Dieting sounds so easy - I mean, who hasn’t heard the phrase “move more, eat less?”
Surely we just have to eat fewer cakes, biscuits, chocolate and fried foods, and skip the alcohol and fizzy drinks? And then, if we can replace them with a heap of fruit and vegetables, we’ll have it nailed, right?!
If dieting was that easy, we wouldn’t have the global industries that have been created around everything from meal replacements and quick fix fat melting miracle drinks to weight management clubs and celebrities endorsing the latest diet fads.
We know it’s more complicated than that and there seems to be a myriad of obstacles placed in our way, many of which can feel totally out of our personal control. Motivation can prove a fickle friend in the face of temptation, and we can all struggle with life getting in the way of our best intentions. Who really has the time to whip up a nutritious meal when a microwave meal can be so tempting?
Key factors that can derail your success
Or, rather lack of motivation. When we’re being strict with ourselves but not seeing the desired results quickly enough, it is easy to become demoralised and feel that the effort is simply not worth it. Seeing how others can apparently eat anything they like and not put on weight can further undermine our personal motivation. We can quickly start to think “what’s the point” and fall back to the comfort of our previous routines.
We’re all guilty of this one - the comfort eating when we’ve had a bad day, the glass of wine as a reward to ourselves for a job well done, treats for the birthday, for the good school report, or simply for making it through to the weekend. Using food and/or drink as a crutch for our emotions is one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome.
The idea of starting “next week” or “on Monday” – as if that day doesn’t come with enough problems already. We have ourselves almost hardwired to “have just one more” of whatever we see ourselves as giving up before we start something new.
So, we tend to wait until after the weekend, or the next birthday or holiday … … I mean, what’s the point before then, right?
Who doesn’t recognise the problem with the office birthdays? And what about the colleague who always brings in the homemade cakes? Then we have the kid’s parties, social events, holidays, all you can eat buffets.
It’s endless, and we can’t, at least normally, just completely shut ourselves off from the world.
When we’re used to eating a certain way, and we suddenly restrict our calorie intake or remove a part of our diet, we become prone to cravings. This is because the area of the brain responsible for cravings, the hypothalamus, is also responsible for memory, pleasure and reward. Science would also suggest that the hypothalamus is particularly receptive to the sugar and fat found in processed foods. So, unfortunately, we can’t just flick a switch to turn off our love for specific foods.
It doesn’t take much for us to falter on a diet and abandon it altogether. “I've had a bad day, so I might as well give up and try again next week.”
There is no “one size fits all” for diet or exercise. We all have our own preferences and our genetic make-up means that what might work for one person won’t necessarily work for another.
Top tips to stay on track with a healthier eating plan:
Don’t be fixated by starting on a Monday.
There are pros and cons to whatever day you start. Whilst Monday can already feel like something of a punishment, it does also feel like a natural re-set day and many of us will find that clean slate approach motivating. A Monday also gives you the advantage of being able to prep food over the weekend to ensure that you start strong. Whatever day you start, its a good idea to allow yourself a few days beforehand to get prepared.
Never shop when you’re hungry
I guarantee you will end up with more snacks and processed foods than you want or need - and many will typically be higher in sugar and unhealthy fats.
Don’t shop without a list.
Even better, before you go, check your store cupboard, fridge and freezer, and see what you already have. Decide on your meals for the week. What do you need to add to the ingredients that you already have? Put them on your list and, in the shop, stick to that list. Remember, if you don’t buy it, you can’t eat it!
Give yourself a head start and prepare as much of the food as you can in advance. Making up salads and lunches, chopping veg, blanching and freezing veg batch cooking some meals, freezing some for later in the week. If you’ve spent the time, and it’s already there for you, you are much less likely to revert to the work canteen or the local take-away. A weekly routine that schedules both shopping time and prep time has been shown to reinforce and support our good intentions.
Take smaller steps.
Most of us are creatures of habit – we don’t really like change. It’s worthwhile, therefore, taking the time to ease yourself into your new habits. Pick one or two things that you could change about your diet (portion size, food types, snacks, cooking methods etc) and focus on them first. Much better to chip away successfully at the habits than try to do everything at once and fail.
Don’t leave yourself too hungry – fill up on nutrient dense, protein packed meals like this Lentil and Spinach Dahl that will keep you feeling fuller for longer. You'll be less likely to crave snacks later.
Change your language. Ditch the word ‘diet’ and focus on a narrative that is about a healthy, long-term lifestyle choice instead. It’s much more motivating – and more accurate too!
Understand your emotions. We can’t change our genetics, but we can change the way we use food as a crutch when we’re stressed, sad, or tired. Look at why this way of feeling has you reaching for the chocolate. Getting to the bottom of your why will help you to modify the way you behave.
Once we identify our emotional drivers, it is much easier to find ways of managing them, getting ahead of them to prevent them derailing our efforts.
Be kind to yourself. When you do have an emotional wobble, accept it for what it is and get back on plan. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by beating yourself up about it. Learn from it if you can but move on.
Put cravings into focus. When cravings hit, remember that science tells us that they tend to last for about 15 minutes. If you can occupy yourself long enough - try going for a walk or making a phone call, you’ll probably sail through those 15 minutes and keep yourself on track.
Keep water and a healthy snack to hand. This too can quickly show those cravings the door. Thirst can often be misconstrued as hunger so taking a drink may be enough on its own. However, having those healthy snacks to hand (think a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit or hummus and veggie batons) will keep you out of the biscuit tin or vending machine.
It all comes back, again, to preparation.