The summer is rapidly approaching and so is the second wave of “diet season.” There’s the first wave at New Year’s, the second wave at summertime and a smaller third wave around the holidays (“look good for New Year’s parties!”) Of course along with all the new diet programs and services, there’s a whole new wave of exercise gizmos designed to burn fat and give you rock hard to-die-for abs. I’ve looked at a lot of these kinds of diets and doodads, mainly because my mom bought them and shoved them at me. I didn’t try all of them but the ones I did try obviously didn’t work. Not the magic ‘fat-binding powder’ or the deck of food cards to keep me from eating too much or even the food delivery program I picked out and bought myself. After so many years, I finally know why they didn’t work: simply put, diets are temporary and temporary by definition does not last!
When I started losing weight and began looking for a long term solution, I found Paleo. Most people know this as the “Paleo diet” or the “Cave Man diet.” In the Paleo community, most followers call it the “Paleo lifestyle,” because a diet is temporary and many of us will not be going back to the way we ate before. For most of us who adopt a certain way of eating and living, it is by definition a ‘lifestyle.’ I’m not going to go all militant Paleo Stormtrooper on you and insist you call it a lifestyle, but I have learned that so much of the success with losing weight and getting healthier has to do with mindset as much as it does nutrition. This isn’t just a semantics or a ‘label’ issue: I think this is fundamentally why diets don’t work: instead of the diet mentality (I can go back to my old eating habits once I’ve lost weight), we need to change our thinking to “I am living a healthier life now.” By thinking this is a temporary situation until we reach X goal, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. I know how wonderful it feels when you finally lose weight: something is finally working! Hallelujah! And I also know how utterly hopeless it feels when you gain the weight back. This is why so many of us just give up and resign ourselves to being the ‘fat woman’ or the ‘fat guy.’ Obviously, there’s something wrong with us, since ‘Diet Program XYZ’ didn’t work for us. It works for everyone else, but either we did it wrong or we’re just destined to be fat forever.
Well, odds are, we didn’t ‘do it wrong’ nor is there something in our genes compelling our bodies to be fat forever. Diets are temporary solutions to life-long issues. By the time most of us reach our thirties, we have been dieting on and off for years, and despite that, we are still overweight. Many of us find as we get older that it’s harder to lose weight, the weight comes back faster and each time we regain the weight, we gain back more than before. As a result, not only are we not losing weight, we are getting progressively more obese. This is a result of dieting and the metabolic damage that it causes. The diets have made us fat. These ‘temporary solutions’ have definitely had a permanent effect on our bodies and metabolisms, but not the one we wanted.
As a result of constant yo-yo dieting, we cause long term (and sometimes permanent) harm to our metabolism. The more you restrict your calorie intake, the slower your metabolism becomes. Your body triggers you to eat more because it’s recognizing that it’s not getting enough fuel to sustain it as it is. So not only do you become tired and lethargic, you are hungry all the time. This is your body lowering your energy level to conserve the fuel (body fat) that it has and it’s telling you that the tank is running dry, so eat something, buddy! This is why people find dieting so hard: you are starving your body, but in a diet battle between you and your body, the body wins every time! Even if you do lose weight, the reason you gain back faster is because your body is used to functioning at the lower metabolic level, so even if you go back to eating what you used to eat, say 2000 calories, your body is still functioning at the 1200 calorie level you were at on your diet. As far as your body is concerned, you are eating 800 calories above what it takes to maintain your current body, so you gain weight. That means the next time you diet, eating 1200 calories is going to keep you right where you are, so now you need to lower your calories to 1000 or lower. This is how people end up gaining weight on 1000 calorie diets. [FYI: fasting is not the same as dieting. Fasting has beneficial qualities and does not cause the same kind of metabolic damage.]
So how can we lose weight without tanking our metabolism and spending the rest of our lives eating rice cakes and plain tuna? We change our lifestyle instead of dieting. Changing your lifestyle starts with changing what you are eating rather than how much you are eating. Yes, you will have to eat less than what your body needs in order to burn fat, but your body was originally programmed to burn the excess body fat when necessary. That’s why the fat gets stored to start with! But we have been really bad care-takers of our bodies and we have jacked up the wiring (to use the technical terminology) and so now our body is used to periods of extreme deprivation aka dieting and so it hangs onto as much fat reserves as it can because it doesn’t know how long this extreme deprivation will last. What we need to do is feed it enough good nutrition so that it starts letting go of some of the fat reserves because not only is it getting enough to survive, it’s getting a lot of really good stuff that allows it to function at a higher level. Personally, I think it’s a little ironic that most people who will go out of their way to feed their pets the best food and treats and make sure they get enough exercise won’t do the same thing with their own bodies. I confess to doing this myself: I made sure my pets had high quality food while I was eating Jack in the Box. My first clue should have been when My Yorkie refused to eat the McDonald’s burger patty I offered him (and he was not the picky eater I have now!) Some people use a technique called ‘reverse-dieting’ to repair metabolic damage. I am not sure how this works, or if it is effective. (Metabolic Radio did a podcast on it if you want to find out more.)
For myself, I began by viewing this as a lifestyle change, not a diet. I decided- before I started- that whatever eating plan I was going to follow was going to be a life-long plan and not something temporary. The changes I made were going to be permanent, so that did two things for my mindset: 1) there was no expectation of ‘this is only until [insert goal here]; and 2) there was no pressure to hurry. Since I intended to do this for the rest of my life, it didn’t matter if I made 6 changes in one week (NOT a good idea) or if I made one change a month (much more doable). It also gave me a little more freedom to experiment: if I tried eating more kale instead of something like rice, there was no penalty if the kale didn’t work for me (FYI: I discovered I really really hate kale!) So nix the kale, stick with broccoli! No harm, no foul! Since this is a lifestyle, there is no ‘doing it wrong’ unless I am forcing myself to eat the kale (or something else I don’t like) because it is ‘the healthy choice.’ Being healthy doesn’t mean that we are miserable. I really think this is part of the dieting mentality: we feel like we are making sacrifices to gain the weight loss prize, so we put up with the suffering but as soon as we get the prize (or close to it), we stop torturing ourselves and go back to eating what we like. This is pretty much how a diet works: no sugar, no chips, nothing that we like until we lose X lbs, and then- relief!! No more kale, rice cakes or dried out chicken breast!……..and the weight comes back!
This is the difference between a lifestyle and a diet: because I am making permanent changes, my focus is on eating things that I enjoy, that are healthy for me and that don’t leave me starving. My criteria isn’t the calorie count, but the nutritional value. If it’s a whole food I like with good nutritional value, ie strawberries, broccoli, or sweet potatoes, I eat as much of it as I like. Portion control at the beginning was a bit of a struggle, but after a while, I got used to eating normal sized portions mainly because whole foods are more filling than processed stuff and the body takes longer to digest them. So instead of feeling bloated and sluggish after dinner, I feel pretty good. That’s because dinner used to be a sourdough jack, fries, jalapeno poppers, diet soda and maybe cheesecake. Now dinner is a lamb shoulder chop, sweet potato fries and strawberries. Not only do I feel a whole lot better, it tastes a whole lot better too. I am also not hungry all the time, either. Eating processed foods used to make me feel like a blob right after eating them, then I’d be hungry and tired in a couple of hours or so. My energy level was always either ‘okay’ or ‘about to fall asleep.’ Now my energy level is pretty even throughout the day and at the end of the day, I am hungry for dinner, but I’m not starving. If I have to run a few errands before I get home and make dinner, I’m still okay.
Although my goal was- and still is- losing weight, my focus isn’t on eating low calorie foods that I don’t like and don’t make me feel good just so I can lose more weight faster. I don’t want to be thinner and miserable any more than I wanted to be fat and miserable. I want to feel good no matter what my weight is. For me, this is the most important difference between a diet and a lifestyle: I want to enjoy my food and my life for the rest of my life; I don’t want to be miserable for a few weeks so I can be thinner for a few more weeks until the weight comes back. Tried it and frankly, it sucked! Once I decided to make being healthier a lifestyle, I have been losing weight for the last two and a half years and I have been enjoying myself doing it. It’s not a hassle; there’s no drudgery involved and there’s no fear of gaining the weight back. There is also no deprivation involved: if I want to eat popcorn, cake and frappacinos, I have them. I make a point not to have them a lot, not because they’re ‘fattening,’ but they don’t really taste great anymore and sometimes they give me a rocketing sugar high followed by the accompanying blood sugar plummet. I stress way less about my weight and health now than I have since I was ten years old and never thought about it at all. Instead of scrutinizing everything I eat, I eat what I like, because now I know that what I like is good for me. This is the second most important difference between a diet and a lifestyle. The most important difference is that a lifestyle actually works for a lifetime.