The secret of a successful diet: a regular flow of treats

Everybody says diets don’t work. They would work if you actually stuck to them, but you won’t stick to them, because usually they are a bit silly. How do I know? Because I have been on millions of diets, and I have lost weight on every single one — but each time I put it back on. Allow me to introduce you to what I like to call the Dr Mike Cycle of Diet Woe and Misery. I’d really like this to catch on as a concept, so pay attention and tell your friends.

1. This isn’t so bad! I like this healthy food, I could do this forever!
2. The cravings start. I resist them. I feel virtuous. I can do this. It’s only cake.
3. The will power runs out; the cravings reach a mighty crescendo. ‘OK, let’s be reasonable, one biscuit won’t kill me.’
4. Forty-three biscuits later, there is no turning back — I’ve failed, everything is ruined and I resign myself to the fact that this will never work, because my affinity for carbs is just too strong. It’s how I was designed, and let’s face it — I’ve done so well. Enough is enough.
5. The clothes start getting too tight again and the cycle restarts.

Ultimately you can keep a lot of weight off this way, so you may think (as I did) that it’s not so bad, but the slips are demoralising, and the psychology of failure can be self-perpetuating. When you are making positive lifestyle changes you should feel amazing and proud, not bitter and miserable. Having done this for a while I was disillusioned, and if I was to truly achieve my masterplan of a healthy lifestyle I needed to change.

I had a chat to Emil Hodzovic, a doctor who has made waves in the fitness industry with his flexible approach to fat loss, an approach that I regularly rolled my eyes at, because you have to suffer to lose weight, right? He challenged me to try a tailored plan that he would write for me, and I accepted. I was terrified. I’d spent years trying to avoid ‘unhealthy’ food entirely, and was concerned that this freedom may be my undoing. It all seemed counter-intuitive, going against everything that we are told about dieting. Everything that, on reflection, never really worked.

The plan is based on tracking food intake with a daily protein target and calorie limit. It works on the acceptance that we are human. Will power has a limit, and if we ignore cravings completely, we risk getting frustrated and bitter, and ultimately, in my case at least, face planting the biscuit tin. The plan is written with the individual’s cravings (and how much they struggle with those cravings) in mind. Imagine using those cravings, modifying them in the process, all the while ensuring that the all important calorie deficit remains.

How are the cravings incorporated? With a #flexbowl (if you don’t use the hashtag it doesn’t work). In plain English, this is a bowl of yoghurt (for the protein) and a fixed amount (in my case 300 calories’ worth) of whatever I want. It doesn’t have to be something conventionally naughty, but it can be six Oreos, a Snickers, cake, or countless other options, including my personal favourite: a Magnum.

It doesn’t sound like rocket science, does it? It isn’t, it’s just regular science. No faddy eating, no ‘detox’ shakes or teas, just good food, regular exercise, and a controlled, limited dose of whatever you fancy, whether that is M&Ms or carrots.

Critics say that encouraging eating ‘unhealthy food’ promotes poor health and a poor relationship with food, but I would argue the opposite. Do you really have to suffer? Must you forsake certain foods entirely in order to be healthy? I no longer think so. Ultimately, one Magnum is not dangerous. (Unless something terrible and unprecedented happens with the stick.)

Food, and the enjoyment of food, has always been and will continue to be a huge part of our culture. It’s part of how we socialise, how we celebrate and even how we communicate. And we eat it every day. Surely the ultimate goal has to be balance and moderation, rather than perfection; particularly when we can’t seem to make our minds up about what perfection actually means.

Alongside my dieting I undertook a fitness programme guided by David Cox of Elitas Fitness, a man so passionate and knowledgeable that he even managed to convince me that I quite enjoy going to the gym.

As the weeks progressed I noticed significant positive physical changes, and also (I would argue more significantly) positive psychological changes. One of my favourite things about the eight-week programme is that I am writing this at the end of my 16th week of doing it. I still think that the very most important thing about a lifestyle change is making sure that it is realistic. Because you have to enjoy life as well as trying to prolong it.

Originally posted on Spectator Health

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