January is a time for setting goals.
For 45 million Americans every year, that includes weight loss. Many people will start restrictive (and sometimes expensive) fad diets that promise to shed pounds quickly.
Unfortunately, 95% of people who use these approaches either fail to lose weight or gain it back after the fad diet ends.
The Downside of Diets
A “fad diet” is a plan that promises dramatic weight loss in a short amount of time. Most involve restrictions, such as:
- Significant calorie restriction (eating less food)
- Eliminating specific foods (such as carbohydrates or sugars)
- Eliminating all foods for a certain period (such as a juice cleanse)
- Restricting meals to particular times of the day (intermittent fasting)
- Taking supplements or pills that promise to burn fat
Other diet plans may not have the same dramatic requirements. But, like all diets, they still center around restricting how much food you eat. Americans spend almost $80 billion a year on weight-loss products and dietary supplements. But health experts agree that fad dieting—and “dieting” in general—is not the most effective way to achieve long-term health.
What Happens When You Start
When you begin a restrictive diet, your brain and body identify the change. From an evolutionary perspective, your body interpret this as a famine—not having enough food—leading to an automatic biological response to:
- Slow your metabolism. Your body will burn fewer calories, because it wants to preserve the calories you have consumed to sustain daily activities.
- Release more hormones to encourage eating. Hormone levels change when you restrict calories, signaling your brain to eat more. Some research shows that these hormones take about a year to stabilize, making it harder to return to “normal” eating after a restrictive diet.
- Signal your brain to keep eating. Your brain needs fuel, and brain chemistry changes to make eating more pleasurable and rewarding when you’re dieting. Many people end up overeating later because of these positive signals.
- Learn how to avoid “famine” in the future. After you lose weight, your body learns from the experience. It adjusts hormones and metabolism to prevent similar weight loss in the future. That means diets that worked before probably won’t work as well the second time.
In addition to these physiological challenges, there are psychological challenges from fad dieting. You spend a lot of time thinking about or obsessing over food. If you lose weight and still don’t feel fulfilled, it can lead to depression or guilt. Those things can push you toward disordered eating that can become dangerous.
6 Nutrition Tips for Reaching Your Goals
This year, skip the plan to lose weight with a fad diet. Instead, take these small steps toward healthier habits that you can sustain over time.
Before you make any drastic changes to your diet, track what you eat for a couple of weeks. Keeping a food diary can help you see how many servings of fruits and vegetables you eat, whether you are eating many processed or sugary foods, and whether your food portions are enormous. You don’t need to obsess about tracking every calorie that goes into your body, but getting a general idea is helpful to understand what changes to make.
Instead of overhauling your entire diet, make changes slowly over time. For example, replace chips or French fries with fruit or vegetables at lunch. When that becomes a habit, swap out sugary sodas for water. These might not translate to significant weight loss immediately, but they can improve overall health and lead to slow, sustainable weight loss over time.
Protein helps your body feel full. Fruits and vegetables provide quick energy in the form of healthy carbohydrates, so you’re less likely to reach for processed foods or sugary snacks like chips and candy. As you plan meals or snacks, start with lean proteins like chicken or fish, add fruits and veggies, then complete the meal with a small serving of bread, rice, or other whole grains.
Restaurant meals usually have more fat and calories than meals you cook at home. One study of almost 12,000 adults found that people who ate five or more meals a week at home were less likely to be overweight than people who ate three or fewer meals at home. If you’re pressed for time to cook each night, set aside time on the weekends to plan meals, go grocery shopping, and prep food as much as you can in advance, so cooking is faster on busy weeknights.
Exercise is essential for your health, especially for millions of people with sedentary jobs who sit at a desk most of the day. But that doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym for two hours to get the benefits. Adding movement could be a simple as taking a 5-minute break once an hour while you’re at work to go for a walk. Or doing sit-ups, push-ups, and squats during commercial breaks or for 5 minutes between streaming shows while you watch TV. It’s also helpful to find exercise activities that you enjoy. If you like your fitness routine, you’re more likely to stick to it. Try out new activities like swimming, biking, rock climbing, or a dance class.
Sleep is an often-neglected aspect of good health, but getting more sleep can aid in your weight loss goals. Research shows that people who get fewer hours of sleep have higher insulin resistance. This can increase appetite, slow down metabolism, and affect attention and memory throughout the day. Getting adequate sleep (between 7 and 8 hours a night) can also reduce the risk of high blood pressure and depression in teens and adults.
The new year presents an opportunity for a fresh start. Instead of jumping on the latest fad diet this year, set realistic goals and make small changes that can add up to significant health benefits over time.