It's the third week of January. Are you exhausted yet from counting calories, points, fat grams and carbs? Even if you've managed to make it this long, do you know your dieting days are numbered? Why did you think it would be different this year?
Each year, the diet industry banks on millions of Americans vowing to lose weight as their top resolution. They know you'll be back, unhappier and likely even larger than the year before.
Luckily for these companies, most consumers assume they lacked the willpower to stay on their diets last year, instead of questioning whether or not the diets actually were sustainable. So when Jan. 1 comes, they pray it brings a new level of motivation and they sign up again.
The dieting industry is the only industry that I know of that can sell a consumer a product and then blame the consumer for it not working.
Even more misleading, as I addressed in my latest film, America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments, is that the diet industry suggests that weight loss, not a healthier lifestyle, is the key to living a happy and fulfilling life. And there are specific numbers -- BMI, weight, inches -- where life begins.
I interviewed Marsha Hudnall, M.S., R.D., owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run, the women-only health retreat that has helped women find their healthy weights without dieting since 1973, about the obsession with New Year's resolutions and losing weight, and why people find themselves in the same place about three weeks into January -- off their diets and worse off than before they started.
Why shouldn't people who want to lose weight go on a diet?
Hudnall: Every year, we hear from thousands of women who resolved to lose weight in January, but only end up weighing more by February or March. They feel frustrated, hopeless and lost. What they've heard and read that they should be doing -- restricting their eating and starting an intense workout regimen -- only led to increased binge eating and yo-yo dieting.
Why didn't their diets work?
Hudnall: There are a myriad of reasons why diets don't work, both physiological and psychological. One of the outcomes of telling ourselves we cannot have food is that we want it more, we think about it more and we tend to overeat it when we finally stop denying ourselves. And while the diet usually begins with an intention is to lose weight, by following the diet, many people end up fatter than when they started. Also, diets impose all-or-nothing thinking. So once you've blown it, there is a perception that failure has already occurred, so why bother?
Are you saying that not only do diets not work, but they have the opposite effect?
Hudnall: That's what more and more studies are finding. A study published in the August 2011 Journal of Obesity found that those who undertake more episodes of "intentional weight loss" in their lifetimes are more susceptible to weight gain and that dieting itself may induce a subsequent weight gain, independent of genetic factors.
So, what should people do who want to lose weight?
Hudnall: Focusing on health and wellbeing at any size is what results in long-lasting change. Restricting calories or avoiding food groups are not realistic strategies or resolutions. Punishing workouts and making foods off-limits can only last for so long. I recommend choosing more sustainable options with a goal of feeling good, such as:
1. Find the fun. Find a physical activity that really makes you feel good. Figure out if you like group activities or are a solo adventurer; if you like being inside or outdoors. If you don't love what you're doing, you won't continue.
2. Add, don't subtract. For instance, eating just one more fruit or vegetable every day can make a big difference in helping you feel satisfied. Taking away a food leads to a feeling of deprivation and can trigger overeating.
3. Celebrate the body you have today. Maybe you're not your "ideal weight," but ask yourself where that number even originated. Don't keep putting your life on hold and waiting to try new things.
4. Take care of your inner child. Speak to yourself compassionately, the way you would speak to your 9-year-old self. Beating yourself up only leads to overwhelming emotions and emotional eating.
5. Eat foods you love as part of a well-balanced plan for healthy eating. A specific food generally isn't a problem; it's what we eat overall that makes the difference. Trying to completely eliminate foods or food groups generally backfires in that we think about them more and end up eating them more.
How should people measure their success?
Hudnall: The best ways to measure health involves noticing how you feel in your body. Do you have energy? Are you less stressed? How are you sleeping? How is your mood? Weight and body mass index (BMI) simply are poor predictors of health and longevity. A study comparing the Health at Every Size approach to a diet approach showed that both groups initially had similar improvements in metabolic fitness, activity levels, psychological measures and eating behaviors, though only the dieters lost weight. But after two years, dieters had regained their weight and lost the health improvements, while the Health at Every Size group sustained their health improvements.
For those still on their diets, what should they do?
Hudnall: If people want to end their struggles with eating and weight, they have a better chance if they do it diet-free and start living their way to a healthy weight. Work on developing a normal, healthy relationship with food and take the focus off of weight loss.
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