I have this buddy who’s a big dude: 6’3”, 240. He’s not “fat,” but he could spare to lose a few pounds. Girls describe him as a big teddy bear.
He plays pickup sports and hits his local CrossFit box a night or two each week. So that extra weight isn’t there because of laziness. It’s there because the man can eat.
My friend is that guy who polishes off those last wings you didn’t eat, orders an appetizer with every meal, and comes back from hitting the head at the ballgame with a dark lager and a 12” Philly Cheesesteak.
About a year ago he decided he wanted to slim down. So he went paleo. Adios chips, Chipotle, and cheesecake. Hello chicken, kale, and coconut milk. (What CrossFIt calls paleo, isn’t really what our ancestors eat. Here’s The REAL Paleo Diet.)
He told me the diet seemed uncomplicated—it gave him a clear definition of what he could and could not eat—and, hey, lots of people at his gym did it, and they looked fit.
And his approach worked! When I saw him three months after his declaration to eat like a caveman, he was visibly less hefty—he’d lost about 20 pounds, he said.
But when I saw him a handful of months later, he was back to teddy bear mode.
What gives? We all know someone who’s committed to a diet—whether it’s Paleo, Zone, Atkins, or South Beach—and seen success, then ultimately ended up where they started. Why do diets fail so many people?
“Going from an ‘anything goes’ way of eating to a very strict diet is like going from only knowing how to ride a bike to trying to drive a stick shift Ferrari on the Autobahn,” said Krista Scott-Dixon, Ph.D., who develops nutrition coaching curriculum for Precision Nutrition. “You might manage for awhile, but eventually you’ll crash.”
The reason why you crash isn’t because you have faulty willpower, commitment, or self-respect. It’s due to two key factors.
1. You Never Break the Rules
Crash dieters have a tough time adjusting on the fly.
Whenever you’re on a diet, you probably live in a black-and-white reality, where some foods are “bad,” and others are “good,” explained Scott-Dixon. It’s this thinking, however, ultimately sets you up for failure.
A person who eats to maintain their desired physique—also known as a year-round healthy eater—however, understands that many foods—even “bad” ones—have a place in his diet and lifestyle. He gets that it’s totally OK to have a weekly “cheat day” or to indulge every so often.
To illustrate this point, Craig Weller, a nutritionist with Precision Nutrition, says to imagine putting a plate of nachos in front of a crash dieter and a year-round healthy eater.
“A healthy eater might have a few nachos and be done,” he said. “And that’s totally fine because he realizes that everything else he’s doing is healthy, so those few nachos don’t really matter in the grand scheme of his overall lifestyle.”
“On the other hand, I see so many crash dieters who think nutrition is an all-or-nothing proposition,” he said.
You have one nacho that doesn’t fit into your diet’s “rules,” and—bam!—all bets are off. You finish off the entire plate, and that’s the end of your diet, Weller says.
Suddenly, you find yourself right back at where you started.
2. You’re Out of Your Element
Stress easily derails crash dieters, Weller said.
That’s because your new way of eating is not your normal behavior. Figuring out what food to buy, how many portions to eat, if a restaurant serves meals that a caveman would eat—are all added anxieties.
So when life suddenly throws you a curveball—a traffic jam right before an important meeting, a fight with your partner, a sleepless night—your diet (a big stress) is the first thing to go, Weller says. You default to your old habits. The autopilot setting that you’re used to.
That’s when one nacho turns into an entire plate.
For a year-round healthy eater, food isn’t a stress. There’s no anxiety associated with every meal. They’ve figured out a formula that’s worked for them over the years.
When stress crops up, their diet stays on autopilot, while your diet, well, crashes and burns.
The Answer for Crash Dieters
This isn’t to say that “crash diets” don’t get results.
The nutritional foundations that they’re built upon can absolutely help keep your weight in check—for a short time, at least. But if you want to keep the pounds off, you need to be able to sustain the diet.
Sure, you can lose your spare tire in 45 days like a diet promised, but it’ll be back.
Consider this: In 2005, a study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that just 20 percent of people who begin a diet and lose weight manage to keep that weight off for a year or more.
Of that 20 percent, the people who were able to keep the weight off for 5 years were able to keep the weight off for the rest of life, the study found.
The reason: By that point, they knew how to bend the rules to make their diet work for them. Their diets were on autopilot.
“Learning to eat healthy is like learning to speak a different language,” Weller said. “You learn a little at a time until you’re proficient.”
Here’s what Weller and Scott-Dixon say does work: Take it slow. Pick just one simple healthy eating habit and practice it for at least two weeks.
That’s the ideal amount of time it takes to learn how to easily implement the practice into your life, and for it to lose its stress factor, says Scott-Dixon. After that two-week period, the habit becomes automatic.
Then, adopt another healthy eating habit for two weeks. And continue to repeat this process.
Start here: incorporate these simple, stress-free steps into your life, one at a time. When one step’s time period ends, don’t stop doing it, simply incorporate the next one.
They’re effective individually, but together they have the ability to permanently transform your body and turn you into a year-round healthy eater for the rest of your life.
Weeks 1 to 2: Eat slowly
Stop scarfing. Research consistently shows that eating slower and mindfully keeping track of how much you’ve consumed during a meal can help you eat less, says Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, CSCS, Director of Performance Nutrition at Precision Nutrition.
Weeks 3 to 4: Eat protein
Protein is a super nutrient: It builds and maintains muscle and burns fat, while also helping you feel more full, so you'll eat less overall. That’s why you should aim for two palm-size portions of protein at each meal (six to eight palm-sized portions per day).
The best source: meat, fish, eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, or a scoop of protein powder.
Weeks 5 to 6: Eat vegetables
Yes, vegetables are loaded with health-promoting vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. They also deliver minimal calories, and because they’re filled with water and fiber, they help you feel full.
Another way to think about it: Vegetables essentially take the place of more calorie laden, “unhealthy” foods that used to fill your plate. Aim for two fist-sized portions of vegetables at each meal (six to eight fist-sized portions per day).
Weeks 7 to 8: Get enough sleep
You might be surprised to learn that sleep is just as important as diet and exercise when it comes to how you look, feel, and perform, says St. Pierre.
“That’s why we have clients figure out a way they can create a dependable sleep routine.” Aim for 7 to 8 hours every night. Find out how in 7 Sleep Doctors Reveal Their Favorite Tricks for Falling Asleep.
Weeks 9 to 10: Unwind
Too much life stress can impact your weight. “Stress is a killer,” says St. Pierre. “It stores fat, eats muscle, ruins health and crushes your fitness performance.
That’s why taking just 20 minutes each day to do something—anything—that reduces your stress can improve your physique, and also allow you to make better food decisions. Try meditation, petting your dog, walking, reading, or even building Lego sets.
Michael Easter is the Fitness Editor of Men’s Health.