The other day another co-worker emailed me a link to her new eating plan. She wanted my opinion. This is where it gets hard for me, because I just want to say “please don’t waste your time or money” but that is not what I said. As a dietitian who has researched dieting, and wrote my Master’s Thesis on restrained eating back in 1996 I clearly remember how blown away I was by the proof I found about the failure of dieting, feeling outraged that this never made headlines. Well, now, when people talk about dieting, I keep my mouth shut……at first. I have learned that people will tune you out if you hit them all at once with the truth. I have learned that most dieters are very hopeful and truly think they can do it “this time”. Instead, I share my experience with my patients. So I may say “can I tell you what I have seen happen?” If they say “yes” that opens the door. I warn of “all-or-nothing” thinking, how going “on” something means you eventually will go “off”. And on and on and on.
What struck me the other day after chatting with this woman about her diet was a realization that when it comes to health, we are all either going backward, going forward, or staying still. This is not about losing weight (although that is the goal for so many people) but about your lifestyle in general, what is health-promoting about it or not health-promoting about it. Clearly, we all have things we do that we regret at times and swear to change. It could be trying to get to bed earlier (because you feel like crap the next day but can’t peel yourself away from CNN). Or maybe it is trying to drink less wine because although it is good for your health in moderation, you drink a bit more than one 5 oz glass, and you want to preserve your liver. Maybe heart disease runs in your family, or your blood pressure has creeped up over the years, and you really need to cut down on salt. You are getting to the age when being active is more important than ever, both for a healthy heart but also to preserve bone mass.
Anybody trying to change knows it is not an easy task. When someone goes on a diet to lose weight, and the diet seems to work at first, they feel as though they are moving toward their goal. But when the diet ends, most people slowly start gaining again. Frustration eventually sets in and the thinking goes like this “I can’t do this, it’s too hard”. When someone decides to start exercising, goes all out, gets shin splints, the thinking is the same: I can’t do this. The person who is trying to stop drinking breaks down and has a drink. Again, “I can’t do this”. The person with an eating disorder and doing well with taking care of their bodies encounters a trigger, starts to restrict, or purges. The immediate feeling is the same. I can’t do this. It seems to me people tend to be harsh on themselves and feel that either they need to be doing it all, or not at all.
Instead, why not accept that sometimes we are moving forward, sometimes backwards, and sometimes just sitting still.
Are there certain unhealthy behaviors that you think about often, and have wanted to change? Instead of thinking “all or nothing” why not try to take a non-judgmental look at where you are? Here’s how:
- Try to identify the behavior first, and be sure it is something that really matters. Bounce it off of your partner, friends or even a health professional to see if you are being reasonable and are not distorted in your thinking. For instance, if you think snacking is unhealthy, maybe you need a reality check. Pretty much everyone I know who is a normal eater needs a boost in between meals. Are you hungry? If, on the other hand, you are munching out of boredom or because you have some excessive stress in your life and are doing some emotional eating (completely normal unless excessive and interfering with your life), well, if it is preventing you from dealing with the real issues then seeking help from a therapist would be wise. Taking a step to getting help is definitely “moving forward”.
- Think about the things you have done in the past to change the behavior. Where has it led you? If you are the person who got shin splints from overexercising and this turned you off for good, you could be simply “standing still”. It does not mean you are a failure or can’t do it. It just means overdoing it did not work. Could you think of some other fun things that won’t hurt you? I sometimes wonder why even going for a simple, short but enjoyable walk “does not count”. The idea is to move in a direction of health, not become a marathon runner. People who have a gentle approach to moving more tend to feel really good about even the small accomplishments and these small moves in the right direction really do add up to a healthier body and life. As for people who are bent on starting another diet, it often leads to binge eating. This is “going backwards” in that it typically makes people feel even worse about themselves than they did before starting the darn diet. Instead, just “staying still” and taking the time to reflect on the past diets you have tried and the affect they have had on you in the long run is a good thing. People often tell me “it worked before”, and you know my answer to that one. Someone wrote (sorry can’t remember where I read it) that Weight Watchers was a successful business because it really does NOT work…..and so people have to keep coming back. Starting another diet is going backwards. Unless you are one of the few people who actually learns some positive things (such as great healthy recipes, getting in touch with hunger and fullness, etc.) and transitions well into normal eating, I just don’t ever recommend diets. The repercussions are almost always bad, it is truly risky business.
- Try to project and think about a year from today. If you truly have examined yourself and your past behaviors and where it has led you, could you just this once try thinking about simply “moving forward”? This means taking small but doable steps to accomplish your goal of being the healthiest you can be. Perhaps instead of starting a diet, you could make a positive change in your eating. For instance, if you waste money by buying lunch every day could you plan to bring your own next week? This means making a grocery list and planning your menu. If you can’t resist the peer pressure to go to happy hour every day after work, could you make a plan to start skipping a day? If you stay up too late and feel exhausted the next day (and this happens every day), could you start with just one day to get to bed early? Eventually you can add more early bedtime days as you get used to it. Feeling good the next morning will start to become the motivation for repeating the positive behavior. This is moving in the right direction. It is not about “all or nothing”. Eventually, you will find the right balance for you, where your body feels better yet you get to enjoy life, too.
- Don’t beat yourself up when you do indeed “go backwards”. Instead, these backwards steps are priceless teachers, and we need to be thankful for them. Can you instead ask “wow, I thought I had that habit licked! let me figure out why I did it”. When you find out your triggers, or barriers, you can come up with a better plan the next time. Nothing lost, and lots gained. Even from mistakes.
So for today, ask yourself if there is anything you have been thinking about regularly as far as health is concerned. Take the time to reflect on where you have been, where you are now and where you want to go. Remember, deciding to “stand still” is a much wiser decision, and better for your health than “going backwards”. Skip that crazy diet that promises fast weight loss. Stand still and reflect, then move forward. Every step counts.