From Zone to Atkins to Paleo, you've probably heard of a million dietary plans to help you eat better and lose weight. But many diets — fad or otherwise — require restrictions we can't sustain, and we unrealisticaly expect immediate results. With all the problems surrounding diet plans, how can you pick one that actually works? All it takes is a little self-knowledge and dose of reality.
With the enormous number of diets in the world, you'd think you could find one that doesn't suck. Often, you don't fail because of your choice but because of how you approach it. To pick a diet that actually works, you not only need to remove the options that don't fit your needs but also understand the personal roadblocks that get in your way. With the help of Andy Bellatti, a Las Vegas-based registered dietitian, and Dr Carly Stewart, Medical Expert and MD at Money Crashers, let's take a look at how you can actually find a diet that works for you.
Set Realistic Expectations
You can pick any diet you like, but you'll set yourself up for failure if you expect to see any significant results in a day, a week, or even a month. When you start restricting what you eat, it feels like you've made major sacrifices and deserve some sort of payoff — or at least an indication — that your hard work will make a difference.
Unfortunately, you won't get that kind of immediate satisfaction. All diets take commitment, and you won't see results quickly. If waiting three months or so to see a significant change seems like a lot, think about all the years you've spent failing to meet your fat-loss goals. Consider the diets you've tried and the cumulitive time they took. You probably spent quite a while on plans that didn't work. Sticking with one that you like for a few months likely adds up to a fraction of that "wasted" time.
Many of us would rather "torture" ourselves through a diet that takes a short amount of time but promises fast results. While some diets may show signs of improvement quickly in some people, you want to avoid anything that promises rapid weight or fat loss. Dr Stewart explains:
When reviewing specific programs, approach any with extreme caution that make promises of rapid weight loss in a short period of time. They may not be true, and even if they are, this can also damage your health. Look for one with a varied and balanced choice of foods and food groups, as well as one that contains at least some foods you like to eat. If you implement a diet regimen full of foods that just aren't palatable to you, your chances of success are slim. Also, if you really enjoy a particular food, do not swear it off completely, just limit your intake of that food.
Before you jump into anything, you need to accept reality. That means you have to know you won't achieve any fat loss goals in a short period of time. It also means you have to accept your shortcomings and allow them to temporarily inhibit your progress. If you know you'll struggle to remove certain foods from your diet, wean yourself off of them. Going cold turkey will only cause cravings. Unhealthy eating will make it harder for you to lose weight, but if you don't spend time adjusting to the different foods your diet requires you may end up with another failure. Make sure you plan for a transitional period and don't just jump head first into your new diet.
Pick a Sustainable Program
You can't approach a diet successfully without knowing how you relate to your food. You need to understand what you like, what you don't, what you expect to crave and so on. Your personal needs play an enormous role in the way you'll react to the healthy changes you want to make, so you have to know yourself well in order to pick a program you can sustain. Bellatti suggests that you ask yourself a few questions to find out what may or may not fit:
Don't approach this as "choosing a diet", but rather "choosing an eating style". Unlike a diet, an eating style is sustainable, can be done for the rest of the life, and implies more flexibility. Ask yourself: "Can I eat this way the vast majority of the time?" If the answer is "yes", you've made a good choice. If the answer is "no", choose something else. If this way of eating requires you to live beyond your means, rely on ingredients/foods that are not easily accessible, or inconveniences your daily routine, it's unlikely you'll be able to stick with it for long.
Dr Stewart also recommends you consider your finances, social impacts and a few other factors as well:
It's important to do a review of your personal situation. Can you afford a paid weight-loss program? Would you rather diet in a group setting or on your own? Were there any portions of diets in the past that really worked well for you? Other parts of diets that didn't? It's the answers to these questions and more that go a long way in helping you make the right decision. The key is to approach it as a lifestyle change instead of a temporary crash diet. If you return to your old lifestyle, you will likely gain the weight right back.
Both experts agree — and you've probably heard it many times before — you need to avoid temporary choices and pick something you can sustain. Diets that only impact your eating style for a short amount of time might offer some temporary improvement (presuming you manage to stick to them) but cause you to slink right back into bad habits shortly after you stop. Don't make any change you don't believe you can keep.
Chose a Diet That Creates Good Habits
If you've found an "eating style" you think you can sustain, you've whittled down your options to the best. Before you choose one, however, you ought to consider a few more things. As Bellatti explains, habits are key:
The whole purpose of choosing a better eating style is, usually, to improve health, and the best way to do this is with consistent habits. Don't look for a way of eating that is so strict and limited that you can only stay sane if you do it for two weeks every four months; that isn't a recipe for meaningful results.
Of the habits you create, Bellatti suggests you ought to get used to cooking more:
Above all, a healthful way of eating is low in processed foods. It should have you in the kitchen preparing food, as opposed to purchasing ready-made meals, pre-made shakes, or processed snack bars. Additionally, if you become dependent on "diet foods", what happens the day they are no longer sold? That said, choose a way of eating that enables you to still have a social life. You should be able to go to most restaurants and order something — even if just an appetiser and a side dish — that meets your needs.
You need to create good habits but you need flexibility and balance. While we'd all be better served by cooking our own meals, you can't completely forego a trip to the restaurant because your diet prohibits it. Those kinds of social restrictions will kill any plan faster than a simple craving.
To make sure you cook, just plan meals ahead. Learn a few staple dishes first before you start your diet so you don't throw yourself into a ton of overwhelming work. You can have a lot of fun cooking if you learn to play and make simple things that you enjoy. You'll hate it, however, if you associate it with your diet. Learn first, then integrate those healthy recipes into your regular eating routines.
Tailor the Diet to Your Needs
Eating healthy doesn't require a fad diet. Many people find options like Zone, Paleo, South Beach, Atkins and others are far too restrictive to become a standard fact of life. That doesn't mean you can't give them a shot, but to keep a few things in mind first. Bellatti explains:
Although the basic tenets of nutrition are universal (i.e. eat plenty of whole fruits and vegetables, eat fermented foods, have very low amounts of added sugar each day), everybody is different in how they respond to eating styles. Listen to your body first and foremost. One person's dietary panacea can be another's dietary kryptonite. Be weary of dietary plans that make outrageous claims and/or that demonise healthful foods. A way of eating that encourages you to eat unlimited quantities of certain foods as long as they're "allowed", or that implies that the second you eat a "not allowed" food you are essentially giving yourself cancer, should raise a red flag.
That doesn't mean you can't choose a popular diet but that you should use it as a set of guidelines rather than a rule book. If you find any kind of diet you think could work well for you, consider where you might have problems and adjust the plan accordingly. Belatti recommends you create an eating plan specific to you, but appreciates one diet plan by Mark Bittman called Vegan Before 6. The dietary plan seeks to help people integrate more plant-based nutrients during the day and allows a lot more flexibility in the evening so you don't have to give up foods you love. Personally, as a vegetarian, I struggle to eat enough good protein and avoid grains so I eat a protein and vegetable-heavy diet during the day and allow myself a similar flexibility in the evening.
Neither dietary plan requires a strict set of rules and both create a nice compromise between health and enjoyment. You don't have to give up much of anything, but rather focus more on eating well. You get to keep the foods you love sometimes, and learn to like more nutritious foods at the same time. That said, don't use either of these diet plans if they don't fit you just right. Think about what you need and create a plan you know you can stick to. If you find you can't make the progress you want after a few months, you can always make adjustments along the way to better suit your goals.
Don't Forget to Exercise
You don't have to spend lots of time exercising, but you can't ignore physical activity because you've chosen a healthier diet. The two go hand-in-hand. You can't simply work out and live off doughnuts for the rest of your (probably shortened) life. Dr Stewart agrees:
Make sure that any weight loss program you consider is partnered with a solid and consistent amount of physical activity. If the program you're considering looks good but doesn't contain any specific exercise information, consult your doctor to design a safe and comprehensive exercise program.
Just as with your diet, you want an exercise routine that you can sustain, grow with, and even enjoy. Don't try too much too fast. Take your time and let your confidence build as you grow stronger. As with all health goals, you can't achieve them overnight. Aim to continue to better your physical health and wellness with every step, and the rest will follow.
Consult a Professional Before You Jump In
Unless you have an identical twin, you have a unique body with its own set of dietary issues. One great diet that works for many of your friends may not work so well for you. Before you dive in, Dr Stewart recommends that you talk to someone who knows a little more about these things than you:
Many of the structured diets advertised these days are gimmicks and nothing more, and some can actually damage your health. In order to make the best choice, it's important to put some thought into it and consult professionals. To begin with, speak with your primary care physician. Discuss your situation in depth; what your particular health issues and goals are and how to select a diet that will best address these.
This post offers advice but you should never make major changes that affect your health solely based on something you read online. Talk to your doctor or a registered dietician before you significantly change the way you eat.