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Obesity in the United States continues to rise each year. Many people are looking for ways to stick to a diet and attain a healthy weight once and for all. The problem is, weight issues are not simple. There are lots of reasons that people struggle to lose weight and there are lots of reasons that people struggle to stick to a diet. Here’s why:
Why It’s Hard to Stick to a Diet
So often people (especially women) get down on themselves for having extra weight and for not being able to stick to a diet. Many people believe that extra weight is a product of not having enough self-control when it comes to food. As you can imagine, this belief can lead to self-esteem issues when they can’t stick to a diet or lose weight.
Traditional diet plans also rely on calorie restriction, which means people have to choose between being overweight or being hungry. But lack of control around eating and overeating are not the only (or even the main) things that contribute to weight issues.
Overeating doesn’t make biological sense. The body is designed to feel hunger when it needs fuel and to feel satiety when it doesn’t. When everything is working well, this is the case. But sometimes this cycle malfunctions.
What’s the Problem?
The reason that this hunger/satiety cycle malfunctions is often leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone that monitors energy intake and expenditure and generates hunger to refuel when needed. But leptin resistance in the body can make it impossible for this function to happen the way it should. The body doesn’t recognize the leptin being emitted and so it doesn’t get the signal that we’ve eaten enough. If you’re struggling with weight issues, you likely have leptin resistance.
One contributing factor for leptin resistance is the Standard American Diet (SAD). The foods that most Americans eat are nutrient-poor but high in calories. This kind of diet leads to plenty of energy (sugar) intake but very little nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids, etc. In other words, your body is getting enough (or too many) calories, but essentially starving as far as nutrients go. This triggers the body to hold onto fat instead of burning it and other mechanisms that cause weight gain.
As Dr. David Ludwig, author of Always Hungry, explains, obesity is not an issue of excess, but is really an issue of starvation in the cells of the body. So, calorie restriction, like most traditional diets rely on, only makes the problem worse.
The bottom line is, if you struggle to stick to a diet, it’s not your fault! Most weight loss programs or diets don’t address the above issues.
How to Stick to a Diet (For Good)
But there are simple ways to stick to a diet and finally lose weight that align with the underlying cause of weight gain. Here are some ways to finally reach a healthy weight:
Recognize That Weight Is a Symptom of a Larger Problem
As discussed earlier, weight is often a downstream symptom of other health issues. This means that fixing the underlying issue will often fix the weight issue. Leptin resistance (as mentioned earlier), insulin resistance, thyroid disease, etc., can all affect weight. Trying to improve weight when one of these underlying causes is not addressed will be fruitless. My best advice is to see a functional medicine doctor who will be able to tell you whether an underlying issue is causing weight issues and what you can do about it.
Luckily though, you don’t have to be diagnosed with leptin resistance to start taking steps to help it. Anything you do to support proper leptin can only benefit the body. Some of those things include:
- eating enough nutrient-dense food (instead of restricting calories)
- forgoing simple sugars and sticking with starchy vegetables for carbs
- getting quality sleep
- reducing stress by getting out in nature
- focusing on anaerobic exercise
Doing some of these things can help reset the body so weight loss isn’t so difficult.
Make Health Part of Your Lifestyle
You’ll want to think about your new healthy eating habits as a lifestyle change. The diets from the ‘70s and ‘80s aren’t going to cut it. These traditional diets are something you “go on” to lose weight and then “come off” when you’re sick of the deprivation.
These kinds of diets cause more harm than good considering that weight issues are often a product of malnutrition. Instead, we need to embrace sustainable healthy eating habits. Eating healthy should never leave you hungry! Here are some ways to do this:
- Find new favorite recipes that use only healthy ingredients (and remember that healthy fats are important and not to be avoided!).
- Make treats at home with healthy ingredients (think ice cream, cheesecake, and cookies). Real food meals are so much better than packaged or even take-out meals.
- Create a routine that includes time for preparing and eating healthy meals as well as plenty of time outside, movement, and stress reduction.
Making healthy habits a normal part of your life can help you to both be healthy and enjoy life more (no restrictions!). I eat about 95% healthy foods, and I can honestly say I never feel deprived.
Eat Real Food
One way to make health part of your lifestyle is to make healthy food a priority. One of the most important aspects of sticking to a diet is what kind of food you’re eating. Nutrient-poor foods like packaged convenience foods are going to contribute to leptin resistance and insulin resistance and won’t help you lose weight.
On the other hand, real foods can help support the body and improve any imbalances that may be causing weight issues. It’s important to focus on:
- Healthy protein – Pastured chicken, grass-fed beef and lamb, and wild-caught fish are what we’re looking for.
- Healthy fats – These include avocado, real olive oil, coconut oil, pastured butter or other fats from healthy animals, and fatty fish.
- Lots of veggies – Ideally we’ll consume only pesticide-free, organic veggies but the important thing is to simply eat lots of them!
- Healthy sweeteners – Instead of sugar, sweeten foods with fruit, maple syrup, raw honey, or other natural sweeteners. It’s also important not to rely too heavily on sweet foods. We usually stick with fruit and use sweeteners for occasional treats.
- Healthy Carbohydrates – Fruit and other sweeteners are carbohydrates, but it’s important to also get plenty of other forms of carbohydrates. My favorites are winter squash and sweet potatoes. For some people, going low carb will help with weight, but that’s a higher level goal to focus on after switching to real food.
Just making the switch to real food may be all you need to get your body back on track. In any case, it’s a great first step and can have a huge positive impact on the body. Check out my best tips for stocking a real food kitchen.
Make Positive Goals Instead of Negative Ones
Often the thinking about staying on a healthy diet is to simply stop unhealthy habits. But if it were that simple, no one would struggle with weight. The problem is, stopping doing something takes willpower.
In ideal conditions, willpower is plentiful. We can make good decisions based on a big picture view when we’re calm and cared for. But while under stress, the fight, flight, or freeze instinct kicks in. According to an article on Stanford.edu, when we’re operating on instinct, we make decisions based on short-term benefits and do not focus on long-term benefits.
This makes sense, too. In a hunter-gatherer society, acting short-term when there is a threat would make much more sense than looking long-term. If there was a wolf at the cave door, for example, you’d want to flee to save your life (short-term thinking) rather than stay because you don’t want to have to find a new cave or sleep outside (long-term thinking).
This explains why so many of us eat junk food when we’re underslept, hungry, or stressed in other ways!
As my friend Anne Bogle of Modern Mrs. Darcy says, “You can’t just drop a bad habit: you have to replace it with a good one. If you want to succeed, you have to make a plan.”
So, instead of relying on willpower to “stop” eating junk food, it’s more beneficial to make positive goals such as:
- Adding vegetables to your breakfast every day
- Cooking with only healthy fats
- Making all of your treats at home with real food ingredients (but not setting a limit on them yet)
This way, you’re actively doing something instead of trying not to do something else.
Set Yourself Up for Success
In addition to making positive goals instead of negative ones, it’s also important to set yourself up for success. If you make a healthy eating goal but don’t make changes in your life, it will be hard to stick with it. If there is candy and other unhealthy foods in the house, you’ll have to rely on willpower again. And if you work late and don’t have a plan for dinner, it will be really hard not to grab take-out.
Instead, prepare for your new healthy eating lifestyle. This means stocking the house with healthy snacks and having a plan to make healthy meals every night (Real Plans helps a ton!). I only keep healthy foods in the house so there’s very little room for failure!
Bottom Line on Sticking to a Diet
Ultimately, we have to stop looking at weight management as simply a problem with self-control and overeating. Underlying health issues and poor nutrition are much more likely to be the problem. Improving the quality of food we eat as well as creating space for healthy eating in our lives is the best way to finally stick to a diet and achieve a healthy weight.
Have you ever tried a calorie-restricting diet and failed? How did that affect your self-esteem?
- Steakley, L., Goldman, B., & Newby, K. (2018, March 6). The science of willpower. Retrieved from https://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2011/12/29/a-conversation-about-the-science-of-willpower/