As a registered dietitian, the most common emails I get from readers (besides compliments from those who agree with me and angry messages from people who really, really don't) are messages asking me about the best way to go about dieting for weight loss.
The thing is, I don’t prescribe diets per se. (I also don’t give advice over the internet to people who aren’t clients, sorry!) If a client comes to me with a goal of weight loss, we explore their desire to lose weight together to understand their motivations for wanting to do so, their attitudes about food and eating, and, if I feel that they're in a healthy place psychologically, we come to an agreement about how to help them reach their goals in a healthy (physically and mentally) and sustainable way.
So, why don’t I prescribe weight loss diets? For starters, most of them fail in the longterm. There’s a good amount of research showing that the majority of people who lose weight will gain it back over the next few years. But thanks to the constant barrage of messaging about ideal bodies and weight loss, many of us are tempted to keep trying the next diet, in the hopes that it will be the one that finally delivers. (Spoiler alert: It won’t.) This leads me to the next reason I don’t prescribe diets: They make people feel miserable. Most diets require keeping strict track of everything you eat, limiting either calories, macronutrients, or both, and adhering to so many strict rules that it’s only natural to start to feel deprived. That’s a terrible way to feel and one that often leads to binging down the road, which puts you right back to square one when you decided it was time for a diet anyway.
No one should have to live like this.
If all of this sounds familiar and you’re ready to get off the weight-loss merry-go-round, I’ve got the first step (which honestly contains the entire solution).
Get rid of the diet mentality.
I realize that the thought of never dieting again might be scary, and it may take a little while to relax into the thought of never dieting again. Trust me when I say, it’s worth it.
If the statistics around how diets fail weren't convincing enough, think of the cost of dieting to our emotional, physical, social, and financial health. How many dinners with friends have you stressed about—or worse, skipped—because you’ve been watching what you eat or following certain food rules? How many pounds have you lost, gained, and lost, and gained repeatedly over the years? How much anxiety have you endured because you weren’t sure if you were doing right by your food rules? And how many dollars have you spent over the years on special foods, pills, supplements, and diet books? If you're feeling persuaded, read on.
Here are my best tips to stop dieting forever.
1. From this moment on, no foods are off limits.
You know how once someone tells you that you’re not allowed to have something, you immediately want it more? It’s the "forbidden fruit" syndrome, the hallmark of pretty much every single diet out there. Most of us are familiar with this situation, but as a refresher, it unfolds something like this: You tell yourself you’re on a diet, no cake allowed. You suddenly crave cake. Everywhere you go, you see cake. You try to ignore the cake, but you’re feeling miserable and pissed off that you aren’t allowed to have it. You berate yourself for wanting it so bad and tell yourself to be "good." You finally break down and eat cake. You eat a lot more than you would have a few days back, when you first started to crave it. You feel completely guilty and swear that you’re going to be "good" tomorrow. You go back to being "good," which means going back to not having what you want. You crave cake.
See the cycle? It's miserable! The best way to get rid of the "forbidden fruit" factor is to allow yourself all foods. No labels, no good or bad foods, because truly, no food is good or bad. It’s all just food. When you allow yourself a more permissive diet, you might initially go overboard eating foods you always considered to be off limits. Don’t worry though, a few days or weeks of eating past the point of fullness pales in comparison to years of the mental and physical punishment of chronic dieting. Once you eventually let go of the diet rules and the "don’t eat" foods will become a lot less irresistible. Sure, maybe you’ll always have a thing for peanut butter fudge ice cream, but if you know that you can have some anytime you want, you’ll be less likely to obsess over it.
If you want an additional resource with tips and exercises to help you with this, the groundbreaking book Intuitive Eating is a great place to start.
2. Get reacquainted with your hunger and fullness cues.
If you’ve been depending on apps and meal plans to tell you when and how much to eat, this may have blunted your ability to just know when you feel hungry or full. If you’re going to get rid of the diet mentality, one step you’ll need to take is finding these innate cues. They’re in there, I promise!
I always recommend using a hunger and fullness scale to figure out your hunger and satiety. Think of hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being not hungry at all, and 10 being as uncomfortably full as you can possibly get. The goal while using the scale is to begin eating somewhere around a 3 or 4, and to stop around a 6 or 7.
Remember, hunger exists for a reason: Your body is asking to be fed! Just as you wouldn’t ignore other innate signals from your body like the urge to pee, don’t ignore your hunger cues. Getting back in touch with how it feels to actually be hungry will help you feed your body properly.
3. Understand that eating is sometimes a thing we do for reasons other than hunger, and that’s OK.
We tend to think of emotional eating as something bad that only happens just when we’re sad or stressed, but that’s not necessarily that case. You might eat emotionally when you’re happy, when you’re anxious, or when you’re angry, too. At times, your eating may not be emotional; it may be because a food looks good and you want to taste it. This behavior is normal, as long as it’s not the only coping mechanism in your toolkit. Trying to suppress eating outside of hunger can lead to feelings of guilt when it does happen. If it happens too often, and you have no other way of coping with your emotions besides eating, that’s when it’s time to seek some professional help.
4. Get some help for any underlying issues about food and eating.
There’s a reason why we do anything we do, including eating. The way we eat and think about food are both influenced by many factors, most of which aren't about (or at least only about) food itself. Some of those things may be how we were raised to see food, eating, and our bodies. And this is especially true for people who were put on diets or subjected to hurtful remarks about their bodies early in life. These things impact our eating habits and body image in the longterm. It can be very helpful to get professional help to unpack all of this stuff so that you change the "why," and not continue to punish yourself for the way you look and put a short-term band-aid on it by going on diet after diet.
If you're having trouble eating more intuitively and your issues around food feel intractable and/or intrusive, consider seeking out a professional who can help you and guide you and give you the support you need.