A Simple Reason Why Your Diet Plan Fails

. . . and what you can do about it

When you have to eat vegetables while your friends are eating burgers.

One simple reason your attempts at dieting fail is because diets are trying to do at least three things at once. And that’s at least two too many.

First, most diet plans restrict how much you are allowed to eat (and drink). Second, they dictate what type of food you are allowed to eat. And third, they enforce an eating schedule as to when you are allowed to eat. As a part of the second component, diet plans may additionally limit where you are allowed to eat, either outright, or through recipes and foods only available through certain providers. And you may also be trying to add in a new exercise or gym routine.

In addition, none of these components takes you into consideration. The diet plan is typically a one size fits all. Your schedule and lifestyle, your body’s needs, your metabolism, your likes and dislikes, or your priorities aren’t considered.

What could possibly go wrong?

Often everything.

One of my clients for instance had tried to follow a diet plan that eliminated all wheat and sugar, restricted her from eating after 8 p.m. or before 10 a.m. in an effort at intermittent fasting, and had her counting “points” in order to restrict calories. In addition she was supposed to exercise an hour a day. This meant no morning latte, and in fact nothing to eat before or after her early morning exercise. It interfered with her frequent business dinners which often started at the hour she could no longer eat. And it created stress as she tried to eat the bulk of her food during her mid day work hours, as it eliminated the sandwiches that she had previously relied on.

She became too tired to get up and exercise, too hungry mid day to stick to the “no carbs or sugar” rule, and too frustrated by not being able to eat in the evening. Eventually she just gave up the whole thing. And predictably, she quickly gained back what she had lost.

And when she came for advice she felt like she was a failure. But it wasn’t her failure — it was the plan that failed!

And when she came for advice she felt like she was a failure. But it wasn’t her failure — it was the plan that failed! And that happens to many well meaning health and weight loss seekers. You make an ambitious plan, but it ends up attempting to do too many things at once, and then you give up.

You eventually break down and eat when you shouldn’t, or eat or drink more than you’re supposed to, or you choose foods not on the plan. You get your monthly cycle and are hungrier than usual. You eat out instead of making the diet approved recipe at home. You have a special day, or a difficult day, or your normal routine is disrupted. And eventually it becomes just too hard and you give up.

When looked at from this point of view, I think you can see how you’re setting yourself up to fail when you embark on diet plans like this.

For instance, if your work or lifestyle dictates frequent restaurant meals you likely won’t last long on a diet that dictates that you mostly eat at home. If your partner expects a big dinner and a glass of wine at the end of the day, you will be miserable sitting together with only raw carrots on your plate, or sipping water while you’re on an intermittent fast. If your non-diet days consist mostly of fast food, your taste buds won’t be happy with a 100% turn around to salads and veggies.

Instead, focus on one component at a time, and include yourself in the plan. Any one of the following components alone can move the dial for you in your weight loss efforts.

Find a better eating rhythm

In this step, focus primarily on when you’re eating. Many women eat irregularly with too much of their intake in the last part of the day. A common complaint that we hear in eating psychology coaching is that you stay on track at breakfast and lunch, but mid afternoon snacking, overeating (and over drinking) at dinner, and late night binge eating kick in to derail progress.

Try to pre-plan meals and snacks to fit into your energy needs. For instance, if you know you’re prone to overeating in the late afternoon, plan a substantial snack between lunch and dinner. If you find yourself snacking after dinner, try eating a bigger dinner, or even eating a bigger lunch or mid afternoon snack. If you grab breakfast on the go or skip it entirely, try eating a more substantial breakfast and see how that affects the rest of the day.

A regular eating rhythm serves two purposes. First, it allows your body to relax and know that it will be fed again, so that it’s freed to use rather than conserve energy. And second, it keeps you from getting too hungry, which leads to both overeating and making poor eating choices. It’s counter-intuitive, but eating more at the right time can lead to less overeating, night eating, or binging. Planning meals and snacks for when you are likely to be hungry will keep you on track.

What’s most important about an eating rhythm is that it serves your energy needs and fits with your lifestyle. I naturally gravitate toward dividing my lunch into two smaller meals and that supports my energy needs, especially in the late afternoon and early evening. Others may find that it’s best to eat a bigger lunch since their work requires frequent business lunches, and then have a smaller evening meal.

It’s trendy right now to practice intermittent fasting — that is to have periods of each day, or even whole days each week when you don’t eat. If this fits within your lifestyle and energy needs, it may be something to experiment with. But if it’s a battle don’t worry because it’s not the only eating rhythm that’s supportive of weight loss. Let your own needs, and not an artificial schedule dictate your optimal eating rhythm.

And remember that an eating rhythm is a guide rail, not a jail. It’s fine to alter your eating rhythm to accommodate schedule changes. The way you eat normally may not work while you are on vacation, or at a conference, and that’s ok. Weekends or days with party plans may necessitate a different eating rhythm. Experiment with different ideas to see what works best for you.

Focus on appetite signals

Here the focus is primarily on how much you’re eating. It sounds easy to simply eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full, but it’s most definitely not. Dieting disconnects us from our true appetite, and can even result in our inability to know when we are hungry or full except at the extremes.

To begin the process of reconnecting to our appetite signals, we want to eat when we are moderately hungry (well before starving), eat enough to last for approximately 3–5 hours, and stop when we’re moderately full (well before stuffed) within whatever eating rhythm works best for you. It’s important to eat slowly with full attention in order to have awareness as to when fullness is achieved.

In this step you don’t want to attempt to under eat or restrict, but to re-connect with your natural appetite. The reason is that you can’t successfully eat less until you are able to know how much you need to eat. It’s common that as you become more aware of your appetite signals, you will find yourself needing less to eat naturally.

Many people run into difficulty with this step, and that’s an indicator that there’s some underlying work to be done as I discuss in Another Simple Reason Why Your Diet Plan Fails. It may also indicate that addressing emotional eating is a priority for you.

Improve the nutritional value of your food intake

In this step the focus is primarily on what you’re eating. This works best when you use a strategy of adding, rather than taking out. One way to do this is to eat what your body needs first. Try adding in more whole foods like vegetables and greens, and starting the meal with those. Swap out lower quality fat, protein, and carbs for higher quality options, viewing these changes as “trial runs” to see what you like and what you don’t.

Eating healthy shouldn’t be incompatible with pleasure. While introducing new foods, seek to find what you truly enjoy eating. There are many healthy and delicious ways to prepare whole foods. Experiment until you find new favorites.

Take it slow, making a single small tweak at a time, rather than big sweeping changes. This step becomes infinitely easier when you’ve worked on the first two steps. When you’re eating regularly and aren’t starving, it’s easier to make better choices. And when you’re aware of your appetite signals, you will often find satisfaction with less.

You can help yourself here by limiting artificial restriction. What this means is that while you should avoid any food or food group that you truly cannot tolerate or don’t want to eat (like meat for a vegetarian or peanuts for someone with a peanut allergy), the more you allow all foods as options the less you are likely to activate rebellion. It’s often easier to eat less bread for instance by checking in and seeing if you really want and need it on a case by case basis then by trying to eliminate all bread all of the time.

Finally . . .

Without making any hard and fast rules, look for places on a case by case basis where you could eat a little less without feeling deprived. Maybe you don’t always need that second glass of wine. Or you could still feel satisfied if you did without the bread and butter occasionally, or skipped dessert. Just stay mindful and check in with your body to see what you really need, and what is optional.

If you practice each of these three skills separately and let them build on each other, you will find greater peace in your relationship with food. And the result will be overall healthier eating that’s sustainable in the long run.

As you can see, each of the components in a diet plan require some “pre-work.” For instance, throwing yourself into a diet that replaces all of your normal food choices with new ones is often too much too fast. It’s predictable that when the “diet” ends, you will revert back to your old choices. It’s better to take time to develop your taste and palate for whole foods slowly. The same goes for reconnecting with appetite signals and finding an eating rhythm that supports your energy needs.

To recap, you aren’t a failure if you find you can’t follow diet plans that attempt to do too much at one time. Instead try focusing on one of the following component at a time:

  • Seek to find an eating rhythm that works with your lifestyle and energy needs.
  • Seek to reconnect with your natural appetite by paying attention to hunger and fullness rather than relying on a pre-determined calorie or point limit.
  • Seek to increase the quality of your food and nutrition by slowly making additions and substitutes that you enjoy eating.

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