Most of us know the diet cycle all too well. We’re eating well, exercising regularly, really feeling committed to what we’re doing and getting gradually leaner. We feel great and it’s like we’ve had an epiphany and we’ll never go back to our slothful, junk-eating, and perhaps even boozing ways again.
Then it happens.
We have a wedding to go to, or it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, Halloween, someone’s birthday, or just an office party. And we somehow decide that the cake or stuffing or chocolate treats or muffins look a bit too tempting to pass up. The next day we’re a bit tired (perhaps bloated!) and feeling a bit guilty because we didn’t really want to eat that food that wasn’t on our “diet”.
We feel like we’ve blown our diet and that the day before has screwed up our efforts. Maybe we take the day off the gym because we just aren’t feeling quite right, and then feel even more guilty the next day. We vow to redouble our efforts the next day, but then there’s a small crisis at work and we’re forced to skip our workout and grab a meatball sub or cheese sandwich with fries (or some other energy-sucking meal) to fill the hunger gap.
Soon the healthy habits we’ve acquired start to fall apart, a little bit at a time, and within a few weeks we’re back to where we were – stressed, eating inconsistently, and hitting the gym only sporadically (if at all).
Eventually we have another epiphany and decide to start our diet again, working out frequently, and vowing that this will be the last time we let ourselves go. Until another event comes along to derail our goals. And the cycle begins again.
If you don’t find at least parts of this cycle familiar then you’re a rarity.
I’ve personally been through it dozens of time over the years. As an athlete most of my life (first as an International Karate fighter and now as a physique competitor), I’m pretty good at following a strict diet for long periods. I was raised to be disciplined and be able to endure harsh challenges to achieve goals. I even went nearly 5 months on a dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free, alcohol-free, processed-sugar-free (although fruit was ok, for some reason) diet given to me by a Naturopath to try to resolve my on-going digestive issues (IBS). The diet didn’t work, by the way, but it did cause me to have frequent nightmares where I visited buffets and accidentally ate one of my “forbidden foods”.
I spent most of my 20s and early 30s in a state of yo-yo dieting, never quite reaching my target, but always dropping around 10 pounds and re-gaining it all back again. Each time I went through a cycle I felt worse about myself than before, thinking I just didn’t have what it took to stay lean all the time. If I could just harness that “discipline” all year round.
That’s me, somewhere in the middle of the yo-yo dieting of my 20s.
Despite being a fitness and nutrition coach for over 17 years, and a high-level athlete most of my life, I never really got my nutrition act together until about 6 or 7 years ago. And I’m still continually working to master my relationship with food and help other people do the same. Despite all the different diets out there, the only thing that really works is treating food with the appreciation and respect (for its positive or negative effects) it deserves.
So, from a long history of struggles with food, here’s what I know. There are some subtle changes in mindset that helped me stop my yo-yo dieting and made a huge difference in my relationship with food.
If you want to make lasting changes in your body, you need to change how you think, speak, and feel about food.
Here are some steps to help you end your diet cycle for good:
1) Drop the word DIET altogether – A diet isn’t something you should be going on and off of. Technically speaking, your diet is everything you eat on a daily basis. When you talk about what you eat, try to use the word “nutrition plan”. This plan can change according to your needs, and should include your favourite foods with the right frequency and quantity for your goals.
That’s not to say there isn’t a time for a specific diet, such as reducing certain foods to identify intolerances or strict guidelines to prepare for an athletic event or physique competition, but for most people it’s about regulating
2) Give up the guilt – You screwed up. You didn’t follow your nutrition plan as you designed it. That’s ok. Move on with your next meal. Feeling guilty only increases your likelihood of not following your plan later on, since feeling bad sends most people towards more comfort food. Guilt isn’t productive, so don’t waste your precious energy with it.
3) Expect challenges – As with all things in life, you shouldn’t expect everything to go according to your plan. You’ll get sick. You might get injured. You could have a tough emotional time, or the death of a loved one. Don’t expect the process to be easy. Make a plan to overcome the challenging times and do your best to keep as many healthy habits in your life as possible.
Food is an important part of our lives. It’s part of most social occasions, gives us pleasure, and allows us to experience new sensations. The food we eat can energize and heal us, but it shouldn’t be a crutch that we need to feel good.
As you go through the process of breaking the diet cycle in your life, be patient with yourself. Getting angry with yourself and punishing yourself with harsh criticism isn’t going to benefit you. Give yourself credit for progress, however small. Treat yourself like a cherished friend and be supportive and caring.
Don’t fall into the trap of going from overly-restrictive to out-of-control eating. There’s a healthy balance somewhere in the middle. Over time you’ll be able to change how you feel about food and have control over its influence on your life. When you have a healthy relationship with food, you can enjoy it for what it is…and ignore what it’s not.