Why your diet isn’t working
It’s a frustrating thing, dieting. Not only are we inundated with ads designed to get us salivating over burgers, ice cream, alcoholic beverages and pizza, we’re also forced to navigate a seemingly endless stream of best practices for what we should be eating. In the fast-paced digital age, we are forced to be face-to-face with every armchair nutrition expert and diet solution there ever was: Keto, Paleo, IIFYM (macros), Zone, Atkins, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, intuitive eating, don’t-worry-about-it-you-should-love-yourself-the-way-you-are, treat yoself, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian*…
So. Many. Choices.
And we get paralyzed. We pick one, we try it on. It works for a few weeks or months (maybe even years) and then it stops. So we pick another one. Boom! Results right away followed by the inevitable plateau and, sometimes, regression. We feel defeated and sad. We blame our genetics (sometimes valid) or our work-life balance. We wonder how we can work out so much but still not lose the weight (hint: abs really are made in the kitchen). We restrict our eating to the point of upsetting Grandmas at the holidays because you won’t partake in her famous homemade baked goods. We stress about going out to eat with friends because what will we order?
Does this sound familiar?
So how do you solve the great diet conundrum? I will give you two principles that can hopefully help guide your search for best way for you to eat. Actually, that’s principle #1: find a way to eat that is best for you. Just because something is touted as healthier or most effective, doesn’t mean it’s the best approach for you. A lot of different approaches to eating can be used as tools to meet your goals but at the end of the day, you want to find a way of eating that balances health and enjoyment. If you like steak and cheese, eat steak and cheese - this doesn’t mean you’re “Keto.” If you like veggies and fruits, eat veggies and fruits - this doesn’t mean you’re “vegetarian.” If it makes you feel good, supports the things you love to do and you can see yourself doing it easily for a long time, do it.
Which leads us to principle #2: figure out how you can eat long-term. You gotta eat. It will always be a part of your biology. It supports your activities, fuels your brain and most social engagements (natural and essential to human survival) center around food and/or beverage. Forcing yourself into a lifestyle that restricts our food or drink habits aggressively with no definitive endpoint will be quickly defeating. It’s also not sustainable - barring some medical condition that keeps you from consuming a certain food or drink to which you have to say no, we aren’t built to constantly resist. In fact the stress of saying “no” can often counteract our best intentions, primarily through elevated levels of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol, among its many functions, promotes fat retention. Back when we were cave people, cortisol would be released in times of scarcity so we would store energy because food supply was scarce. Life was literally a question of survival back then and the body has some pretty sweet mechanisms in place to keep us alive.
Unfortunately for us, that biology hasn’t changed as much as the times have. Cortisol still behaves in the same way but our stressor are - let’s face it - less extreme. The outcome? Constantly having to turn down your friends for happy hour drinks or restricting your caloric intake will cause stress similar to that we would experience when trying to hunt and kill our food. The hormonal response remains the same.
So next time you’re beating yourself up about “falling off the wagon” or feel overwhelmed by information about how you should be eating, remember these two principles and ask yourself: can I do that? and can I do that long-term? If the answer to either of those are no, then it’s likely that what you’re considering is simply a tool. You can use it for a time and may even see some positive changes as a result. But you need to remind yourself that it’s not forever and that you still likely need to do some work to determine what your long-term strategy will be.
*I understand that some of these dietary choices are for moral or personal reasons. They are listed at the top of this article because they are part of the cycle of dietary information regularly consumed by health-conscious individuals.