For the first few days you feel super motivated. It’s awesome. You might even lose a few pounds.
You think to yourself, “Maybe this time is different.”
You keep on restricting yourself, rejecting your hunger, feeding yourself low-fat, low-calorie meals packaged in cardboard or wrappers—lots of packaging—while you tally up your daily calories. Then you punch in 60 min on the treadmill, always met with a grimace, to cap off the best damn day ever.
Cheers to resolutions.
“I can keep it up,” you say to yourself.
And maybe you do. For a week or two, it’s relatively smooth sailing. Hard work, but motivating. You feel good and you probably lose a few few. But then something happens. An unplanned business trip…or you catch a cold (because it’s that time of year)…or there’s a string of social engagements you didn’t plan for…or even just one night out with our friends that spirals into a bit too many and a bit too much.
The list of triggers is endless. But the conclusion is always the same: you veer from the plan, and the next day you wake up feeling like a failure.
Hopelessness creeps in ever so slightly. Suddenly, you’re not as motivated as you were. The “few days off” leave you wondering if you can do this. The mind games you play with yourself won’t shut up. That voice in your head gets louder and more opinionated. You’re trying to keep up with the diet but you start to lose steam. Life keeps getting in the way. The urgency you initially felt just sort of…disappears. Then motivation dies altogether and you give up.
Why does this happen?
Because you’re only motivated when it’s easy. It’s easy to follow a new diet for a few days. The novelty of the experience makes it fun and exciting and, well, easy!
But then life interferes and you lose touch with your diet because you were never connected to the experience to begin with.
You were only connected to the result: “I have to lose 15 pounds…20 pounds…30 pounds…”
The problem is that the result is very far away, which means you’re only connected to your imagination. And when reality doesn’t catch up to your imagination quickly enough, you’ll find all sorts of excuses to give up. Especially when you’re thrown a curve-ball that doesn’t conform to your imagined expectations of how this process should work.
What have you learned?
The numbers are pretty bad. When it comes to dieting, 95% of us fail. 95! The number seems ridiculous, and it may be inaccurate, but the point is clear: we don’t inherently suck (that’d be pretty sad), diets just don’t work.
I think it’s safer to say that 95% of diets fail us. They don’t address the heart of the issue.
Too many of us treat dieting as all-or-nothing.
You’re either in or you’re out, and you hate it when you’re in and you hate yourself when you’re out. When things get stressful, or life gets in the way, you’ll often unintentionally divert your attention for a split second and slip up. A cookie here, a piece of candy there. One “cheat” turns into an entire weekend free-for-all. The week begins, you try to get back into the diet, but slowly you subconsciously undermine yourself one snack, one meal, at a time.
Before you know it, you’re using your own missteps to rationalize why dieting doesn’t work. Your motivation dies. Because you’re only motivated when it’s easy. So you give up. You fall back into old default settings—the same old routine as always—and nothing’s changed.
It gets worse. For those of us who have an obsessive or abusive relationship with food, the problem runs deeper. One slight variation from that all-or-nothing approach, one small mistake, can lead to total self-sabotage. Feelings of guilt, shame, and failure feed on pleasure, comfort and safety. A nasty, seemingly unsolvable loop.
And yet, we all subject ourselves to this same dieting mentality and protocol time and time again. You know the definition of insanity, right? Trying the same process repeatedly and expecting a different outcome.
This self-defeating loop is what behavioral scientists call a pattern of self- sabotage.
In her best-selling book, Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin elaborates: “Habits are the invisible architecture of our daily life. We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence, and our future.”
Most of the choices we make on a daily basis feel like the result of well-considered decision making, but aren’t. They’re habits. Although each habit might mean relatively little, over time, the meals we order, the places we shop, our route to work, how often we exercise, and the way we depend on external stimuli for solutions impacts our health, weight, productivity, mood, relationships and happiness. These habits become our “default settings.”
Over your entire life, you’ve conditioned yourself to respond to certain environmental and emotional triggers by eating specific types of foods. This isn’t rote behaviorism: you’ve conditioned your mindset to believe you need these foods to feel better.
Why Diets Fail
While it’s important to create new habits, even more important is how to change old ones. Those are what’s holding you back from changing your life.
Diets fail because sooner than later, you come to find that the new routine you’re trying to replace your entire lifetime of poor behaviors with—the diet itself—isn’t serving you. It’s leaving you hungry, frustrated, and craving all the foods you’re not “allowed” to eat. What’s worse, it doesn’t meet the expectations, dynamism, and demands of reality. You get distracted or overwhelmed or burnt out and either quit immediately or soon thereafter.
Sooner than later, you slip into your old routine, your old set of habits. You’re eating too much, you feel hopeless, and you’re right back where you started, or even farther behind.
My “secret” isn’t a secret
The secret is that you’ve got the process all backward.
When I start coaching a new client, I teach that person to eat more than enough of the good stuff during the first few weeks in order to counter cravings and to repair gut health and metabolic functionality. This is the opposite of the dieting mentality, of whereby one feels the need to restrict and sacrifice and generally hate everything.
By keeping full and energized, you won’t feel like you’re making such a “sacrifice” that dieting typically inspires. That’s an important operating principle to live by. The idea is to feel inspired by the process, to enjoy it, to look forward to it, to cultivate a new and rewarding relationship with food.
The idea is not to restrict and count points and count calories and obsess about the bullshit.
Obesity, overweight, emotional eating, sugar dependencies—they’re all fixable, and anyone who tells you that you have to starve yourself and exercise until your joints hurt to lose weight and “be healthy” is full of it.