, get a membership to a cycle studio for the winter months and invest in a good bike for warmer ones. Sign up for adult dance classes or do group circuit training.
  • Eliminate distractions when you eat and start journaling your hunger and fullness (a dietitian can help you here). This will help your body be more in tune with what it needs as well as how much and when.
  • Determine how you can drink more water in a day.
  • Eat more produce.
  • Eat more legumes.
  • Ditch one food rule at a time.
  • Stop spending time with people who bring you down.
  • Keep non-perishable “emergency” snacks in your desk drawer, car, gym bag, etc. It will help you honor your hunger and keep you from over-eating or impulse eating later.
  • Keep your phone out of your bedroom so you fall asleep more easily.

Step 3: Find Your Accountability

Some people are able to just write down their goal and action plan, put it up in a place they’ll see it everyday, and stick to it. We all grew up differently though and different things work for different people. If that doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t mean you’re lazy or a procrastinator or that you don’t have enough willpower, it just means you need to find what does work.

  • Pick a family member or friend that you know can support you without judgement to check in with each week. If you know having a family member as your accountability person will easily turn into you yelling at them and getting defensive when you’re stressed, this option is not for you. It’s also not for you if your family still doesn’t understand your health goals and journey. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you, these things just take time!
  • If your goals are business, work or athletic related, set up a Mastermind group! I currently have 2 business mastermind groups. One is a group of 4 dietitians who keep me accountable for my monthly business goals while also helping me find the best direction to go. The other is also a group of 4 dietitians, but the specific focus of this group is continuing our education in and supporting each other in our intuitive eating counseling. You can set up a group for anything, but be sure you have goals laid out in advance, understand each others expectations, and that they’re people you feel you can trust. Of note: if it’s a local business, you’ll want your group to be made of people from other areas.
  • Sign up for sessions with a registered dietitian, specifically one who specializes in wellness or intuitive eating, not just the first person to pop up when you search on google or your insurance website.
  • Sign up for team personal training or team circuit training.
  • If you’re a female and physically active (athlete, runner, gym-goer) join the Fit Fueling virtual course that I created with Heather Caplan from anywhere in the world.

My Goals

{These were my goals for 2018 when this post originally went up, see follow up below!}

In early 2018, my goals are mostly focused on balancing work-life with new mom-hood, since baby Jones is due March 8!

For the second half of the year, I’m signing up for a triathlon and half marathon to complete over the summer with friends (accountability!) so that I can be sure to focus on self-care as I learn to put another human’s needs way ahead of my own!

Update Jan 19: I didn’t reach my goals of completing a triathlon or half marathon postpartum. And I was 100% okay with it! Becoming a new mom threw other things my way and I enjoyed other forms of exercise to keep my stress down while I continued to recover from delivery with a uterine prolapse with not enough sleep. I did complete a 5K at the Philly Wanderlust in September at the Rothman 8K before Thanksgiving and I look forward to more fitness in 2019 – it’s OK if you don’t reach goals! Be gentle with yourself and recognize when goals need to be pushed back or edited.

Update Jan ’20: I finally ran the half marathon in 2019, along with a few other road races! I didn’t check the triathlon off my list, mostly because the first 2/3 of 2019 was WAY too busy with work. I made necessary adjustments to reduce that work load and focus more on self-care and family time to round out the year. I’ve gotten back to group weight training which feels great, and am absolutely getting back into the triathlon game this coming year. Training will just have to be really flexible and that’s A-okay!

Want to share a non-weight related goal for accountability here or to inspire others? Please comment below! I’d love to offer this place for support.

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  1. I lost 6 lbs. not even trying to lose the weight. I ate my favorite Asian and American foods and stayed away from certain foods which is not really a diet. I kept a moderate exercise routine with meditation. I think I feel good with that without feeling deprived

    1. Totoy- it sounds like that weight loss means you’re approaching YOUR best weight. This is different for everyone. Allowing all foods to fit and not restricting things (unless it’s for allergy/medical intolerances) means that we aren’t feeling deprived and are less likely to overeat. Honoring our hunger earlier in the day is also super important to be sure we eat how much we need for a healthy metabolism too. Best wishes in good health!!