What to Do When Diets Fail
If you’ve heard the “news” that diets don’t work long-term and actually may make you fatter, you may be feeling really glum. It’s bad enough that you sort of guessed from experience that they weren’t succeeding, but now you know it’s not your fault and why lost weight has the tendency to creep back on. If you somehow missed this “news,” read my blog, Why "The Biggest Loser" Participants Are Now the Biggest Gainers, and these articles, After “The Biggest Loser,” Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight
and Why You Can't Lose Weight on a Diet, and you’ll be up to speed on the subject.
Many clients have shared their disappointment about the failure of diets with me. They’re relieved to hear they’re not to blame for being unable to slim down or keep weight off and will now, hopefully, stop beating up on themselves for lack of willpower and self-discipline. But, fear and feeling trapped have overpowered their relief and they’re now faced with what to do about their desire to lose weight. Here’s what they—and you—can do:
Stop dieting. It may seem like a no brainer for me to say it, but the truth is that humans have incredible powers of denial (I know I do) and if we don’t want to hear or know something, we simply forget about it or deny its veracity. So the first thing to do is to accept that what you’ve been doing (because you’ve been told by experts that it works) is to stop restricting calories. I know that you’re terrified of weight gain, but read on and learn what you can do rather than go the deprivation route.
Learn to eat according to appetite. Once your heart and head have accepted that you will no longer benefit from eating according to someone else’s idea of what will make you happy and healthy, you’re on your way. Eat when you have stomach hunger, choose foods you enjoy, eat mindfully, and stop eating when you’re full or satisfied. You can learn how to do this in my book, The Rules of "Normal" Eating, and through books on intuitive and mindful eating. This will take—and I’m being honest from personal and clinical experience—anywhere from several months to a few years. But some improvements you’ll see and feel much sooner. When you think of how many years or decades you’ve spent dieting, it makes sense that “normal” eating will take a while.
Set health, not weight, goals. Weighing yourself only hinders learning to eat “normally.” The sooner you learn to identify and eat according to body signals, the more likely it is that you’ll focus on appetite cues. Your goal now is to enhance health outcomes, nourish your body in a way that makes it feel good, and foster emotional well-being by taking effective care of yourself.
Tweak your eating toward more nutritious food choices. This step comes after you’ve been eating pretty much according to appetite and can say “yes” and “no” to food in the right balance. This generally takes a while. If you try to do this too quickly, before “normal” eating patterns are internalized, you’ll likely feel as if you’re back on a diet and may want to rebel by mindless eating. When you’re comfortable around food, it’s time to think about eating for health and pleasure and choosing more nutritious foods.
Take care of whatever else you need to do to eat “normally”—resolve trauma issues and internal conflicts about what you deserve and how change happens; learn and practice more effective life skills, especially emotional management; reduce stress; increase self-compassion around your food failures and be less of a perfectionist and all-or-nothing thinker; get support; be more present to life and enjoy yourself more.
Embrace size diversity. You can’t continue to hate your body or think something’s wrong with your size (or you) and ever be happy. Self-love is inside your head and heart. It does not come from what your body looks like. You’ll need to stop being part of the problem of this country’s obsession with thinness and start thinking for yourself about what you really value in life. A weight focus is not a short-cut to health and happiness, it’s a dead end.
Even as I write this, I cringe knowing that what I’m proposing sounds so much harder than to simply “go on a diet.” I know these steps may seem like a large, impossible undertaking. But, they really aren’t. You’ll see and feel changes happening pretty quickly in small increments. Eating better is a journey, just like the rest of life. You’ll learn, make mistakes, have small successes, and your life will be transformed in positive ways you may never have even dreamed of.