Let me tell you a story. Anna is about 50 pounds overweight and finally decides, enough is enough, she’s going on a diet to lose weight.
She goes online and Googles “Best diet” and starts browsing.
For our story it doesn’t matter what diet she chooses, because they all have the same end result.
Anna starts reading up on this new diet being flaunted all over internet, even on her Facebook feed, so she starts implementing the changes this website says she needs to make in her diet.
She throws out all her junk food, all her cookies and chips, all her pasta and other carb heavy foods. All her snacks go into the trash bin too, she can’t have any snacks.
Anna does this for a couple weeks and notices she lost 5 pounds! She’s thinking the diet is working and is using that as motivation to keep going. What she hasn’t told anyone is that she’s spent the last two weeks feeling hungry every day and craving her favorite foods.
But it’s ok, because she’s finally losing all that extra flab she’s been carrying around her middle.
Well, another week goes by and she still hasn’t had any of her favorite junk food, but then she gets an invite from her colleagues to go out that night.
She knows she shouldn’t because there’s nothing she can eat at the restaurant they’re all going to, but she hasn’t been out with them in several weeks by this point and they pressure her into saying yes. It’s ok, she says, she thinks she can go and just drink water and everything will be alright.
But once she gets there, someone orders nachos for the table, and she thinks she can have just one chip and then be fine.
That won’t ruin her diet.
But then that first chip was so good Anna just needs to eat a second chip, and then another, and another. She hasn’t eaten anything with this kind of flavor in so long she just doesn’t want to stop.
She ends up eating half the plate of nachos.
But then the server brings more food to the table, and of course none of it is healthy, but Anna hasn’t eaten anything like this in so long she just has to have some. And like with the nachos, once she’s had a taste, she just can’t stop.
When she gets home that night, she feels so guilty for breaking her diet she has a snack that her husband had bought and hid from her, but of course, she knew where it was.
Now she drags herself to bed feeling even more guilty because she ate all of these forbidden foods.
The next day it’s time for breakfast and she reaches for the fruit and oatmeal, but then she sees the pancake mix in the pantry and thinks, “Oh, well after last night I suppose it wouldn’t hurt if I cheated just a little bit more.”
Next thing she knows, Anna is telling herself she was stupid to think she could go on a diet and lose 50 pounds.
There’s no way she has the willpower to handle that.
Anna’s first mistake was thinking she needed to go on a strict diet in the first place. Studies show that most people are not able to maintain a strict regimen like Anna was attempting.
She was doomed to fail before she even started.
One of the first principles of weight loss is to eat less calories than your body will use, so intellectually, it makes sense to count and track how many calories we’re eating.
It makes sense to completely ban all unhealthy foods.
It makes sense that we shouldn’t stray from this strict plan.
It makes sense that we’d consider ourselves a failure if we did break our diet.
But all of that is wrong.
Remember the saying that everything is ok as part of a balanced diet?
You probably do, but just like the rest of us, you probably ignored it and just ate whatever you wanted to eat.
That’s ok, no one’s perfect.
And that one idea, no one’s perfect, is why you don’t need to follow a strict diet. No one can follow a strict regimen like that, at least, not normal people like you and me.
The reason you don’t need to follow a strict diet has two parts: first, you can work unhealthy foods into your diet and still maintain a calorie deficit; and second, your calorie deficit doesn’t need to be day to day.
Let’s dig into the first one really quick. We come at this from an angle where we understand portion control. Portion sizes in the U.S. are typically huge, especially at restaurants. The problem we have, is forcing ourselves not to eat all the food put in front of us.
The most common reason is that we don’t want to waste food.
“There are starving children in Africa.”
How many of you have heard this? Or even said it yourself?
Well, let me ask you a question, the food you’re not going to eat, that you’re going to let go to waste, will you send it to those starving children in Africa?
No, oh ok, my mistake.
How about another question. If you eat all that food, and it gets stored as fat because your body didn’t actually need it, was that food useful or was it wasted?
Wasted? Oh ok, we’re on the same page now.
You see, whether you eat that extra food or not, it’s going to be wasted. It’s already been prepared and put in front of you so either use it or lose it, right?
The point I’m trying to make is that even if we use the food, we eat it, we’re still wasting it because our bodies don’t need it. It’s getting a stored as fat which will stay there for decades.
Now, the second thing we were talking about is our calorie deficit. One thing you need to realize is that losing weight isn’t a day-to-day thing, it’s a long-term calculation.
This means that if you overeat one day, it won’t ruin your journey to lose weight because you can make up for it on other days.
There’s actually a third reason I want to touch on quickly and then I have another story for you.
Why you shouldn’t follow a strict diet is because it encourages binge eating.
Starving yourself of certain foods for a long time is dangerous because if you really want those foods, eventually you are going to eat them, and when you do, psychologically, you’re going to be in such ecstasy that you’re going to keep eating more, and more, and more.
You’re going to binge eat like a new season of your favorite show was just released on Netflix.
Not good. That’s why we don’t want to starve ourselves of our favorite foods, we just want to eat them in moderation.
Now, on to our other story. This one is about George.
George is an overweight man who’s been like that his whole life. Since childhood he’s been teased and bullied about his weight but never had the courage to do something about it.
Not until his wife left him for someone younger and thinner.
Well, George decides he need to lose 70 pounds so he can show his ex what she’s missing, so he goes on a diet.
It’s a strict diet but it does allow for cheat days every so often, he just can’t go crazy. Well, long story short, he loses those 70 pounds and gets in the best shape of his life. Can you guess what happened next?
Over the next two years, George actually gained over 80 pounds.
That’s right, he ended up heavier than when he started his weight loss journey. Well, how did that happen? How could someone lose so much weight and then not only gain it all back, but gain back more than he lost in the first place?
The simple reason is that he went on a temporary diet to lose weight, and when he succeeded, he slipped back into his old habits which is how he was 70 pounds overweight to begin with.
If you stop following your diet, you are going to gain back the weight you lost. Except now you’re older, so you’re going to gain back more weight than you lost originally because now your metabolism is slower.
It’s a double whammy.
The problem is that we approach diets as a temporary solution to a long-term problem. Perhaps a better example is the woman who needs to lose 20 pounds to fit into her wedding dress.
She goes on a diet to lose weight, but then she’s accomplished what she needed to do so she goes back to eating the way that made her 20 pounds too heavy in the first place.
If you want real, sustainable, permanent changes, the solution is to change your habits.
You can’t change your habits overnight, it takes time. Sometimes years. Here’s the thing, though: it’s simple to start.
(Resource: Atomic Habits by James Clear: Learn how to use tiny changes in your habits to transform your life.)
Choose one unhealthy habit you have. A common one is drinking soda, or some other sugary drinks. Now, your habit is to drink soda as a go-to, but we’re going to break that habit by making small changes.
First, identify all the times you drink soda. Every single time. How often, where, and how much.
Now, pick aspect of that. It could be how much you drink, how often you drink it, or where you drink it.
That aspect is going to be changed. For example, if you drink soda when you’re at home and at work, simply stop bringing soda to work or bring less of it.
If you drink soda at home and at restaurants, simply ask for water when you’re eating out. You can even ask for the soda and the water when you eat out.
If you only drink soda at home, then you just need to portion it out. Bring in enough to have one each day and put that much in the fridge. No more.
At the end of the week refill the fridge with more, but only enough to last one per week.
You’ll be forced to drink more water and at first you might find yourself breaking the one a day rule and having to replace the missing soda (which is fine, no need to be strict about it) but eventually you’ll be reaching for water naturally instead of the soda.
Making small changes slowly may take a long time, but this is an example of you can change an unhealthy habit permanently.
If you need quick results, you’re not going to have time to rely on habit changes. Losing weight without this vital tool in your toolbox is going to be difficult, it’s going to take enormous willpower, and most importantly, it’s going to be temporary.
If you’re ok with those, then go on a diet. If not, then start working to change your habits. I recommend the book Atomic Habits, by James Clear to help you get started. You can get it here on Amazon.