It’s not uncommon for someone to ask me how they can improve their “diet”. They might mention that they have an event – wedding, trip, etc. – coming up in 3 months and they want to look great!!! In these moments, the person is highly motivated to make change, they have a goal in mind and they have a date by which to accomplish it. What could be wrong with that?
If any of that sounds familiar it’s because almost all of us have been there before. How did those 3 months feel? Did it take a Herculean effort to abstain from a cookie, in the name of looking good on the beach? If you ate the cookie, did you feel terrible? Better yet, what happened after the event was over? Did you continue the diet or did you resemble a lion eating its prey at each meal? Diets tend to provide very strict rules that must be followed without fail. With a prepared diet, like one found on-line, the daily meal plan might look something like this:
Breakfast: 2 eggs, 3 egg whites, 2.3oz oatmeal, 5/8 of a grapefruit.
Lunch: 5.54 oz chicken baked chicken breast, 7 asparagus stalks, 5 almonds
Dinner: 5.27 oz. grilled chicken breast, a mixed greens salad with 3 baby carrots, 2 grape tomatoes and 1 teaspoon of sunflower seeds.
On this surface, this is great! We have a system. We know what we need to buy at the grocery store and in what quantities. We know exactly what we’re supposed to eat for the day. We’re excited about buying a scale to measure it all. We can even ration our almonds into tiny sandwich bags – 5 almonds at the ready, whenever we need them!
Unfortunately, a diet like this can be exceeding complicated, which decreases the likelihood that it’s sustainable in the long run. This approach also relies on restricting us from certain foods, which creates negative associations with food. If a food doesn’t live in the good category, it must be avoided at all costs. Lastly, we have a finite about of willpower to draw upon when following these rules. When a rule is broken it usually opens the floodgates to more rule breaking. The cookie that was off limits becomes four, and the glass of wine becomes a bottle. Once the gluttony is concluded, we feel bad and consequently punish ourselves like the rule-breaking criminals we are. They cycle continues until we fall off the diet and revert back to our previous form. It could take 3 weeks or 3 months, but it inevitably happens.
A habit based approach creates a sustainable pathway toward improving your overall health. What’s more, the way you think about and view food changes in a positive way as well. Here are some key highlights of a habit-based approach:
Action: You focus on making one change at a time. As that change becomes habit, you add another. This approach to nutrition allows us to book small wins, thus maintaining positive momentum.
Ownership: You are now the leader in your endeavor to be healthier, not a passenger on someone else’s ship. You make the rules, and you arrive when you’re ready.
Discipline: While self-discipline is an important part of behavior change, we have a finite amount and it varies from person to person. Habits can be scaled to the individual’s level of discipline. Just like you get stronger by strength training at levels commensurate with your ability, you improve your capacity for self-discipline by practicing it within your tolerance.
Sustainability: We’re building a solid foundation of skills that allows us to anticipate potential pitfalls and avoid them proactively. Most importantly, our habits become engrained in our everyday life. Habit change is NOT a one-time fix.
You go out to lunch with your co-workers. As the menus are passed out, everyone begins talking about what they’re going to order – burgers seem to be popular that day. What are you going to order when the server gets to you? Let’s look at how each approach, diet and habit based change, would respond to this situation:
Diet: A burger is not in the plan, therefore you cannot have it. Any deviation from the plan will be met with swift repercussions. When the food is served, you can’t help but feel a little bit envious as everyone chomps down on their burgers while you eat the kale salad and grilled chicken. You’ve avoided a “bad” decision today, but how long can you go on? Conversely, you eat the burger and are consumed with guilt because you’ve violated the diet. You now have to plan an extra work out or tighten up the diet even more to make-up for it. SHAME!!
Our minds, every time we break a diet rule
Habit Based: While you enjoy the occasional burger, you decide that now is not the time. You don’t take a menu when they’re passed out. When the server arrives you order a house salad with grilled chicken, just as you’d planned. Conversely, you decide to have the burger. You haven’t had one in a while and the menu featured one you’d really like to try. What better way to treat yourself! Instead of fries, you order a side salad.
Which way of handling the above scenario sounds more appealing? Under the diet approach, you are along for the ride, playing by someone else’s rules. Either you adhere and feel like you’re missing out or you break them and feel bad. The habit based approach puts you in charge. Regardless of what you choose, the choice is yours and yours alone. For you, a burger in moderation isn’t the end of the world. If you have the salad, it’s because that’s what you wanted. Either way, you own the process.
I should point out that the point of this article isn’t to bash diets. As an advanced strategy that fits within broader long-term objectives I think they are good tool. They work especially well for people with a high degree of experience, organization, discipline and schedule flexibility. However, I believe the average person, including someone just starting out, is better served by developing the skills and foundation required to make advanced strategies effective. This alone, will take that person closer to their goals.
Improving your overall health can seem like long, complicated endeavor. But each small change gets you one step closer to your goals. At Vitalifit, we believe that creating sustainable habits one at a time is the best way to create lasting change. If you’ve tried diets before and are looking for a new approach, contact us today to join the Vitalifit Coaching Program that is right for you.