Sometimes I’m frustrated when people become angry about the word “diet.” As I’ve said many times before, if you eat you have a diet. It’s that simple.
But I understand that when people think about diets they imagine restrictions, hunger, and lack of results. In that scenario the word diet sucks, just as much as reading 800 articles on “weight loss tips,” “how to lose weight,” or “the best way to lose weight.”
And yet, you still need to eat and find a way that leaves you feeling good, satisfied, energized, and healthy. Instead of suggesting another fad diet, I asked Sohee Lee, author of Reverse Dieting, to tackle the dieting mistakes that give nutrition plans a bad rep in the first place. Avoid these common errors, and odds are you won’t have any more issues with the D-word or your fat loss progress. -AB
The goal is to continue to lose fat while making this journey as easy as possible
Why You Can’t Lose Weight: Where It All Begins
The truth is, dieting is easy – relatively speaking, anyway. At some point, if you starve yourself enough and exercise yourself into the ground, you will lose weight. That much is obvious. The problem is keeping that weight off. And not hating the process. And doing so in a healthy way.
Because if you didn’t notice, the suggestion of starvation and brutal exercise is about as pleasurable as it sounds. Which is why this stat should not surprise you at all: when it comes to quick fix body transformations, up to two-thirds of the weight lost is regained within the first year, and essentially all the weight regained within five.
The typical dieting approach is all wrong. It’s not diets, per se, but how they are followed. And what’s currently believed. Not only do we misunderstand healthy weight (look no farther than the BMI to understand a metric that is wrong as often as it’s right with active people), we don’t understand the healthy process of weight loss.
In your “get into beach season shape now” mentality you completely overlook the fact that drastic measures typically don’t yield sustainable results. Yet you’ll oftentimes reason that you’ll simply “deal with it later” or better yet, convince yourself that you are the sole exception to this trend.
It’s time to face reality. Because it simply doesn’t work that way. Below are the most common dieting myths that may help you drop a few pounds, but ultimately be the reason why you gain them all back.
Diet Mistake #1: The harder it feels, the better it’s working
If you woke up one day and decided you wanted to lose your gut, what would do you do? You might start by throwing out every single remotely delicious food that you have in your kitchen. Your grocery cart all of a sudden transforms from frozen lunches, chips, and candy to chicken, egg whites, and asparagus – never mind the fact that you despise asparagus, but clearly you’re on a mission here.
You feel strong for the first few days as you ride on the wave of your surge of motivation. You’re invincible, you tell yourself. But then the hunger. And then the cravings. They hit you like a ten-ton truck.
And you sit there and you smile to yourself because you think that the struggle must mean that your fat is melting away as you writhe in pain. After all, this is what it takes to be lean, right? Isn’t this what it means to be hardcore?
The truth: Many people assume that diets must necessarily feel hard in order to be successful, but that’s not the case at all. The goal is to continue to lose fat while making this journey as easy as possible. This means eating as much food as you can (both calorically and variety-wise) and doing as little exercise in the gym as you can get away with while still seeing progress.
Don’t swear off your favorite treats for the rest of your life because I can guarantee you that it’ll come back later to bite you. And it’s not going to feel good.
Don’t slash your calories in half because there’s going to come a point when your progress is going to stall. You’ll then be forced to drop your calories further, and you’re really not going to have much wiggle room.
I understand this sounds backwards. This probably goes against everything you’ve been told. We exist in an incredibly black-and-white society in which we either go balls to the wall or we do absolutely nothing at all. We live sedentary lives for many years while not giving a second thought to the food we eat, and then we abruptly try to go from zero to sixty overnight – and we are somehow surprised when we eventually crash and burn.
This approach obviously hasn’t been working for us – just take a look at the nation’s obesity rate. You have to wonder: if the all-or-nothing mindset really were so successful, then we wouldn’t be struggling so much in our fat loss efforts, would we?
Diet Mistake #2: The faster, the better
Along the same lines, we seem to expect quick, immediate results. I guess in a way, we can’t really help it; this is the world that we live in today. Everything is fast – with some even balking that fast food is no longer speedy enough – and overnight delivery has now become the norm (hello, Amazon Prime!).
If we want something, it’s just a click away and it’s all yours. So of course it would make sense, then, that we have the same expectations when it comes to fat loss. For many of you, no amount of progress will probably feel fast enough.
Down two pounds in a week? Bah, obviously something isn’t working.
Five pounds? That’s more like it – but still, you should have dropped more by now.
Eight? Not bad, but again, why not ten?
The truth: I’m really sorry that mainstream media has completely skewed your expectations of fat loss. I promise you that the methods individuals on weight loss shows utilize to achieve those rapid results are nothing short of harrowing.
Barring any health complications, most individuals can expect to drop at a clip of 1 to 2 pounds per week. Leaner folks should expect a slower rate of 0.5 to 1 pound per week since they have less fat to lose, while clinically obese individuals may be okay dropping weight at a slightly faster rate. This is pretty much the norm. Anything faster than that typically is indicative of a loss of muscle mass as well, which is not what we want.
Not only that, but rapid weight loss is typically indicative of extreme measures. And the more extreme the methods employed, the higher the chances of piling the weight back on.
Diet Mistake #3: Placing your faith in diet super foods
I hear there’s a new super food out on the market and it’s flying off the shelves. This is supposed to be the next big thing – the miracle that can burn your fat effortlessly, negate all the calories you’ve consumed, and deliver you results without an ounce of effort on your part. All you have to do is fork over your money and you’ll achieve the body of your dreams.
According to the product, you don’t have to change a thing about your current lifestyle. All you do is sprinkle this powder in your morning coffee and you’ll be good to go. No fuss, no mess. Too easy.
The truth: There is. no. super food.
There is. no. magical potion.
If that really were the case, we’d all be walking around ripped to shreds by now, don’t you think? I hate to break it to you, but you’re going to have to commit to changing your eating and exercise behaviors if you want to see the results that you’re after. No amount of wishing and hoping is going to work for you unless you get off the couch and take action.
That steady diet of junk food you’ve been subsisting on for the past few years? That needs to be replaced. And no, the 20-yard walk from the parking lot to your office building doesn’t count as your workout for the day. You want to drop some fat? Eat more protein and especially more minimally processed foods. Get in your daily veggies. Maybe stop drinking all that soda. You want to step it up a notch? Start hitting the gym for weight training sessions. Learn the heavy compound movements and hit ‘em hard. Strive to get progressively stronger and treat your workouts like a true commitment.
Listen, losing fat is a pretty simple process when you get down to it. But you have to be willing to put in the work. Don’t complain about the results you didn’t get with the work you didn’t do. And don’t expect all of the super foods in the world to be all you need to change how you look.
Remember, eating healthy is not the same as eating for fat loss. You can overdo anything, especially foods that are loaded with calories. (Even if they are “nutritious” calories.)
Diet Mistake #4: Everything you’re doing is only temporary
Okay, so you’ve been on this dieting thing for a good three months now and you’ve dropped inches all over. You have a whole new wardrobe to accommodate your newer, leaner self and you’re feeling on top of the world.
You’ve made some pretty drastic changes to your lifestyle within that timeframe. You stopped eating out every day of the week, and you now cook most of your meals. You no longer drown everything in butter, and you’ve doubled your protein intake.
In the gym, you’re now a regular. What first started out as two full-body strength training sessions has evolved into a six day body part split, plus six days of steady-state cardio. Frappuccino? No thanks. You’ve got your protein shake handy.
You finally hit your goal – you’re pleased with what you see in the mirror and you’re holding steady at the lowest body fat percentage you can recall – so now it’s time to really relax. You kick your feet up and toss your tub of whey in the trash. You cancel your gym membership and then make a beeline for Panda Express because you totally deserve it. Now that you’re lean, you can finally go back to the way you lived before.
The truth: If you want to maintain the results you’ve worked so hard for, you absolutely cannot go regress to your former lifestyle.
This is the reality that may be difficult to accept: the lifestyle changes you make have to be permanent. But permanent doesn’t mean brutal, awful, and unbearable.
It’s why the steps you take to get to the body you want should be steps you can follow to keep the body you want.
This is why it’s important to commit to just a small, bite-size behavior changes at a time. You want to be able to maintain that new habit over the long-term, and to that end, it should feel doable. Killing yourself in the gym three hours a day? That’s not doable, and it’ll lead to burnout pretty quick. Cutting out your favorite foods for good? Also not sustainable.
Every step of the way, you should be asking yourself: Can I see myself keeping this up a year from now? If the answer is yes, then you’re on the right track. If not, perhaps you should re-assess what you’re doing.
Maybe you’re feeling a lost, however, because you’re happy with the way that you look, but you’re rather fatigued from being in a caloric deficit for so long.
Maybe you’re considering taking a break from the diet so you can focus on building some muscle and eat more food. Maybe you’re tired of working so hard to drop that spare tire, only to have the scale skyrocket over and over again as soon as your diet is over.
If this is the case, then I invite you to consider switching gears to reverse dieting for the time being. By slowly increasing your food intake in controlled quantities, you’ll not only minimize fat gain with the caloric surplus, but you’ll build some muscle and bring your metabolism back up to speed.
You’ll replace your dieting fatigue with high energy. Your smaller portions will be swapped for generous serving sizes. You’ll trade your ho-hum gym sessions for PR after PR.
Your weight doesn’t have to fluctuate from one extreme to the other anymore. That’s a thing of the past – because now you the mistakes and have the ultimate solution to fix your yo-yoing ways.
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Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.