Do you regularly embark on diets or healthy eating regimes, but can’t stick with them for the long term? You may be accidentally setting yourself up to fail. You want to see quick results, so you summon up as much willpower and discipline as you can and make a start – this time you are going to be really good. And for a few days you are, but at some point you’ll hit a situation where you go “off-diet”. The run of perfect eating is interrupted, your discipline crumbles and you’re back to your old eating habits before you know it. Then you might beat yourself up for a lack of willpower, and tell yourself you’ll start again next week or next month or after the next few social events – and next time you’ll be really good!
Sound familiar? Here are the reasons this might be happening:
Following a very prescriptive diet with rigid rules/meal plans
The more prescriptive the diet, the more chance you have of breaking the rules.
The creators of some eating plans are so evangelical about them, or so keen to make you believe that their plan is the only way to eat, that they leave you no wriggle room. So if you have to prepare a specific smoothie every morning, or eat a specific set of meals every day, with a specific set of ingredients, what happens when you don’t have the ingredients, or when your supermarket is out of stock? If the diet doesn’t give you alternatives, then you’re automatically “off-diet”.
The diet is dependent on lots of preparation
On Sundays social media is awash with pictures of meal preparation – dozens of Tupperware containers all lined up with multiple portions of healthy dishes. People have spent their entire Sunday shopping for the ingredients and then cooking the dishes. Great, if you have nothing better to do on a Sunday and you like cooking, but if you don’t, you won’t sacrifice too many Sundays before you choose to spend the day doing something more enjoyable. And even if you do like spending your Sundays prepping, something will come along (a lunch invitation, a weekend away, kids needing a lift somewhere) to prevent you from doing it. And then what? You have a whole week with no food prepped and no alternative – again, you find yourself “off-diet”.
Trying to be perfect
If you aim for perfection, you are definitely setting yourself up to fail – not on the first day, maybe not during the first week, but there will come a moment where you eat something unhealthy (possibly through no fault of your own) and then the run of perfection is over. At this point many people fall off the wagon and don’t get back on again for weeks.
So how can you break this cycle and set yourself up to succeed?
Aim for “good enough”
Much as the idea of eating a perfect diet is appealing, it’s just not practical. Life throws up lots of opportunities to consume treats, and there’s no fun in constantly having to say “no thank you”. It’s far better to accept that you’re going to want to indulge occasionally, and to aim at a diet which is 80-90% healthy. Use the remaining 10-20% for those things you really don’t want to give up – a couple of glasses of wine at the end of a hard week, tea and cake at the end of a girly shopping trip, sharing a takeaway with your partner when the kids are in bed. Now this isn’t permissions to treat yourself every day, but if you eat 3-4 meals a day, 7 days a week, that’s 21-28 meals per week. 15% of that total would be 3-4 meals a week where you can have something you really want. And if you plan when you’re going to have those treats each week you can then get on with making your other meals healthy and not feel deprived.
Also, try to have back up plans for those occasions when you find yourself going off-diet or breaking rules when circumstances are out of your control. Have healthy snacks at work in case you forget your Tupperware, have something in the freezer for the nights when you get home too late or too tired to cook, and identify recipes for quick-cook meals which you can rustle up on the weeks when you’ve not had a Sunday to dedicate to preparation.
Finally, before embarking on a diet, ask yourself whether it really is the right diet for you. Ignore the promises of quick results and the success stories – if you don’t have lots of time to shop for and prepare specific meals, or if you don’t fancy the idea of carrying your day’s food with you, don’t embark on a diet which needs you to do that. If your mornings are a rush, will you really find the time to cook a vegetable omelette, or if you enjoy the ritual of a morning coffee, will you really be able to give up caffeine? Be realistic and choose a way of eating which will fit your lifestyle for the long term – a diet won’t work for you if you have to put your life on hold to follow it.
In the end, consistency always beats sporadic attempts at perfection. If you can regularly achieve 80-90% healthy eating you’ll find it easier to stick with, and the results will come, possibly more slowly, but they will be permanent.