woman enjoying an ice cream cone

How to Stop “Going on a Diet” and Change the Way You Eat Forever

By Kerry Weiss
January 19, 2024

Ask anyone how to lose weight and they'll likely say, “Go on a diet.” We've been told this our entire lives—and we may start to hear it even more as we age, when our metabolism tends to slow down and muscle mass declines, shifting body composition to a higher percentage of fat.

Approximately 45 million Americans go on a diet each year, according to Boston Medical Center. But experts say traditional diets don't actually work. In fact, they may lead to more serious health issues, like disordered eating or nutritional deficiencies.

The good news: There’s a better take on “dieting” that can help you lose weight and live a more healthy life. Here’s what to know.

Why Diet Mentality Isn’t Working

While diets can help with weight loss, they’re often not sustainable. In fact, a study published in 2020 in the journal BMJ found that while diets can lead to desired outcomes like weight loss, most people can’t maintain the results over time. In fact, very few people who lost weight by following a diet were able to keep the weight off after a year.

The main reason is that most people can’t stay on a diet for a long period of time. People often crave the food they’re avoiding then, eventually, the cravings get to be too much, which can lead to overeating and weight gain. Plus, a restrictive diet increases appetite-stimulating hormones, so you’re feeling hungry more often. And when you lose weight because of diet, you also reduce energy expenditure, which means you’re burning fewer calories overall.

The most important problem with fad or restrictive diets is that it’s not healthy to cut out an entire category of foods.

“Diets tend to encourage unrealistic restrictive eating habits that are neither sustainable nor healthy,” explains Kelly Krikhely, a registered dietitian based in New York City. “It's not healthy to eliminate entire categories of food. When we do, we run the risk of missing out on nutrients that are essential for our health.”

For example, following a vegetarian or vegan diet may put you at risk of iron deficiency. Sticking to a keto diet may lead to electrolyte abnormalities, resulting in headaches, dizziness, nausea, and overall fatigue.

So, If Traditional Dieting Doesn’t Work, What’s the Solution?

“It’s better to focus on making small changes over time that cumulatively will result in a long-term healthy lifestyle,” advises Krikhely. It’s better to cut down on certain foods rather than completely cut out entire food groups to avoid any nutritional deficiencies. For example, instead of making drastic changes to your diet that can feel overwhelming and hard to stick to—like eliminating meat altogether—opt for “Meatless Mondays” instead. And the same principle can also be applied to your exercise and sleep habits, too. Making these types of small changes to your diet over time can not only help you to lose weight, but also boost your overall health.

Retraining your brain to stop focusing on a restrictive “diet” mentality can be hard, but it’s doable. Start with these steps.

Step 1: Stop Thinking of Food as “Good” or “Bad”

Just about any registered dietitian (Krikhely included) will tell you there’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods—there’s a time and a place for all foods in a well-rounded eating plan.

“By eliminating entire categories of [“bad” or restricted] food, diets tend to increase the allure of the very foods they discourage,” explains Krikhely. This can lead to a paradoxical effect of weight gain by binging on the foods you were restricting.

Altering this inherent mindset toward food can help lay the foundation for ditching diet mentality and focusing instead on a long-term healthy lifestyle.

“There aren't any foods that can never be eaten,” emphasizes Krikhely. “It's important instead to reframe our viewpoint and redevelop a positive relationship with food.”

Step 2: Focus on Quality Foods

While there are no “good” or “bad” foods, focusing on choosing quality foods that provide your body with necessary nutrients is important.

When thinking about what you should be eating, start by focusing on a variety of high-quality, nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins. Get creative: Challenge yourself to eat the rainbow by incorporating a variety of different colored fruits and vegetables into your weekly eating plan.

At the same time, aim to limit your intake of processed foods, foods with added sugars, foods high in sodium, and fried foods.

“The trick is moderating frequency and portions consumed,” says Krikhely. “The focus should be on nutritious foods for the most part, but all foods can be consumed in moderation.” For example, that means it’s okay to eat bacon for breakfast occasionally, but not every day. Allow yourself to enjoy a small portion once in a while and balance it out with healthful choices otherwise.

Step 3: Practice Intuitive Eating

Most people have heard and understand the concept of mindfulness, or being aware and present in the moment. When you apply this concept to your eating habits, it’s known as intuitive eating.

“Intuitive eating takes a step back from dieting and focuses instead on learning to recognize and understand our hunger cues,” explains Krikhely. “Over time, we have stopped listening to our own bodies, and have instead started looking for external cues to tell us when to eat. Intuitive eating encourages us to listen to our bodies to be able to identify the driving force behind our desire to eat.”

Intuitive eating gives you control of your body through hunger signals. There are no restrictions on what or when to eat. You’re in tune with your body and eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. This promotes a healthy attitude toward food and yourself that can translate into long-term weight loss and an overall healthy lifestyle including better psychological health.

Start practicing intuitive eating by asking yourself these questions the next time you sit down to eat:

  • Are you eating because you’re bored?
  • Are you partaking in emotional eating?
  • Are you experiencing a craving you can’t shake?
  • Are you actually hungry, or are you eating mindlessly?
  • Are you eating quickly or rushing to finish your food?
  • Are you focused on the meal or multitasking while you eat?

Answering yes to any of these questions means changes need to be made to practice intuitive eating. You should only eat when you’re feeling true physical hunger and not eat to satisfy emotions or out of boredom.

“By learning to distinguish between these different motivators, we can learn to eat when we are feeling true hunger,” explains Krikhely. Once you recognize what true hunger feels like for you, when you eat, it’s important to take time to savor the process.

“Mealtime can often be rushed, and we not only wind up overeating, but we don't even enjoy the food we're having,” says Krikhely. Take your time to eat and enjoy your meal. Rushing to finish a meal can lead to overeating by not paying attention to your body sending you signals that you’re full already. Try these strategies to make each meal and snack a more mindful experience.

  • Put down or turn off electronic devices while eating to avoid unnecessary distraction and to focus on savoring the food in front of you.
  • Engage all of your senses by paying attention to the appearance, aroma, texture, flavors, and even the sound of foods.
  • Give yourself 20 minutes to enjoy the meal. Take time to experience each bite rather than quickly finishing an entire dish without really tasting it.
  • Put your eating utensils down between bites to avoid taking bite after bite mindlessly. Or try eating with your nondominant hand.

Incorporating intuitive, mindful eating into your routine can be easier said than done. Start slowly and make changes over time. Practice eating one meal a day more mindfully and see how that feels.

Remember: This isn’t a diet. The goal is to achieve a sustainable, long-term healthy lifestyle to help you lose weight and keep the pounds off, all while boosting your overall health. In addition to focusing on nutrition and intuitive eating, regular physical activity, quality sleep, and stress management are all part of a healthy lifestyle and go a long way in helping you manage your weight.

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