This time of year is my busy season: new clients arrive in droves, my schedule fills up, and everyone is suddenly interested in eating healthy. The upsurge will last a few months, and then it all ends when individuals find they can no longer endure their self-imposed dietary prison, and they rebel with pizza, donuts, cookies, cake or chocolate – whatever they have been missing and can get their hands on.
Dieters in January are not a new phenomenon – I’ve seen it every year since I began working as a dietitian. Their attempts at improving their health are to be commended, but like salmon swimming upstream, a few may be successful in their journey but many more will never make it to their destination. So my job is to help people be successful.
When I talk to people about changing their behavior, I always tell them this:
What you do to lose weight is what you have to do to maintain.
This is the hallmark of true lifestyle change. Anything else is dieting. If you follow a “lifestyle plan” in a book that requires you to use special supplements, includes dietary “phases,” or provides lists of allowable foods, then that’s a diet – no matter what it tries to call itself. These plans require you to change yourself to fit the plan. But as I heard someone once say, “I want you to be you.” And I do. Because when you try to rearrange your life, your likes, your way of being to fit someone else’s ideal, it never works out. You may be able to white-knuckle it through until March or maybe even April, but then, at the first bite of Oreo, your mind will say “you blew it” and will convince you to throw in the towel altogether. You’re left feeling disappointed, frustrated and disheartened. This is called all or nothing thinking (I mentioned it once in my post about potato chips). It arises from past dieting experiences where you are either “on” or “off” the diet, or being “good” or “bad,” and it is, without a doubt, the one thing that keeps people from being successful in their weight loss efforts.
The mind is incredibly powerful, and when it bends to our will, we can accomplish anything; however, when given free reign it’s often compared to a monkey – running about wildly and causing trouble (like stealing an unsuspecting tourist’s bag when she’s not paying attention, see picture). In the case of all or nothing thinking the mind is all monkey, and within seconds of veering off of what you have determined is your “perfect” way of eating, you are suddenly condemning yourself for your perceived “failure,” which typically leads to guilt and shame. Studies show that when we feel guilty, we tend to repeat the behavior we feel guilty about, which is exactly what happens – we eat more.
Now you’re on a downward mental spiral, and your mind is all too happy to play into that, too:
- “You should just give up”
- “What’s the point?”
- “Start again on Monday”
And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, your mind has made you perceive one minor dietary aberration as a major catastrophe.
Which it is not! The food, the behavior, whatever you ate is not the problem – it’s what you are telling yourself that is doing you in. In these instances, you have to put the brakes on the mind. Here is how you do it:
- First, start paying attention to your thoughts, especially right before, after, and when you are eating something. We all have an “internal dialogue” that’s like a recording playing over and over again in our minds. What does yours say?
- When you notice a negative or illogical thought, such as “I blew it” or “this will never work,” think STOP! I literally like to picture a stop sign going up.
- Now, consciously replace the old thought with a new, positive, logical one. Instead of “I blew it” you might think “one cookie did not undo all my hard work,” and instead of “this will never work” you might think “I’ve already lost five pounds, and if I keep at it, I will lose more.”
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. You are retraining the brain, and these are habits that have been with you your whole life, so it’s not an instant fix. But once mastered, it is a PERMANENT fix.
- Strengthen the brain, and your control over it, through meditation.
- Finally, don’t diet. Avoid extremes. Choose a middle ground that is based on your lifestyle, built around a variety of healthy foods, and allows you the freedom to be you.