That diet probably won’t work long-term — here’s what to focus on instead

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According to the latest weight-loss research, 95% of dieters end up regaining the weight they lost within two years. Calorie-restricting diets are often successful at helping people lose weight, but they’re very unsuccessful at helping people maintain that weight loss.

So what are you to do if you want to lose weight but avoid regaining that weight?

As a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, I recognize many diets and weight loss programs as problematic. But there are ways to make lifestyle changes that lead to better health for you, both physically and mentally.

Understand how and why diets often fail

When diets fail, it’s not simply because of a lack of willpower or moral character in the dieter. Our bodies are wired for survival, and they interpret less energy availability (through dieting) as a threat to survival. Therefore, our bodies react to calorie deprivation with countermeasures that include metabolic, hormonal and neurological changes that overwhelm willpower.

Calorie restriction can lead to slower metabolism, increased hunger hormone (gherlin) and decreased satiety — or ‘feeling full’ — hormone (leptin). You not only feel hungrier, but you’re less likely to feel full or satisfied by what you eat. It tends to increase the mind’s preoccupation with food and increases activity in the brain’s reward center when we consume high-calorie foods.

Some of us also have genetic risk factors to respond to food restriction with binge eating (eating a significantly large amount of food in one sitting, combined with the compulsion to keep eating). For some people, binge eating is the direct result of dieting. Not only does binge eating decrease self-worth and feelings of control over one’s life, but this response to a diet also often leads dieters to end up at a higher weight than before they started a diet.

Ask yourself some questions before starting a diet

I often advocate for individuals to meet with a registered dietitian to develop sustainable meal plans that fit their unique needs, instead of following a restrictive diet plan that’s not designed specifically for them. Nutrition isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” concept.

Make small, sustainable changes that fit in with your individual life circumstances to protect your metabolism and lead to health improvements that you’re more likely to maintain.

Try asking yourself these questions that Katie Chapmon, a registered dietitian and public speaker, suggests when a patient is starting a diet:

  • Is the diet sustainable? If so, for how long? After that, what’s likely to happen?
  • Have you tried something like this before? If so, how did it go? What went well, and what was difficult?
  • Are there some foods that could be adjusted instead of eliminated?
  • How different is this from what you’re currently doing? Will switching up your way of eating feel jarring?
  • Could you practice curiosity and take pauses during the diet to evaluate this approach?

I discourage fad diets, especially those with severe calorie restrictions, such as liquid diets, because they rarely lead to sustainable weight loss. They more often lead to feelings of frustration and hopelessness.

I also discourage getting nutritional advice from anyone without training in the science of nutrition — personal trainers and coaches, for example, typically haven’t received the kind of training that gives them a full understanding of how nutrients work in individuals’ bodies.

Adopt healthy ways of thinking about food, diets and the roles they play in our bodies

In my practice, I often use cognitive-behavioral therapy that reveals problematic thinking patterns.

Patterns that create distress include all-or-nothing thinking, such as dividing food into strict “healthy” or “unhealthy” categories and thinking of food in extremes. Dieters engage in all-or-nothing thinking when they believe they’re “good” if they eat zero cookies (restricting) and “bad” when they eat a whole bag of cookies (bingeing). We encourage finding the gray area between those extremes; one serving of cookies, for example, is a more balanced way of allowing yourself to enjoy foods without bingeing.

There are several concepts that can help reframe the way we think about diets, food and weight:

  • Diets don’t work.
  • Food is fuel.
  • All foods, in moderation, can be part of a healthy meal plan.
  • If weight loss is as simple as “calories in, calories out,” then why do dieters regain the weight they lost within two years?
  • If a physician told you that a treatment has a 95% failure rate, would you want that treatment?
  • Eighty percent of your weight and shape is genetic. Exercise may not be very effective for weight loss, but fitness is more important to health and longevity than weight is, so exercise is worth prioritizing. Our bodies are meant to move!
  • Compare yourself to who you were yesterday — not to anyone else.

Prioritize your mental health when it comes to body image and weight loss

Positive body image is a skill to practice. I often ask my patients what they appreciate about their body, and have them list activities they enjoy because of their body.

A book I recommend to practice this skill is The Positive Body Image Workbook, from Ohio State alumna Nichole Wood-Barcalow, PhD, Ohio State professor Tracy Tylka, PhD, and psychologist Casey Judge, PhD.

We all experience sadness and anxiety in our lives. But it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional when a mental health disorder occurs — when there’s significant distress and interference with functioning in everyday life (health, work, school, sports, relationships).

For example, if you’re excessively tired, irritable and food-focused because of the way you’re eating, that might be a time to seek help. If your negative body image is interfering with dating or work performance, or you’re avoiding all exercise because of fear of others judging your body, a mental health professional can help you sort out these feelings and function more fully in everyday life.

It’s definitely time to seek assistance from a mental health professional and dietitian if you have symptoms of an eating disorder. You can find immediate help and screen yourself for symptoms at nationaleatingdisorders.org, the National Eating Disorders Association website.

Weight isn’t the only determinant of health, and particular weight ranges may not be realistic for everyone. But if you’d like to feel more at peace with your body, sustainable lifestyle changes and positive body image are important to your success.

Ready to take charge of your health?

The first step in the journey to your best health begins with a primary care provider who cares.

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