Here’s how to stick to your plan to eat healthy this year
It’s the second week of January. We know it can be challenging to shift your diet all at once, but as we continue the Paleo challenge this month and learn about improving our diet for performance, we wanted to share an excerpt of this piece, “Restricted Success” from the CrossFit Journal. It has great information about the 80/20 rule, and how to help yourself keep new habits.
By Hilary Achauer, CrossFit Journal
Starting a new diet can be thrilling.
It’s a time of hope and possibility. Through willpower and perfect eating habits, you are going to get the body of your dreams. Then, a year later, you find yourself exactly where you started. Or maybe a few pounds heavier, filled with disappointment.
If you’ve ever experienced this scenario, you’re not alone. And it’s not your fault.
In her new book “Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again,” Traci Mann, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota discovered restrictive diets don’t work, often result in weight gain and might ultimately be unhealthy. What’s more, losing weight is not a matter of willpower. When we diet, we are fighting against our brains and our biology.
All this doesn’t mean we should sink into a torpor surrounded by potato chips and ice cream. Instead of riding the roller coaster of restrictive diets, Mann recommends adopting healthy eating habits, exercising and—most importantly—being happy with your leanest livable weight.
Diets Work—Until They Don’t
We are repeatedly tricked into starting restrictive diets for one reason: They all work—at first.
“Since the 1940s, hundreds of studies have shown that dieters lose an average of five to fifteen pounds over the first four to six months on a diet,” Mann wrote in “Secrets From the Eating Lab”.
No matter the diet—whether it comes from a scientist or a celebrity—most people lose weight at the beginning.
The problem occurs after this honeymoon period. First, people don’t lose enough weight. Second, they don’t keep it off.
“The most rigorous diet studies find that about half of dieters will weigh more four to five years after the diet ends than they did at the start of the diet,” Mann wrote. Even worse, she said this is a low estimate of diet failure because it comes from studies biased toward showing diets work.
Stretching back more than 20 years, study after study shows restrictive diets don’t lead to long-term weight loss.
What to Do?
Annie Michel is a 59-year-old trainer at CrossFit Beacon in Portland, Maine. She’s been doing CrossFit for five years, and she competed in the Masters Women 55-59 Division at the CrossFit Games in 2012, when she took second, and in 2013, when she placed eighth.
Michel was always athletic, but after raising four children and putting their activities before her own, she gained weight.
“I didn’t get out enough with (my kids). I snacked with them. I was always active with them, but it was not the same. I ate the way the (food) pyramid told me to eat and never lost any weight. I was heavy and would go up and down 10 lb.,” Michel said, referencing U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for healthy eating published in 1992 (the pyramid has since been updated to a plate).
She resigned herself to being active but heavy until she started CrossFit in May 2010.
“I connected with the athlete in me the day I walked through the door,” Michel said. “Within a month I dropped 20 lb., just eliminating grains and being in a different mindset and (using) portion control.”
Then, she said, her weight stopped being the focus. She just wanted to move better.
“I think within the first year I dropped 35 lb. I happened to be good at (CrossFit),” Michel said.
She said she follows a version of Mark Sisson’s 80/20 Principle, outlined on the “primal living” site Mark’s Daily Apple: It’s unrealistic to eat perfectly 100 percent of the time. If you eat well 80 percent of the time, that’s good enough.
“The biggest thing is I try to stay away from sugar as much as possible. I don’t eat a ton of grains. Once in a while I’ll have some pizza,” Michel said.
Michel beat the statistics by keeping her weight off for five years. She did it by taking a long-term, sustainable approach—focusing on a way of eating that will last a lifetime, not for the length of the latest diet. She reinforced that plan with fitness.
Her No. 1 rule: “Don’t have the crap in the house,” Michel said. She also said she’s changed her perspective on what constitutes a treat.
“There’s nothing more satisfying to me than some celery and cashew butter. It’s like my candy,” Michel said.
Michel encourages everyone to become label readers as a way to avoid those sneaky, sugar-laden foods.
“Sugar is everywhere in every food,” Michel said. To avoid sneaky sources of sugar, Michel stopped taking sugar in her coffee and said she’s wary of “healthy” desserts that contain a lot of sugar.
Knowing that sugar can appear unexpectedly means Michel can avoid it most of the time and really enjoy the treats when she chooses to indulge.
“I know that there are naturally going to be imperfections in all areas of my life,” Michel said.
For those who are committed to eating high-quality, unprocessed food and avoiding sugar, there are a few simple tricks to keep unhealthy snacks at bay and portions reasonable.
- Brian Wansink, head of Cornell’s Food & Brand Lab and author of the book “Mindless Eating,” suggests using a smaller plate. A small plate filled to the edges looks to our brain to contain more food than a larger plate containing the same amount.
- In “Secrets From the Eating Lab,” Mann listed several additional suggestions gathered during her research. Make fruits and vegetables easier to access by keeping a supply of cut-up vegetables in the fridge, and eat your salad or vegetables first. Don’t deprive yourself of other food; just start out with the produce. This will help you fill up on the healthiest part of your meal, the one thing on your plate you can generally eat with abandon. By the time you get to the rest of your plate you’ll be less hungry and less likely to overeat.
- Mann suggested other simple tricks to make it harder to ingest junk food. Don’t keep the food in the house, and avoid driving by your favorite bakery or doughnut shop. Set up your life so the healthy choices are the easy choices.
- Surround yourself with healthy eaters. You may have noticed when you’re out to dinner with a bunch of health-conscious CrossFit athletes, most people order similarly. But once someone relents and starts in on the bread basket or picks up the dessert menu, the rest of the group often falls like dominoes.
We Are Not Our Abs
If you’re able to consistently follow all the steps listed above—avoid restrictive diets; eat healthy, unprocessed food; exercise regularly—there’s one final step. And it’s probably the most difficult of all.
Learn to be OK with your body.
The most striking paragraph in Mann’s book references ”The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls” by historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg. In the book, Brumberg studied diaries of young women in the 1890s and discovered their journals were filled with concern about their character.
“They wrote about striving to be kinder and more concerned for others, working harder in school, and rejecting frivolity,” Mann wrote.
Brumberg looked at diaries from the same age group in the 1990s and found the girls were still preoccupied with self-improvement—with a focus on their physical appearance, not their character. The path to improving their appearance almost always involved buying something.
Achieving good health and improving fitness are worthwhile goals, but it’s easy to get caught in the weeds of chasing a body type you were never meant to have. Even looking at the fittest humans on the Earth—the CrossFit Games athletes—you’ll see a range of body types, and all of them are tremendously functional. Walk into any affiliate and you’ll see a wider range, but you’ll still find functional people who are training hard and generally supporting that training with good nutrition.
Pursue good health and fitness, but not at the expense of enjoying your life. Seek balance, not obsession. Don’t get sucked into the latest diet fad promising perfection. Value happiness and equanimity over a perfectly shredded physique. When in doubt, “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”
And switch to smaller dinner plates.