Something I get asked often from friends, coworkers, fellow gym members, etc. is, “What diet works the best?” It seems like every few months there is a new trend posted on social media or in magazines claiming if you try this product, food pattern, ingredient, you are “guaranteed to lose 15 pounds fast!” They jump on board and are quickly disappointed when it doesn’t work or last. Reality is only 5% of those who intentionally lose weight keep it off after 10 years. Why? People choose diets that are supposed to work quickly, are relatively easy to follow, or let them do what they want. Once they reach their goals, they stop the diet or supplement and old habits come back. They have made no real, sustainable changes that they could maintain long term.
Most people know eating healthy is important and have a pretty basic understanding for what a healthy diet consists of. However, many people do not actually meet the dietary guideline recommendations. It seems like most people seeking diet advice do not need to learn what healthy eating is, but instead need to figure out how to make it a part of their lifestyle. Sure, as a Registered Dietitian I can teach which food is “healthier” than another, give advice on recipes and meal prep, or give calorie and macronutrient recommendations, but at the end of the day it all comes down to behavior change. If you are not willing to make a change, it won’t happen. This is why fad diets and supplements are so popular – people aren’t ready to make lifestyle changes but are willing to try the quick fix.
On the other hand, some go to the other extreme and try to change everything all at once, taking on impractical diets and becoming miserable. These diets create all or nothing mentalities that usually force intense discipline. For example, eating extremely healthy during the week but binging on the weekends forgoes habit control and flexibility. Then there are those who are hyper focused on calorie intake. Although calories in, calories out is ultimately true, it does not necessarily teach a sustainable lifestyle. Most end up justifying smaller portions of less nutritious food, never learning to find healthier alternatives. Eventually portion sizes become larger and weight begins to creep back on. Some will shove themselves full of “healthy” low-calorie food, forgetting to listen to hunger cues, stretching out their stomachs and never feeling full. Crash diets can be even worse, making you feel deprived all day and killing your metabolism in the meantime.
It also is important to realize being healthy doesn’t always mean eating less, but replacing less nutritious foods with more nutritious foods. Over time, slowly replace the items in the fridge and pantries with healthier alternatives. The secret to change lies in your approach. There is strength in knowing foods aren’t taken away forever. Develop a healthy relationship with food. Don’t go from eating chocolate every day to never at all, plus every well balanced diet needs a little chocolate :). Instead, try to cut back to whatever is realistic for you right now. Maybe switch to dark chocolate instead. This way nothing is off the table. Small changes made in your day to day habits are going to make the difference.
In order to stick to these new changes, it is important to do some planning. You might be thinking, “I don’t have time”. This again is behavior change. If you decide you can’t find the time, don’t expect to see any changes. Finding something to eat last minute as you run out the door or after a long day at work usually leads to unhealthy choices. Try spending just one hour on Sunday to prep a few breakfast meals or making a little extra dinner the night before to bring for lunch the next day. Forget the stigma that healthy eating is more expensive, it doesn’t have to be if you do some planning. Buy frozen fruits/vegetables if you’re worried about waste, the nutrient content is the same (and sometimes higher as most produce is frozen at peak ripeness!).
So what diet is best? My answer is, when it comes to long-term healthy eating and maintaining weight loss, it’s important you never “diet” in the first place. If you aren’t able to do it for longer than 6 months, don’t start it. Evaluate where you are at and what small changes you can make now, start there. Go back to the basics and learn how to incorporate whole/natural foods into your diet. Don’t cut out any food group, that isn’t realistic. Try new foods, spices, recipes, etc. Aim to get three out of five of the food groups in each meal. This is the beginning of a new lifestyle, not a quick fix or a short term diet. Once you get back to the basics of nutrition, I promise you will see results. But be patient, this takes time!