Don’t Fall For The Diet Trap – Build Eating Skills Instead

Weight loss is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions, with 42% of people (worldwide) trying to lose weight at the beginning of each year.

Here in the United States, it’s higher, at 49% [1, 2].

If nearly half of the population is going to attempt to lose weight, how will they do?

77% of people are able to maintain their New Year’s Resolutions for one week. That first week is exciting and fun and new.

On the other hand, only 19% are able to maintain their New Year’s Resolutions for two years [3].

Right out of the gate, I want to give you two big tips from the research. These apply any time you’re trying to make changes – at New Year’s, before your wedding or high school reunion, or after your doctor tells you you might need to start taking medication unless you get things in order.

People are more successful with social support.People are more successful with “start doing this” goals than they are with “stop doing this” goals.

So, a goal like “I’m going to stop eating sugar,” besides being a really tragically sad goal, isn’t likely to work so well. On the other hand, “I’ll eat more slowly and mindfully,” has a much higher chance of success

Why Diets Suck

Black and white diet rules are associated with damaging your relationship to your body, hurting your relationship with food, and lowering your well-being [4, 5].

Rigid diet rules are also the #1 psychological predictor of weight loss failure [6]. People who think “this food is good and that food is bad,” or “I was so bad because I ate that,” are the most likely to regain all of the weight they lose after a diet [7].

Why diet rules fail:

Diet rules are too rigid. That rigidity makes them fragile — they break when even the slightest amount of stress is applied.Diet rules cut you off from social connection. You can’t eat out because you’ll have to break a diet rule.Diet rules lead to moralization of food, which is related to disordered eating patterns.

Meal Plans and Cheat Days

People think that meal plans are the answer. “Just tell me what to eat” is their mindset.

Anyone who’s followed a meal plan knows they work until they don’t.

Life isn’t that predictable. We can’t control everything. Sometimes, our kids are sick or we get a big project. Or we’re out of town on our big cooking day. The 17 tubs of Tupperware aren’t clean.

We don’t want to eat exactly the same thing every day. We don’t want to have complete inflexibility to different situations.

We want the freedom to be social. We want to enjoy food on our vacations and holidays.

No matter how much we think it would be simpler and easier to just be told what to eat at every meal, it never fits into real life for very long.

The way most people handle this is with “free days” or “cheat days.”

The problem with cheat days is that they turn into a free-for-all where you turn off all connection to hunger or fullness, you stop considering what you actually want, and you eat all of the things because it’s your last chance.

Cheat days are FOMO (fear of missing out) instead of mindfulness.

Diet Options You Have

Paleo: There’s a fantasy world where cavemen all across the world ate the exact same thing. Despite the fact that we have tons of evidence that grains have been eaten by humans for at least 75,000 years, you can’t eat grains. Because our caveman fantasy will not be subverted by archeological evidence [8, 9].

Carnivore: Despite the fact that fruits and vegetables are the only thing in the history of diet research that have consistently shown to improve health, don’t ever eat those. Eat meat only. Paleo isn’t good enough, because you aren’t a caveman—you’re clearly a tiger. NO REALLY, you’re a literal tiger (at least that’s what these people tell themselves).

Intermittent fasting: You can never have breakfast again. It doesn’t matter if your kids make breakfast. It doesn’t matter if you’re at The Pantry in Santa Fe that has the best breakfast burritos on Earth. It doesn’t matter if you’re hiking a 14,000 foot peak. No breakfast ever.

Atkins: Carbs are what’s making your overweight, not excess calories! There’s an insulin fairy with magic that defies the law of conservation of energy.

Keto: Stop eating carbs! Despite zero evidence that it makes a difference in humans (when calories and protein are matched), don’t eat them [10, 11].

Whole30: Here’s a list of magic foods you can eat, nothing else!

By the way, there’s never been a substantial difference in results achieved when you compare any of the popularly named diets [12, 13, 14].

There are all kinds of diets, and they can all “work” if you like them. If you like them, and you feel good eating them that’s cool. If they trick you into eating less total calories, that can work really well for weight loss.

I’m deliberately picking on the rigidity of them, because that’s where they fail. Plus, most rigid diets don’t include too many burgers (sigh).

It’s a set of rules, and the rules don’t have any kind of flexibility for different situations. You’re either following the rules, or you aren’t.

Even if you’re playing a game like “I’m going to follow the rules 90% of the time, and break the rules 10% of the time,” that’s going to spiral for a lot of people.

Diets can totally work for some people. And for the people who they work for, that’s super rad! About 10% of diet studies show people getting results that last long term. The other 90% show that dieting actually predicts weight gain.

If you’re in the camp where diets work, that’s cool! Just realize that you’re in the minority. I know lots of folks who diets work for, including most of the personal trainers, athletes, and nutrition authors, and some regular folk who just have a great relationship with food already. They all do well with diets, and tend to assume that everyone else does too.

People who do well with diets tend to have the following in common:

Have done multiple diets, and had long term success with all of themFood is neutral and unemotionalHave a great relationship with their bodyAre good at planning and overcoming the most common nutritional obstacles in their livesRarely/never use food as a way to cope with stressHave a highly developed plan for navigating social situations

People who don’t do well with diets tend to have the following in common:

They have had repeated cycles of success and failure with dietsFood is something that they think about a lot and is stressful to figure outFeel badly about their bodiesAre derailed by changes in schedule or escalating stress levelsUse food as a way to cope with stressOften feel like they “fell off the wagon” eating in social situations

2 Approaches to Better Food Choices

There are two choices, and we want you to succeed. Don’t fall into the trap of repeating the old cycle of frustration and irritation when it comes to eating better.

1. Keep Trying More Diets

You can do another year where you restrict yourself, feel like you’re making huge results for a month or two, and then something happens. You get too busy, and it all falls apart.

We call this, “the diet cycle of failure.”

People assume that it’s their own fault that they fail in the exact same way, year after year. Or, they think that they didn’t have the “right” diet.

Each time, you get results for a short time. Maybe it’s weeks, maybe it’s a couple of months. You think that you’re doing great, then you accidentally break one of the rigid rules. You fail and quit.

You feel horrible. You blame yourself. Douche-bag personal trainers tell you you didn’t have enough willpower. Your friend with an eating disorder looks down on you. You wonder why the people in the commercials can do well, so why can’t you?.

And then, you plan another, even more restrictive diet. You find one with harsher rules or that removes even more foods. “If the last one didn’t work, it must have been because it wasn’t hard enough,” you tell yourself.

Of course, each successively more restrictive diet leads to faster and more spectacular failure. You feel worse about yourself every time. You feel out of control with food a little more with each dieting attempt.

2. Build Better Eating Skills

After a few months, you can have:

Skills to make food choices that fit your values and goalsThe ability to eat in social situations (whenever those come back!)A way to eat your favorite foods at frequencies that fit your values and goalsThe knowledge to make smart adjustments to your eating skills practice, depending on different stress levels or schedule changesA renewed connection to your body and a mindful approach toward foodMore connection to your values and clarity about the kind of person you want to be around food, including the kind of example you want to set for healthy eating to the people around you

By developing eating skills, you’ll actually feel like you’re in the driver’s seat with your eating. You’ll have the flexibility to eat in any situation, you’ll feel confident in the choices you make, and you’ll be able to hit your goals.

Want to change your eating habits for good this year? Check out our coaching program, 🍔 Eating Skills, and leave behind fad diets forever.

Instead Of Rigid Diets, Build Eating Skills That Work

There are 12 guidelines and 8 eating skills that we work with in the Eating Skills program. The question is: Which ones should you start with?

We made this handy flowchart to see how you can deal with the common problem of snacking and overeating.

Snacking Comes First

We start with snacking, because snacks are usually where people have the most trouble. The majority of snacks people have are totally unrelated to actual hunger and they’re usually lower quality choices than people make at meals.

The fastest way to make a difference in your nutrition is to take a look at your snacking.

Most of us have sort of a knee-jerk reaction, where we instantly go to snacking when we’re stressed or we’re procrastinating on getting something finished. Sometimes we snack when we’re bored. It’s really common to snack when you’re tired, too. Those are all things that happen all of the time, but none of them have anything to do with actual hunger.

An old friend used to always say,

“If hunger isn’t the problem, then food isn’t the solution.”

While it’s normal and totally cool to stress eat sometimes, most people find that they do really well if they eliminate the majority of their stress eating.

It works better for people’s goals to replace stress eating with helpful coping skills for dealing with stress, non-food self-care, or even just taking a quick break.

The first thing we have to do is identify stress eating, in the moment.

The biggest issue that most folks have is that they don’t put any space in-between feeling stressed out (or tired, or whatever) and making a decision about eating. They don’t have any time to check in with themselves.

So, we’re going to give you a simple guideline: Pause 10 minutes before having a snack.

That gives you the time to quickly check in with yourself. Pausing for 10 minutes to check in with yourself is what we call an eating skill. The simplest way to do this is to ask these questions:

Am I hungry for a balanced meal? Or do I just want a specific treat?
Do I feel a hollow feeling in my stomach? Do I feel something else? (stress, tiredness, emotions, boredom)
If I pause 10 minutes, does the hollow feeling in my stomach increase? If I pause 10 minutes, does the craving fade?
🍉 True hunger. Have a snack. 🚶‍♀️ False Hunger. Don’t snack.

So you’d have one guideline:

Pause 10 minutes before snacking

And one eating skill:

Check in with your body about hunger.

Now you have a little system to start reigning in a snacking habit.

Meals Come Second

Ok, so let’s say your craving for snacks is handled. Now we can take a look at meals.

If you overeat at meals, we want to find out why:

If you normally get seconds, we want to work on that first.If you eat too fast, we’ll work on that first

Here’s the thing about getting seconds—most humans (that’s us) are better at self-regulating food intake when they can look at everything on their plate at the same time.

We’ll always eat more at buffets. We’ll always eat more when food is served family style. We’ll always eat more when we get seconds.

It has nothing to do with hunger, it’s just about inertia. Once we start eating, it’s easy to keep going.

On the flip-side, if we make ourselves one good plate (with enough food, obviously) then it’s much easier to see how much we’ve eaten. If we can see the whole meal on one plate, that makes it way easier to get a sense of whether it was the right amount of food, and stop when we’re done.

Eating quickly is kind of similar—if we eat too fast, it’s really hard to notice ourselves getting full. We just aren’t that great at self-regulating food intake if we eat fast.

Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: Put your fork down between bites… or put the spoon down between bites, or the sandwich, or the tacos, or whatever. This helps you slow down.

It doesn’t even have to be every bite. Just put it down between some bites. It’s a really normal way to slow yourself down. You’ll be able to stop, look at, smell, and taste your food. People almost always report that they enjoy their food more when they actually get to be there for it.

And, also, it helps you to notice when you’re getting full, and that’s when you stop eating.

Lastly, if you don’t tend to overeat at meals, the thing to work on is plating balanced meals! Our plate guideline looks like this:

Example: Grilled chicken with salsa and picked onions, plus herb roasted potatoes, and green salad with olive oil. Delicious.

 About ¼ of the plate protein About ¼ of the plate carbohydratesAbout a tablespoon (ish) of fatAbout ½ of the plate vegetables or fruit

There’s nothing magical about those ratios. You can do more or less as it suits you individually. Athletes may need a little more protein or carbohydrates, that’s totally ok. It’s just a starting place.

Also, you don’t have to plate a balanced meal every time you eat. It’s just something to shoot for to get a pretty good balance.

You might notice that it looks a lot like The Healthy Eating Plate from Harvard School of Public Health. Or, maybe it’s kind of like a cross between the USDA’s MyPlate guideline and Canada’s Food Guide. It’s actually pretty close to all three.

Despite what a million fad diet gurus will tell you, Harvard’s Healthy Eating plate is probably the most scientifically-backed plate recommendation we have right now.

The reason we lean towards that balance here at GMB is that it makes it really easy to self-regulate your food intake. It’s easier to notice you’re getting full while you’re eating. And it’s easier to stay full between meals. That’s it.

Set a Goal for Your Eating Skills Practice:

Ok, now if you’ve worked your way through the flowchart, and chosen your guideline and your eating skill.The next step is to set a goal for how many times per week you want to practice.

In general, there are 21 times per week to practice, given you have three meals per day. Do not set a goal to do each one 21 times. Take a look at your week and your stress level, and set a goal that actually makes sense. It might be 10 times per week, or 15 times, or whatever.

Each day you’ll have those two things to track:

Track how many times per day you use the guidelineTrack how many times per day you put the eating skill into that guideline

You may find that both numbers are the same, like if every time you used the guideline and the skill. Other times you might use just one or the other. That’s fine too.

Then, add ‘em up at the end of the week and see how you did. If you crushed it, you can increase your practice for the next week. If you fell-short, maybe you need to do some obstacle planning, or reevaluate how busy/stressful your week is, and set a more realistic goal for next week.

We Have Quite A Few More Eating Skills And Guidelines

Yes, there are more. But the skills and guidelines we just gave you around snacking and plating yourself a balanced meal can work together as a system.

The ‘during meals’ skills (putting your fork down) help with the ‘between meals’ skills (snacking check-ins), and vice versa. It’s all part of one complete system, that all makes it easier for you to naturally self-regulate your food intake.

So, you’re just going to start with the first guideline and skill you got today. You can add in the others over successive weeks.

And, if you dig this approach, you might want access to even more. In Eating Skills, we give you:

All of the eating skills and guidelinesThe tools for overcoming obstaclesThe mindset and psychology skills for making it work when it’s hard

Eating Skills is a progressive, interactive program. If you want to be coached through the whole system, step by step, that’s what this course is for.

Build Skills that Last

Eating Skills is a coaching experience that will help you build sustainable skills around how you eat, giving you a healthy, non-dogmatic approach to food.

GMB Eating Skills Details

Eating Skills

Proven Strategies to Master Your Nutrition

Referenced Studies

About Half of Americans Say They’re Trying to Lose WeightAttempts to Lose Weight Among Adults in the United States, 2013–2016Psychological predictors of weight regain in obesityRigid dietary control, flexible dietary control, and intuitive eating: Evidence for their differential relationship to disordered eating and body image concernsRigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese womenThe resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attemptsHow does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain?Grain | National GeographicHumans feasting on grains for at least 100,000 yearsEffect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin SecretionComparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and CarbohydratesComparison of weight loss among named diet programs in overweight and obese adults: a meta-analysisComparison of the Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets for weight loss and heart disease risk reduction: a randomized trialComparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and CarbohydratesThe resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts

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