The argument against diets

Mindfulness is the theme of the month.  Not dieting, not some crazy scheme that goes against my regular eating pattern, but tweaking habits in a concrete, mindful way.  Diets don’t work because they are unsustainable.  If I gained 10 pounds in 3 months, go on a crash diet to lose those 10 pounds, then revert back to my former eating habits, whatever caused me to gain the weight in the first place is going to still be in my diet, and I’ll just gain back those 10 pounds.  Worse yet, that crash diet may have thrown off my metabolism and I’ll gain even more than 10 pounds.  This phenomenon is known as “yo yo dieting,” and it happens precisely because we don’t go about weight loss in a gradual, sustained way.  In other words, if there was some eating habit that caused me to gain those 10 pounds in the first place – regularly sizing up my fries, eating out for lunch because I started grad school and don’t have time to cook, a newfound love for ice cream that must be indulged every night – I need to make a sustained change to my exercise or eating habits in order to permanently keep off the weight.

If that sounds intimidating, it isn’t as hard as it sounds!  There are so many places in our exercise or eating habits to make a change that it won’t mean a complete overhaul of the system, and everybody can find some change, somewhere in their eating habits, that they’re willing to change.  Some of our eating habits come about by default, such as using white pasta because that’s what we were raised eating.  Other eating habits are “non-negotiable” and that’s fine, as long as you’re willing to make adjustments elsewhere to compensate for them.  In the examples above, maybe I go back to the small fries, or only eat out twice per week and start walking to work on the days I do eat out to compensate for the extra calories, or I switch over to frozen yogurt or use smaller bowls to dish up the ice cream.  Use SMART goals when making dietary changes, and don’t take on too much at once.

Most diets work exactly opposite to SMART goals.  They offer a quick fix solution.  They are unsustainable because they don’t fit our needs.  They are either too restrictive or too prescriptive, either limiting dieters to very few “appropriate” foods (Atkins and the grapefruit diet come to mind), or provide tightly scripted recipes but no insight in how to modify or tweak the recipes to retain their healthful benefits.  Who even knows what kale is and where to buy it, and what are you going to do with the 1.75 leftover heads of kale after you’ve made the one recipe that calls for it?  And do we honestly think we could eat it, week after week after week for the rest of our life?

The point, then, is to find a nutrition plan rather than a strict formula, one that is sustainable for an extended period of time.  It should be reasonable and flexible, easily tailored to the changing demands of life, yet ensures we’re meeting our nutritional needs while keeping within a reasonable calorie count.  The tradeoff is between a quick fix and a permanent solution.  A quick fix changes everything at once in an unrealistic and unsustainable way.  A permanent solution makes a couple changes at a time, slowly builds on those changes, and integrates itself into daily life.

This month I will post a series of articles on basic guidelines for creating a plan and how to incorporate these changes into busy schedules, but I thought it was important to lay out my philosophy towards eating in the very beginning.  Posts will not contain headlines such as “5 Miracle Foods You Should Know About – But Don’t!”  Instead, I hope they cause you to consider what you eat, how you eat it, why you eat certain foods, and how this is intimately linked to our physical and social environment.  Once we understand the many forces that act upon our eating habits, we can make long lasting, intentional changes that.  Mindful changes.

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