How on earth do you stick to a diet?
February 8, 2013 4:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking to lose some weight and tone up, but I'm having a really hard time with the drastic diet changes that will be required. I think I have entirely the wrong attitude towards food in general. Snowflake inside

I'm a young guy. As I mentioned in an earlier question, I'm trying to get in shape, lose my last baby fat, and gain some muscle. Everyone and their mother has explained over and over that diet is the most important part of a fitness plan, but I just can't stick to any drastic enough to really make a difference.

I'm trying to do 5-Factor Fitness, and the workouts are so far going very well, but the diet is a low glycemic index/no carbs type, and I'm having a really hard time giving up grains, breads, and sugar.

I'm from a big hispanic family, and food is a really huge part of how I grew up, especially crumbly white bread, lots of rice, and tons of sweet desserts. No one in my family has ever stuck to a diet longer than a month. The thought of never having that delicious food again (I know about cheat days, but it's still drastic) is kind of impossible to get my head around. I know I'm supposed to think about food as "fuel for the machine", but I can't move past my cultural conditioning on this.

How do you guys rearrange your eating habits? Particularly when you already have a deeply ingrained fixation on the importance of "good" food?
posted by nickhb to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I recently explained my experience testing out 5:2 fasting in this comment. As you'll see weight-loss wasn't my main goal, but I did lose weight consistently and without struggle. For me personally*, I found it to be a sustainable, not-too-unpleasant plan. The fact that I could eat whatever I wanted 5 days out of the week made the 2 relatively severe 450-calorie days quite acceptable to me. It was always possible for me to arrange my schedule so I could participate in whatever food-related event was going on, and fast on busy work days when nothing exciting was happening around food anyway.

*As many others wisely discussed, this isn't a great plan for everybody, and in particular it is not good for people who have any history of disordered eating or feel unwell (as opposed to just hungry) while fasting.

If it's right for you, the 5:2 diet has advantages that seem like they might address your particular concerns. You wouldn't have to categorically give up any foods, and eating what you want wouldn't be classified as "cheating". Of course, the 5:2 diet does not prescribe whole foods, lots of vegetables or whole grains, or other things that we know to be good for promoting health and weight loss. Whether or not you want to change the sources of your calories in addition to your overall intake is an important question. Based on reading the discussion of the 5:2 diet on AskMe, and elsewhere on the web, it seems that many people have an easier time making healthy choices after trying out the 5:2 diet for various reasons relating to their relationship to food and eating. Perhaps you would find that if you stuck to the 5:2 diet, you might feel more comfortable replacing some or most of your white bread/rice/desserts with healthier alternatives, without having to strictly deny yourself anything.
posted by Cygnet at 4:56 AM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm on Weight Watchers currently and it is really eye opening how much I love carbs and how they are weight gaining foods. Rather than cutting them out completely though I still have some everyday because otherwise I would tell WW to screw themselves. The key is moderation not deprivation.
posted by Leezie at 4:58 AM on February 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

I have had the same problem sticking to diets, but I finally found one that works for me.

I have been doing (more or less) Brad Pilon's "Eat Stop Eat" variation of the 5/2 fasting diet.

I fast for 24hrs (water, coffee, some vitamins) 2x per week. I eat what I want when I want the other 5 days. I don't have to plan meals (there are none). I don't have to count calories (no calories). I can skip or rearrange fasting days to whatever is convenient to me.

All that said, this is a very slow way to lose weight, but with the addition of a proper exercise regime (which I don't have), you might find that it suits you. I've lost 26lbs over the past 10 months. 196->170.

Fasting may have some other health benefits unrelated to weight loss as well.

Also, you may be skeptical that simply not eating can work with the goal of "gain some muscle." But Brad Pilon is a body builder himself and recommend weight lifting as a complementary exercise to the Eat Stop Eat program.
posted by j03 at 4:59 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not a doctor or a nutritionist or a weight loss expert. I'm just a woman who has lost ~100lbs on my own, without any medical intervetion or drastic changes. It has taken a couple years, but it hasn't been this big hardship. Anyway, feel free to take my advice with a grain of salt.

I think you need to work your way in to this a little more slowly. Going at it with "I must make this drastic change" attitude and denying yourself everything you enjoy is rarely the way to go. If I were you I would break this in to smaller goals, such as:
- focus on reducing portion sizes. Eat all your normal stuff, just eat LESS of it.
- focus on one meal to revamp. Maybe just focus on lunch. Breakfast and supper you can keep doing what you're doing, but work on routinely making healthier choices for your noontime meal.
- focus on foods that will keep you full and satisfied. Protein and fiber-heavy foods have way more staying power. If you're hungry all the time you're going to feel deprived and it will be that much harder to keep at it.
- remove the taboo and guilty feelings associated to your "delicious" foods. The more forbidden and "Oooo I'm being naughty!", the more you'll eat and the more you'll crave it. (or at least that is how my brain handles it). You're allowed to eat dessert, you just can't have it every single day, and you can't have enormous portions of it.

For what it is worth, I love breads and carbs and sugar. However, they are sort of toxic for me. The more I eat of them, the more I WANT them, and the more I crave them and then the more I overeat. Same as Leezie experienced, carbs are a weight gaining food for me too. You may find that if you cut back on them you'll find you don't crave and lust after them as much as you maybe do now.

Oh, and Weight Watchers changed my life. I learned portion sizes because of them, and that made all the difference for me. Highly recommended.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:00 AM on February 8, 2013 [18 favorites]

I too recently (re-)joined Weight Watchers and find it helpful -- I really appreciate their new emphasis on changing routines and redesigning or altering the spaces in your life (kitchen, office, etc.) to make better eating choices, and to make it EASIER to make better eating choices. (Most of us know what we need to be doing, in terms of what to eat, probably. My issue is getting organized and being prepared for particular situations.)
posted by NikitaNikita at 5:03 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I stay dedicated to eating right by thinking about how fruits, vegetables and nuts are so good for you that they are essentially medicine for the body. It's through a good diet that we'll best suit ourselves for a good mind and body.

On the other hand, there's obviously plenty of research that shows that things like white bread, or sweet desserts, are bad for you and raise your cholesterol and blood pressure. I don't like knowing that I'm putting harmful or useless food in my body. This is my one life and my one body.

I don't have experience in a family with those types of eating habits. But, you can eat however you want. There is no shame in bringing healthy food with you to family functions and eating that food. Just be polite, upbeat and confident about it, and people will respect your choice.

You need to have a vision of yourself in 6 months to one year as in shape, exuberant, radiant, barely able to hold back smiles of joy, eating great varieties of colorful raw foods. You can learn to love the healthy diet. It only takes a couple months of commitment. Soon, you'll prefer raw fruits and veggies over everything else.
posted by qivip at 5:06 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I eat very low carb, including limiting fruit and vegetables with a high sugar content (carrots, sugar snap peas, etc). I take a night off every 6-8 days where I eat as many carbs as I want after 6 pm, then get back on the low carb diet the next day.

Once I got through the initial low-carb week, which admittedly was unpleasant, this has been pretty easy since I know I will soon get to eat all the delicious food I want. I don't feel deprived. Also, once I got a few weeks in, I found that sugar, sweet desserts, pasta, etc. aren't nearly as delicious as they used to be.
posted by marguerite at 5:06 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd throw in a recommendation for Martin Berkhan's Lean Gains, another form of intermittent fasting mentioned above.
Each day you have a fasting window and an eating window.
The fasting window is 16 hours. Period.
The eating window is 8 hours. Done.
I've been doing it for a few weeks now and have seen a nice bit of fat loss. It has also made me realize just HOW much I obsess about food. When I first started, it was the longest 16 hours in existence, and I unfortunately binged a bit during the meals.
I pulled back the reigns, and it's working.
The link above will allow you to explore it a bit more, but I've given you the basics.
posted by THAT William Mize at 5:06 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Fellow big-hispanic-family would-be dieter to the rescue!

What you have to do is structure your new diet so that it includes some good hearty comfort foods from your particular culture. Or even sometimes a neighboring culture if it is healthier than yours. I've found, for example, that even though my family is Nicaraguan, I can get away with eating Mexican and it still feels comforting. (Not Tex-Mex, actual Mexican)

If you're craving sweets, try making something that is sweet without sugar - like a sweet and spicy stew, or a good mole. Going without breads is hard, but maybe some platanos?

If you were born and raised associating food with love, I don't think cutting that completely out is going to work. You have to just switch your associations to big productions which involve less carbs.
posted by corb at 5:22 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of gimmicky diets and eating plans out there, but what's worked best for me is calorie counting and portion control (which goes along with counting calories). There's several sites you can sign up for, myfitnesspal and sparkpeople are two of the more popular ones that are really good for tracking calories.

The thing is you do need the willpower to stick to eating only the amount of calories that the site recommends for your weight loss goals but I found that a lot easier than having a restrictive diet where I could only eat x, y, or z and could only eat them between the hours of 8:43 a.m. and 4:16 p.m on even-numbered days.

The biggest downside to this is that you're not going to see as dramatic weight loss as you might see if you go with some other diet. You're probably only going to lose a pound or two a week and some weeks you might even see no loss or a little gain, and that can be really frustrating or disheartening when you hear about that guy who lost 20 pounds in three months doing keto or whatever.

However - at least for me - all that is completely overshadowed by the fact that I'm eating like a normal person and can still eat things that I like. I just have to eat a more reasonable portion of it.

It's still not easy, at least at first when it's almost like budgeting your finances ("If I eat this for lunch, that will leave me 700 kcal for dinner.") but after a while balancing your intake becomes pretty automatic.
posted by Gev at 5:33 AM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

"Diets" are necessarily eating patterns for a short-term goal. They are unnatural, and 99% of people gain back what they lost within 2 years.

On the other hand, restructuring your eating patterns in a healthier direction is for the long term. You could consciously eat more vegetables (make them the majority of one meal per day), and/or introduce more healthy fats, so you get full quicker. I switched to a Paleo diet about a year ago, and while it's low-carb it's not NO carb (that is, while you don't eat grains or refined sugar, you CAN bake some stuff with honey or agave to keep your sweet tooth at bay, and fruits are just fine), and I found that getting rid of a lot of that stuff actually made me crave it *less*, which has meant that I can go back to working with my body and its appetites rather than fighting against them. You might want to try something similar, or you might want to make smaller changes, but whatever you do, try to make them things that work with your lifestyle, not require rehabbing it totally, or it won't be sustainable.

Things that helped me: come up with "convenience food" replacements that are healthy. For example, I can no longer count on pasta for nights when I have little time for making dinner; however, I can keep kelp noodles on hand, which makes sesame noodles or "spaghetti" equally easy. I don't eat corn chips, but I've found alternative chips (made with kale or red peppers) that still let me enjoy salsa to my heart's content, grain-free. I love Indian food, so I make/keep flax bread around to take the place of the rice for goopy sauces. I keep paleo granola (with lots of nuts and dried fruit) at work for when I get the munchies. etc. etc. Anticipate the ways that your new ways of eating might seem "hard," and head them off as much as possible. And suddenly you might find that this is just how you eat, not a trial you're undergoing!
posted by acm at 6:26 AM on February 8, 2013

Best answer: Definitely take it in baby steps! It's hard to believe you could give something up for months/years but for just your next meal? That's not too hard.

So for each meal, try to make the best decisions you can. Make sure you stock your fridge and cupboards with good, healthy choices that you'll actually eat. Plan your week out ahead of time. On the weekends, do a lot of the prep work you might need during the week - that way at the end of the day, it won't be as daunting to make a healthy meal if most of your ingredients are prepared already. Or cut up veggies on the weekend so that you can snack on them during the week, too.

And, as hard as it is to believe now, the more healthy choices you make, the less you will crave the less healthy choices. Over time, you might still really crave something, so have it. I've found that by practicing healthy eating for a long enough time, the crappy food no longer tastes good anymore. So I crave mac & cheese, and decide to eat it, and it doesn't taste good or it makes me feel sluggish. So then I try to remember that the next time I crave it.

You can do it! It's a big change that you have your whole life to work on. Just take it one eating decision at a time. :)
posted by jillithd at 6:39 AM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

lots of rice

This won't work, since you're specifically eating low-carb, but spanish rice made with brown rice is very good even if you hate brown rice; the nutty flavor is overwhelmed by the tomato and chili. You can also fit an insane amount of veggies in there.

A bowl of brown rice with tons of veggies and some beans is actually really healthy and full of fiber. You can use salsa for garnish, but stay away from flour tortillas, queso, crema, etc.

I'm sorry to tease you with this while you're doing 5-Factor fitness, but if you decide to move away from the low-carb route, remember that rice isn't neccessarily evil!
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:55 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

The problem with your approach is that you are trying to do something severe for short term gain, rather than trying to do something less severe which you can keep up for the rest of your life.

Doing an extreme diet is great if you have a good control with your eating, and are doing it as a controlled thing (such as bodybuilders who need to lose weight short term for a competition), but that isn't the case here. You want to reassess your relationship with eating.

So, if you want to lose some weight and keep it off in the long term, you'll want to start changing your approach slowly with a long term goal. A good way to start may be to replace rice in your meals with steamed vegetables, or maybe to start each meal with a serving of fresh veggies before you eat all of the other stuff you'd normally eat, so that you won't eat as much of the other stuff.

Pretty much across the board, the number one thing which I've seen in people who have lost weight and kept it off is eating vegetables with every meal. They are low in calories, high in nutrients, and can replace other higher calorie foods. Having a bowl full of rice is a ton of calories, but a bowl full of broccoli has almost no calories.

The other thing you should do is to start tracking all of your food. Myfitnesspal is a great phone app and website which makes it really easy. By doing this, you can see exactly how much you are eating. You may be surprised. Once you have a handle on exactly what you are eating, it's easier to figure out small changes you can make to adjust it. For example, you may find that your overall diet isn't bad, but you're eating 800 calories of rice with dinner every night. Cut your serving of rice in half, and you'd lose almost a pound every week.

If you're trying to gain muscle, than you'll need to get enough protein. Aim for 1 gram of protein for every pound of lean muscle mass.
posted by markblasco at 7:18 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Check out the No S Diet. It's very simple, sensible, and works well with different cultural eating styles. You dot have to give up carbs, just limit sweets to the weekend. I had trouble with other diets but I like this one.
posted by gentian at 7:19 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

The thought of never having that delicious food again (I know about cheat days, but it's still drastic) is kind of impossible to get my head around.

Well that's fine, because you don't need to accept that you are never going to eat those foods again, because you will. I think part of the problem with the "all-or-nothing" diet trap is that people feel like they have to torture themselves with a diet they hate, then when they fall off the wagon for a day or two think that they've undone all the hard work they did previously, and never go back.

Make sustainable changes. Track your calories and buy a kitchen scale. Do not rely on estimating portions or using volume, weigh everything. If the diet you are attempting is too difficult for you to stick to, work on reducing your carb intake first. Eat a small portion of rice and replace the rest with vegetables. Swap out the candy bar for a square of dark chocolate and a half ounce of peanuts.

When you make sustainable, permanent healthy changes to your eating habits, you can handle the occasional over-indulgent family meal. I come from a big Jewish family where food is a Very Big Deal. And on holidays, I eat. I try not to eat too much, and the next day, resume my healthy diet.

If you have a smartphone, a calorie tracking app is your best friend.
posted by inertia at 7:51 AM on February 8, 2013

A good amount of diet success depends on your environment. If delicious-but-unhealthy food is readily available in your home, avoiding it is a bigger struggle than if that food were not there - after all, driving to the grocery store and cooking is a big impediment to instant gratification. Similarly, diets tend to work better when the people around you are supportive of it - that way you feel built up when you follow your diet rather than brought down, so the dedication and mental energy required to stick to the diet are lower in a supportive atmosphere. Not that you need praise for every "good" meal, but rather you don't get criticized for making healthier choices.

With that in mind: are you still living with your family? Or are you living on your own / with a non-family roommate? Because if you are living with your family, this is going to be much tougher because they'll expect you to indulge in the less-healthy stuff frequently, as it is a shared bonding ritual.

If you are living alone or with a roommate, then this is easier. When you eat on your own, you are in complete control. Keep around only foods that fit into your diet, whichever one you choose. Keep around TONS of veggies. Fresh ones that are easy to snack on: baby carrots, celery, sliced bell peppers. Frozen ones that can be microwaved and easily enjoyed. When you are going to eat with your family, realize that those are probably cheat meals, but go in with a plan. Maybe ask if there can be a veggie-oriented dish. Maybe eat a big bunch of veggies before you go so you simply don't have much room to eat too much. But do allow yourself to eat with your family. You don't have to reject their dishes outright, just eat smaller portions. Not even tiny portions, just smaller. This gets into the psychology and group psych of weight loss: If you reject those foods entirely, your family may feel a bit rejected, because sharing food is a deeply-ingrained practice. So the path of least resistance is probably to eat some of the rich foods to satisfy your desires and satisfy your family's bonding rituals, just come prepared (e.g., with a belly full of veggies and water) to eat smaller portions of each. Also, if you have a family member who is sympathetic to your diet, maybe enlist them to give you a little support when you say "no thanks, it's delicious but I've had enough."

If you live with your family, this gets tough because presumably you have lots of meals with them. You'll need to start communicating with them about your diet changes (not "I'm never eating this again," but "I'd like to cut down on the rice and eat more veggies for my health"), learning to stand up for yourself when you eat a smaller portion, and gradually work these changes into your routine with your family. Maybe you can take charge of making a big batch of healthy veggies as your contribution to each meal?
posted by Tehhund at 8:17 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Try looking for authentic ways to incorporate your favorite foods and flavors into your diet. There are ways to "fake it", like using riced cauliflower instead of regular rice, but to me that falls into a different category.

For example, I make a soup I call Pozole-ish. I originally made a traditional version and just omitted the hominy, but now I make it with whatever I have in the house, basically using chilies as the base. I'll add a small amount of masa if I think about it and that's enough to give it a nice corn flavor and aroma that the hominy would bring. If I'm craving something deli-ish, I'll go pick up some hard Jewish salami and make scrambled eggs with it. The house smells like a deli, I get to eat something right off a deli menu, and I don't feel like I've compromised.

The breads are harder to work around, but a lot of people find that once they get the sugar out of their system their cravings subside dramatically. I always know when I've been eating "hidden" carbs because I start craving sweets.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:35 AM on February 8, 2013

I think a huge first step would be to ensure that no matter what, even when you 'cheat' or don't or just stop 'dieting' altogether for a few days... Keep Track of Your Food.

Just building that awareness of what you are eating in a given day can be very effective in helping you to reach your goals, stay motivated and (perhaps most importantly) get back on track if you happen to slip into eating habits you thought you'd kicked.

Best of luck!
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 9:36 AM on February 8, 2013

I know I'm supposed to think about food as "fuel for the machine", but I can't move past my cultural conditioning on this.

So don't think about it that way! There's nothing wrong with acknowledging that there are plenty of reasons to eat, or to eat a specific food, that go beyond nutrition. You've decided to let nutrition play a bigger part in your food choice than the rest of your family does, but that doesn't mean it has to be the only factor -- as long as it's not every meal of every day, there's nothing wrong with eating something because it's comforting. (Or because you don't want to offend your mom!) Food is not just fuel, and diet plans that try to oversimplify it down to that are setting you up for failure.
posted by ostro at 9:43 AM on February 8, 2013

Weight loss is really hard! But really rewarding - I just lost 50 lbs on Weight Watchers. I highly recommend the program. But the gist of it is that you have to teach yourself new routines, which don't stick overnight. You also have to take control of your "space" (i.e. keep food out of the house that you don't want, and stock your kitchen with healthy foods that you find satisfying). They have always been big on tracking, and I've read over and over that people lose more weight when they write down what they eat.

The biggest thing for me was figuring out what foods satisfy me and how I can shift towards satisfying but healthy (or not terribly unhealthy, if I'm indulging) foods. It's all about what works for you. For example, some members swear by these little "sandwich thins" for sandwiches, but I think they're gross. For one more "point" (approx 35-50 cals), I have double-fiber wheat bread on my sandwich, which I really like. I eat brown rice or quinoa instead of white rice. I buy or make reduced-calorie sweets (my fiance eats more of the Skinny Cow ice cream bars in the freezer than I do, they're that good!). I buy low-fat cheese (and try to eat less cheese in general).

Food is not just "fuel!" We are culturally and psychologically conditioned to find comfort in food - not to mention that many foods are engineered to make us want to eat more of them. There are some people who just eat to live, but I think a lot more of us live to eat.

It's unrealistic to think that you would *never* have your favorite comfort foods again. You're setting yourself up for failure - and then you'll feel super-guilty when indulging. You have to figure out which foods are worth indulging in, which ones you can cut out all together, and which ones you can modify to make more healthy.
posted by radioamy at 10:07 AM on February 8, 2013

You might enjoy the diet blog 344 Pounds. Shawn lost more than 100 pounds while still eating his favorite junk foods... just LESS of them (plus lots of exercise). That link is to a recent post of his where he describes the kinds of things he eats in an average day.
posted by southern_sky at 5:43 PM on February 8, 2013

I've been eating very healthily and losing weight (although that was not the main goal) the past six months or so by focussing on making sure I eat lots of veges, fibre and lean protein BEFORE I eat any less healthy food for the day. I try to get my daily requirements of these things by late afternoon, and then I find I am satisfied with a single small-to-medium serving of dinner and no snacks or junkfood in the evening. I often don't even think about food again after dinner, which has never happened before in my life.

I used to overeat a lot at parties, family meals, holiday meals, etc, but lately I haven't really felt the urge, and I think that's about the protein, fibre and general fullness that I already have when I go into these situations. I went to a party last week at dinner time where there was unlimited pizza, cake and alcohol, and I had two slices of pizza, a small piece of cake, and a sip of someone else's glass of wine, and that was all I had any interest in eating/drinking. I had had scrambled eggs with mushrooms for breakfast, a big salad with chicken breast at lunch, carrots with hummus as a snack, and a large protein shake just before the party, and my body was saying, "Dude, I've got it. We don't need anything else today."

And psychologically it is much nicer to focus on what you do need to eat than what you shouldn't.
posted by lollusc at 7:09 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

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