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Why "Eating Better" Doesn't Work: The Truth About Diets and Weight Loss

Happy New Year! January 1st seems as good of time as any to discuss what is on the minds of many this day - weight loss and dieting, and I want to give it to you straight.

Gyms are getting ready to lure you in with irresistable specials on memberships, retailers are placing all of the vitamins, weight loss shakes, and fitness equipment on sale, and online distributors are looking to sell you workout subscriptions and stomach wraps galore.

You'll also hear people these days talk about "body positivity" and being happy at any size. Don't get me wrong, I think this is wonderful! I never think that anyone should be shamed (or shame themselves, for that matter) for not being at society's or their "ideal" size. That's complete BS. However, there are individuals who truly NEED to lose weight in order to be healthy. This doesn't mean they shouldn't enjoy the ride or be miserable until they have achieved their goal weight, but it does mean that their health will be that much better for making a healthier weight an important priority in their life.

Trust me, I've been at a place where I wanted to gain weight and a place where I wanted to lose weight, and there is nothing worse than self-hate. I don't ever espouse this, but I do believe that people can learn to love their body and the journey that it takes to get to a healthier weight/size, whether that is heavier/larger or lighter/smaller than where they are now. Loving yourself will make this journey that much easier.

It's truly a great time to shop if you are a fitness- and health-minded consumer, but unfortunately most people fail after about the third week of February. It's not that I want you to fail - trust me, I want all my clients to be successful so that we can work toward even higher levels of fitness, but I want to tell you a little secret that many of these sources fail to tell you.

If you are looking to lose weight (or gain weight for that matter), what you put into your mouth is what matters the most. You might be thinking, Okay, I completely understand this. Tell me something I don't know, Sarah. You are going to hear people telling you "diets" have the word "die" in them and that's why they are so awful. You'll hear people say that it's all about the quality of what you eat, not the quantity. You'll hear people say that if you just start exercising (and they frequently specify the type, such as stoking your metabolism through weight lifting), the weight will "melt off."

What all of these well-intended individuals are failing to say is that any effort at losing weight is going to require careful attention to what you're putting in and, here's the real kicker,

something's gotta give.

What do you mean, "something's gotta give"? I mean that, regardless of what approach you are following, you are going to have to make a deliberate change to your diet (i.e., the food you eat) in order to make change in your weight. If you just keep on keeping on, nothing will ever change. Trust me, this is my job and I work with people all day, every day, helping them to achieve their goals of changing their bodies.

The ones who make deliberate changes in their diet vs. "watching what they eat" or "trying to do better" are the ones who make progress.

So, what kind of change do I have to make, you might ask. Here's the best part: THE KIND THAT YOU CAN KEEP. That's right, there's a million ways to lose weight (hence the multi-billion dollar diet industry). What worked for your best friend or colleague might not be best for you. Love bread and pasta? Please don't try a low-carb approach. You will fail. I promise. Can't live without your meat? Please don't try to go vegan/vegetarian, no matter how awesome your church or best friend or whomever tells you it is. Hate to cook? Programs that require lots of prep work probably aren't for you. And please, for the love of God, stop with all the cleanses. This crap never lasts. If you have never tried one and are curious, let me fill you will feel like s*** after about the first day, especially if you have any kind of activity in your life. You might lose some weight, maybe 3 lbs, maybe 10 lbs. But you will probably gain almost all of it back. And it won't help "jumpstart" your program. You will be so crotchety from drinking strained celery and kale for three-plus freaking days that you will dream in ice cream and steak. You will binge. I am not trying to curse you, I am just a realist.

So what's the solution? One day I was bored/fed-up with questions about the latest fad diets and created the attached chart (click the link for a groovy PDF!). It outlines most of the plans I've heard of, complete with pros and cons.

And here's what I want you to get out of it:

1. Any plan you think/hear of probably fits into one of these categories.

2. Any plan you will use will require you to either count (i.e., moderate) or eliminate something, whether that something is carbs, sugar, fat, calories, cookies, etc. (This is that part I was talking about earlier - something's gotta give.)

3. It's your job to figure out which of these is most doable for you within the context of your lifestyle and family. If you hate counting stuff, please don't sign up for Weight Watchers or My Fitness Pal (as most people don't like counting, I should qualify this statement by highlighting the major "pro" of these counting approaches is that they allow you to eat a wider variety of foods and don't require giving up any particular food, so long as they fit into the numerical constraints). If you don't like the idea of giving up a favorite food or someone telling you what to eat and not eat, Atkins (i.e., low-carb) and any of the anti-allergen plans (e.g., gluten-free, dairy-free, etc.) are NOT for you. (This is an important time to mention that eliminating a type of food like gluten or dairy will not inherently make you lose weight unless you have a REAL problem with these foods, and even then, any loss will mainly come from the deliberate elimination - read: caloric reduction - of food.)

So if you hear of a plan that doesn't require you to either exercise, change your diet in some way, or some combination of the two, PUT YOUR WALLET AWAY AND RUN, RUN VERY VERY FAST THE OTHER WAY. You are encountering a snake oil salesman. As an exercise, let's review a couple of plans and see into which category they fall:

  • Atkins: eliminate most carbs and count all the others

  • 21 Day Fix: count all categories of food for proper serving size (via little containers - I still call this counting as it is a form of measurement and who the heck wants to scoop their restaurant food into a little Tupperware before eating it...not me!)

  • Green Smoothie Diet: eliminate two regular meals to be replaced by green smoothies (which, by the way, are largely devoid of protein and will probably leave you hungry and shaky)

  • Gluten/dairy/soy/anything-free: eliminate said "allergen"

  • Low-fat: eliminate higher-fat foods and/or count fat grams to ensure that they are in check

  • If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM): count all macronutrients (i.e., carb, protein, and fat grams)

  • Weight Watchers: count "points" for all foods consumed, which requires charts with point values

  • Jenny Craig/Nutrisystem/other prepackaged systems: eliminate non-JC/Nutrisystem foods

By doing this, I am NOT saying that any of these are "wrong" or "bad." Quite the opposite: people, my clients included, have been successful using a variety of these approaches. It's all about finding a system that is liveable. But if you are going to insist on continuing "trying to eat better" or "watching what you eat," you are likely going to find yourself spinning your wheels without a logical and followable system in place.

So as you embark on 2016, if your goal is to shed some extra weight, please carefully consider what approach will work for you, and then DO IT. Follow it. Stick with it. Don't jump ship when you gain a pound, your friend says how much they've lost with XYZ Plan, or you see a late-night infomerical that promises you that the pounds will melt off.

I wish you a year of health, happiness, and prosperity! You're the reason that I love my job!

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