Not Another Diet — Introduction
A sane and thoughtful guide to permanent weight loss
Ten years ago I set about tackling a long out of reach goal. In the course of a year I lost almost 60 pounds, 90% of which I’ve kept off. Less than 10% of dieters accomplish this goal past the five year mark.
I did it without counting calories, eliminating any food group, adopting a set program or taking supplements. I didn’t push myself into uncomfortable workouts, pay for expensive training, or join a fitness boot camp.
Instead, I began paying careful attention to what changes I could live with long-term. I wanted to lose weight with a system that I could rely on indefinitely.
I’ve turned what I learned into a series of principles that will help you reshape your habits, thinking and environment. This piece serves as the introduction.
Foremost, I learned the life you build has the biggest influence over sustained success. That life allows you the freedom to make good choices automatically. Put another way: your weight is a natural by-product of how you construct your life.*
This is a deceptively simple idea with profound implications for lasting weight loss. I think we understand intuitively what it means to eat well and move our bodies, what we don’t understand is the way our environment supports or sabotages our efforts.
I also learned that the diet and fitness industry complicate matters for most people instead of clarifying. They know you need to eat less and move more and instead of helping you address the obstacles to doing that, they conceive of narrow plans that force you to remove entire categories of foods. You eat less by design, but rarely is that solution sustainable.
Why we keep dieting.
Part of the attraction to diets is that we think we need a ‘solution’ as extreme as our problem. We’ve done it all wrong and now it’s time to hand over control to plans that seem so sure of themselves. We want a program in equal measure to the problem. There’s a certain logic to it, but it’s bad thinking.
The success rates for diets is dismal, some estimates put the number of people who regain the weight at 90%.
Why are diets such failures?
People don’t change their lives all in one go. It’s not how human beings work. The world around us, our friends, work, homes and personal preferences remain. What you eat and how much you move can’t be plucked out and addressed with a variety of measures that the rest of your life can’t support.
The path to permanent weight loss is not fulfilling a grocery list of complicated ingredients to eat a diet unnatural to you. I lost the weight before Paleo went mainstream but I remember thinking, no hummus? Pass. That’s just not a life I want to live. Add to that list butter in my coffee (hard pass on oily coffee), juice cleanses, and bun-less cheeseburgers (on the rare occasion I eat one, I want a goddamn bun). This all feels like disordered and joyless eating to me, and more to the point, don’t address the real issues that sabotage our efforts.
I attended a fascinating lecture given by an anthropologist that made clear, there is no single ancient man diet. People lived and thrived in diverse environments with wildly different diets. Man is nothing if not malleable. Personally, I’ve gone back to my Mediterranean roots with some forays into Asian foods. Part of this process is figuring out what works for you. My principles are designed to help you do just that.
I’m not writing a dieting how-to because I think you know how to eat healthfully. This is a series about how to build a life that supports the weight you want to be. That idea is much less easy to package than a set diet or exercise plan, but has been the only thing that worked for me.
The news is full of articles about fasting, optimal workouts, or supposed weight loss foods but these things are marginally useful because that isn’t how we live our lives. Maybe fasting and eating one meal a day is the absolute, best way to stay lean but that doesn’t matter because I’m not going to live that way. I like breakfast, I want to eat meals with friends, and I want to eat when I’m hungry. I advise you to block out trendy diet news entirely. Especially while you are tuning into to your body and learning about what works for you.
Sustained change comes from small, step by step alterations to our routines that have a big impact over time.
We all know this on some level, the reason more people don’t act on that knowledge is that they don’t know where to start or which things to focus on. Diet and exercise are the tip of the iceberg, and the part people already know the most about. I’m covering portions never discussed but equally important to success like, how do you speak to yourself? What in your day is occupying too much time? Do you live in an area where it’s easy to walk?
Foundational ideas about how to protect your self-care intention. Without understanding and reckoning with them there is little permanent progress to be made.
One of the great joys of getting older is developing the ability to see patterns. Understanding how seemingly disparate things connect and what that connection means. I’m going to teach you that same awareness in order to create change in your life. What to pay attention to and what to discard to achieve and keep a healthy weight.
Why I’ll never diet again.
I’m glad I waited so long to write this series. These past ten years have been instructive about what really works. I know this for sure, diets don’t. Even more, I think they are harmful.
Diets can cause metabolic damage, lead to disordered eating, hurt our self-esteem and deplete our cognitive abilities.
Many diets also require constant calculations to determine calorie counts. All this clogs up the brain. Psychologists measure the impact of this clogging on various tasks: logical and spatial reasoning, self-control, problem solving, and absorption and retention of new information. Together these tasks measure “bandwidth,” the resource that underlies all higher-order mental activity. Inevitably, dieters do worse than nondieters on all these tasks; they have less bandwidth.
Remember the parable of the blind men and the elephant? Each one touching a section and declaring they knew which animal it was based on the limited scope. That’s the weight loss industry in a nut shell. Too gimmicky and narrow to be of any long-term help. And, sometimes they cause more problems than they pretend to solve.
What you eat and how much you move can’t be plucked out and addressed with a variety of measures that the rest of your life can’t support.
Most importantly, prescribed diets rob you of your ability to work out for yourself what will work long-term. The struggle towards sustainable changes is an important part of the process.
I wrote this to share what I learned in a straightforward and compassionate way. For years I was at my wit’s end about my ballooning weight. Dreading weighing myself, living in denial, cringing at pictures, embarking on wacky diets, and general self-loathing were the constants in my life.
I’ve watched friends do the same things with half-measures and strange diets that had little hope of long-term success. Each time they blamed themselves when the plan became impossible to keep up, and each time it became a little harder to see a way forward.
If I, as a 49-year-old woman with a thyroid condition (I was diagnosed as hypothyroid since my early-thirties which is a low performing thyroid that frequently makes weight loss difficult) and a lifetime of weight issues could successfully lose and manage my weight without counting calories, journaling, exercising like a maniac or starving myself, maybe I was on to something.
Should you lose weight?
A better question might be, are you so ready to lose weight that you are willing to examine your life with honesty and make uncomfortable changes?
The first step in this process is to decide, yes, you want to do the necessary life work to be able to lose weight and keep it off. It matters enough to give it space and attention, you are ready.
Why I lost weight.
I lost the weight to feel good in my body. It’s as simple as that.
There are shallow pleasures like buying a tiny, red bikini from London and wearing it on the beach in Puerto Rico with absolute confidence. But, that is the least interesting thing I can tell you about losing weight. Through this process, I learned how to trust and rely on myself to find the right solutions. How to be kind to myself and how to accept the person I actually am. Flaws, frailties, and all.
It’s possible that losing weight saved my life.
In 2014 I was taking a shower after a run and felt a small lump on the side of my breast. I stepped out and texted my doctor who had me come in the next morning. Three days later I was diagnosed with a highly aggressive, early-stage breast cancer.
It’s been one of the most difficult stretches in my life (you can read more about that here). Here’s the thing; I’m not sure I would have found the lump so early had I still been overweight. I found the tumor before it jumped to my lymph nodes which is a huge for long-term survival.
Bathing suits and cute outfits aside, this is the real legacy of my weight loss.
I was not a heavy child. My mother was a real food advocate before that was part of the national consciousness. She fed us whole foods with moderate portions and limited our access to junk. She was also maniacally focused on beauty and thinness, but that’s a story for a different piece.
I started putting on weight in my mid-twenties. Always just a few pounds a year, year after year. Somewhere in my thirties I crossed the 200-pound mark and began to despair.
I tried to lose weight for years with the splashy diet-du-jour, but couldn’t stick with anything long enough for it to work. If you’ve lost any weight on a diet you have more disciple and willpower than I did. I might have lasted four days on the South Beach diet, even less on Atkins. I’ve never attempted Keto, but I’m pretty sure the result would have been worse.
I bought exercise programs and equipment that were abandoned within a week. An all-time low was when I spent $250 on a pair of “balancing” shoes because they promised to tone my rear end and get rid of cellulite. Of course, they did no such thing. You know what does? Walking uphill, and that’s free.
It was clear capitalism didn’t have the answer to my problems. I just couldn’t figure out, why not?
Finally, slowly, the idea that it might need to happen with my own changes inside my real life started to sink in. I wasn’t a failure, I just wasn’t a follower. Other people’s diets and exercise plans assumed I was a blank slate that they could write their ideas on. But, none of us operates this way. We live inside our day to day, the food we like, the food we grew up with, our neighborhoods, the people we spend time with.
In retrospect I’m grateful I couldn’t stick with any of these diets. It forced me to dig deep, be patient, and learn to trust myself. I developed a system I could live with long-term because I had no other choice.
I didn’t set a weight loss goal, research workouts, or subscribe to a diet. In fact, I let that all go. I’d had twenty years of bashing myself on the rocks of quick fixes. Make no mistake, any rigid plan is a quick fix. If you can’t see yourself living this way for the rest of your life, it’s a quick fix. If it doesn’t account for the way you like to move your body, it’s a quick fix.
Instead, I began to explore one, simple question: what’s possible?
If I take a walk every day, what might happen? If I stop eating now and take the rest home, how soon will I be hungry? If I get a bike and ride it for the sheer joy will I keep at it? If I eat this sugary thing what happens to my cravings? If I skip the brunch invite and go hiking with a new friend will I feel as though I missed out? If I choose to live near a trail, will I use it? How can I move more all day long?
If this all sounds unsexy, you’re right. It’s also incredibly liberating to observe yourself without judgment. No more shame or recrimination, no more shoving yourself into the one size fits all plans that make no sense to who you are. Does this work for you or not? Yes, keep. No, discard.
What I found through this process was a cascade of changes that altered my life entirely for the better. To change your weight you have to change how you conduct your life. All of it. I am a more centered, grounded and confident person as a result.
Let’s talk about food.
You have to eat less to lose weight, and you have to eat less to keep it off.
I realize this statement is going win me an avalanche of hateful comments, but I am sticking by it. I was eating too much, you probably are too.
The advice to ‘move more and eat less’ has come under fire recently as being too simplistic and ineffective. That’s only because our lives often work against our ability to make that happen. The intent of this series is to address the real-world problems that keep people stuck in their bad patterns. Eating less and moving more requires forethought, planning, and redefining yourself, to yourself. This series will take on the problems, one by one.
It’s not surprising we all eat too much. The modern world is constructed to over-feed us at every occasion. Restaurant portions are enormous, every social encounter includes food, it’s all over social media. You can drive for miles down some roads filled with nothing but places to eat. All of that seeps into our consciousness.
The ratcheting up of portions is something I experience as a restaurant owner. If I actually served real portion sizes I wouldn’t have any customers. My place focuses on quality over quantity and still each entree is two to three real servings. Enormous is the new normal.
It’s not a personal failing that we eat too much. Our world is filled with food and experiences designed specifically to encourage us to sit and eat. I’m amazed anyone can stay slim without a lot of effort.
Please don’t breathlessly tell me about some diet that cuts out whole categories of food but allows you to eat all you want of others. It’s just a sneaky way of saying the same thing. You need to eat less.
The question is how to do this in a way that becomes automatic and relatively painless. A way that does not rely on your ability to never eat bread again for the rest of your life (but definitely less). Most of all it needs to be a way that isn’t an enormous shock to your body. There are serious health consequences to starvation diets, most noticeably hurting your baseline metabolism.
I’m not interested in prescribing or advocating any particular diet because what I’ve discovered in the last eight years is that clean eating is a bit of a myth. I’m not suggesting you are going to lose weight eating big plates of burgers and fries, that’s clearly ridiculous. I am saying that you are going to have to figure out what kind of daily eating will nourish and satisfy you, and keep the weight off. My principles will set you on the path to doing that.
In addition, I’ll be adding links to books and articles that focus on science-based conclusions which helped me learn how to make even better choices. Not just in food, but time of day to eat, and how to gently trick yourself into eating less.
I place food in two main categories, food that makes you overeat and food that doesn’t. What that is changes from person to person. For me it’s generally sugary things that cause problems with cravings and compulsive overeating. I’ve known people who reacted that way to salty things, some to beer, some with fried foods.
This was an important discovery because it flies in the face of ‘everything in moderation’. I can’t be moderate with some things, so I do my best not to have them at all.
Consider the quote below of the 95-year-old yoga instructor featured in the LA Times. She doesn’t ever eat large quantities of anything, but she eats what she likes and keeps moving. Not dissimilar to what I do right now.
I’ve never weighed more than 100 pounds, but I can eat whatever I want. I just don’t eat a lot of it. Breakfast is a slice of cinnamon raisin toast with Irish Kerrygold butter, peanut butter and sliced bananas, and an espresso. I like El Pollo Loco chicken breast or thigh, nothing else with it, and I have it with a salad. I love mashed potatoes with butter and heavy cream.
The trouble comes because we live in a hyper-capitalist economy that suggests eating nearly constantly. Once you pay attention to all the opportunities to eat and drink that are literally shoved in front of your face, you’ll get an idea of what you are really up against.
My principles will help you create a defense to the endless cues to eat and regain a sense of control over when and how much you eat.
An interesting effect of eating less is also eating better. There is more room for veggies, salads and satisfying foods when you aren’t filling up on nonsense. Good eating can happen more naturally.
Willpower isn’t a useful tool.
I mean, on some level it is. I find the strength not to put my face under chocolate fountains but I don’t rely on willpower to make good decisions and science backs me up on this. Turns out your willpower is a set amount and every time you use it it gets depleted. If you have a life with a lot of temptation to sit and eat, it won’t be too long before your day of good intentions is derailed.
Then there are the temptations you may not even be aware of. If your daily commute has you driving by several fast-food restaurants and you have to resist the pull each time, that’s a depletion of the willpower bank. If you go to a coffee shop with a big display of lovely pastries and have to force yourself to glide by, yet another depletion. That’s all before 9a.
Add to the mix your own genetic predisposition for craving certain foods and it’s easy to see the futility of relying on a finite resource to maintain a healthy weight. Constantly fighting yourself is not a way to get things done.
Plus, there is something wonderfully liberating about accepting yourself as you are. I am a person who wants to eat the fucking donut. Maybe the whole box if I could stomach it. Instead of feeling like a failure for that I work to limit my exposure. Turns out you can engineer virtuousness.
Our bodies have been constructed to respond to sugary, carby foods with singular purpose. To consume it quickly and find more. Accepting that, and creating a life that makes access more difficult is a much better solution than the narrative of personal failing. You are supposed to WANT THE DONUT. There are food scientists working around the clock to get us hooked on their product based on just this premise.
I’ll be writing more about this very subject in the coming weeks, but it’s an important concept to adopting my ‘change your life to change your weight’ approach.
Your body is a miracle. As-is, right now.
I know it doesn’t feel that way when you are carrying excess weight and have to fight the daily battle of incremental consumption, but it’s true. Having a body is one of the best things about being alive. It’s a vehicle for pleasure, intimacy and expression. It’s your access to living a full life.
As frustrating as my own charge has been; obesity, two bouts of breast cancer and all the other attendant issues of getting to forty-nine (even a bad cold can make you feel dubious about the joys of a body), I’m in love with it. Swimming in the ocean, an orgasm, a deep hug from a friend, holding my boyfriend’s hand, putting on a yummy moisturizer, dancing, smelling the rain, a long hike; these are my body’s gifts. You have them too, right now.
Your body isn’t a burden, it’s an opportunity. I went from being the girl who could barely get through gym class to a woman who tried running for the first time at forty and loved it. Exercise brought me a new level of appreciation for my body and has given me a tool to control my weight, my mood, and immerse myself in nature. That could not have happened until I removed the yoke of shame and wrong-headed thinking.
The idea of finding value in the present is an important one. I’m asking you to invest in the person who already exists, not the future perfect. You aren’t good when you lose the weight, you are good right now. I tried to circumvent this step for years, each time failing to make sustained progress.
If you aren’t ready to make that leap, just keep reading. One of my principles will help you rewrite your inner dialog. A self-esteem hack that worked wonders for me, and has its roots in behavioral science.
How to use this series.
First and foremost, read this introduction carefully. The ideas I’m imparting are important to understanding the principles. How carefully you read through this is directly proportional to the time and attention you are willing to put forward on losing weight (truth bomb).
In addition, go back and read the links I’ve embedded throughout. They aren’t by accident, they are important bits of information to educate yourself about this process.
The principles are the heart and soul of my series and where you can start practicing your own changes. The complete set is located in my own magazine. Each principle may or may not resonate immediately, read it anyway and give it some thought. Try it. The idea is to teach you how to reshape your life through the actions I took to do it for myself.
You are free to modify and tweak these ideas as they apply to you. Encouraged, even. This process has to be yours alone in order to work.
The principles are a practice, much like meditation or anything that requires sustained use to be useful. Every meal, each walk, how can I best practice this principle?
You’ll notice I’m not suggesting you create goal weights or try for your dream weight. I didn’t find that helpful because I wasn’t sure when I started what a sustainable, healthy weight would be for me. After eight years I now know it’s 152 pounds. That’s the weight where my clothes fit correctly and it isn’t agony to keep it up. I would encourage you to focus on the behavior and life modifications before settling on a weight. The idea is to end up somewhere you can stay for a long time and it may take some experimentation before you know what the number will be.
This series is meant to be a companion to other reading on healthy living and nutrition. Plans that present themselves to be complete answers actually aren’t. I am telling you up front this isn’t intended to be.
Please explore the books I have linked to below and add any of your own in the comments.
I strongly encourage you to read science-based approaches to eating and exercise by authors who have a long history of giving sensible advice. Jane Brody at The New York Times is one of my favorites.
This process is not a quick fix. It’s not a set plan, it’s not a boot camp or 30-day challenge. It’s the long process of learning self-awareness, connecting the dots in your day-to-day, and creating a life that supports the person you want to be.
I think you deserve better than a quick fix. If you’ve been frustrated by other approaches, or, like me, could not fulfill someone else’s made up regimen, try this with patience and space for it to work.
Every year January rolls around with the promise of a clean slate. In one fell swoop, we will do everything differently. I see it at the suddenly crowded gym or watch friends embark on strange diets (at least, strange to me). I cringe a little about all this because I too, have tried to fix everything in one go. It never worked.
It’s a question of the grand gesture versus incremental progress.
January, and its attendant resolutions, is about the grand gesture. The grand gesture is deliciously satisfying at the start, but incremental progress is feeling the payoff for many years to come.
Starting a pre-set diet is by definition doing something temporary. My way builds more slowly and quietly, but each small change will add up to something meaningful.
I’m well aware of the seductive quality diet plans offer. They propose simple ideas and quick results. My principles can’t offer that same initial rush. Instead, think of where these diet ‘success’ stories will be two to five years from now. I’m ten years down the road and still making it work.
Incremental progress is not a lesser version of progress, it’s the only sane and sustainable way forward.
It is possible to change your life and as a result your weight. I’ve done it after many years of fits and starts, feeling defeated, and never quite having all the pieces together.
You can learn, you can do better, you can fix things that have long troubled you. I am proof.
These are a few of the sources I’ve found helpful on my journey to good health. Share your picks with me in the comments!
‘Weight Doesn’t Measure Health in Any Way, Shape or Form’ — this is an outrageously good interview by Alex Bhattacharji. Seriously, read it.