By Lisa Rhea
Time after time, I have encouraged readers to focus on making better choices and avoid strict diets. But strict diets sell. They’re sexy. People will say “just tell me what to eat.” They want a 21-day plan or a magic shake or some superfood that will have them burning fat and looking great.
They don’t want to think for themselves. And they don’t want to focus on the long-term. They’re concerned about immediate gratification. Black and white is much easier to conceptualize than navigating the fields of gray. But it’s much harder to follow. “Just tell me what to eat,” they say, and two days later they’re eating something else.
For those who are able to stay on a strict diet for any amount of time, the results can be even more damaging. Once on the black and white path, it becomes nearly impossible to go back to living in the gray. You eat based on set amounts and times and you remove the thinking and intuition from eating.
Food starts to be good or bad and you’re either on plan or off plan. Soon, you’re either following your diet to the “t” or eating everything “bad” in the house.
I know. I’ve been there before myself.
I was never thin growing up and always wanted to lose weight. I wasn’t very athletic and didn’t really know how to eat healthy and didn’t enjoy exercise. In college, I’d try to eat better, tried doing shakes for awhile, tried spending time on the elliptical, but I never saw much progress.
In my early twenties, two things changed all that. One, I started lifting weights through the Body Pump class at my gym. And second, I discovered the magazine Muscle and Fitness Hers, and began on my goal to get fit. And this is when I first learned about proper nutrition.
I began by logging my food and learning to eat more protein and watch the sugars and excess carbs. I curtailed my drinking and started making better choices. That, combined with weight training regularly, led me to get lean and a body I was proud of. I began being more active, ran my first 5k, and reached goals I’d never even considered going after before.
Goodbye Balance, Hello Obession
Then I decided to do a figure competition. This required a very strict diet. It was the first time in my life that I actually strictly dieted. I had a plan and I followed it word for word. I weighed. I measured. I lived the “tup life” as they call it, eating all my pre-made meals out of tupperware containers. And I went completely batty.
Sure, I looked great. After 14 weeks of this, I dropped a lot of weight. I won my shows. I was happy with my results…until after the show. I had no clue how to eat anymore. I wanted to stay super lean, but I couldn’t even remember what normal eating was like. I was completely obsessed with the “bad” foods.
I never really cared about peanut butter before, now I would eat it out of the container with a spoon. I dreamed about sandwiches. Yes, on oh-so-decadent bread. Fruit was like candy. Cereal was dessert. Food in general now had so much more value to me than before.
I would try to stick to my plan, but without the pressure of a show, I’d fall off course and then binge. I had never binged before. I would try so hard to stay on my diet, but when I failed, I adopted the “go big or go home” mentality and ate everything I had been dreaming about.
I’d eat until I felt sick. If there were no obvious indulgent foods in the house, I’d mix together ingredients to make them. I’d clean out the baking cupboard, eating marshmallows and chocolate chips, and whatever I could find. I’d eat half a box of cereal. I’d have one treat, then go back for another, and well, screw it, another, until I was stuffed or it was gone.
Then I’d feel horrible. Not only physically, but I’d mentally beat myself up. And then, of course, came the weight gain. And with every pound I gained, the cycle just amplified. I’d try to be even more strict, only to fall off the wagon even harder. Pretty soon, I weighed more than before I started all this.
And The Cycle Continues
The solution? I’d do another competition! That would solve it! With a show to focus on, I’d be able to stick to my diet. That worked, at first. I did another show. I followed my coach’s diet to the letter, lost the weight, won a trophy, then went through the exact same struggle all over again.
Nothing seemed to work. I’d try one type of diet, then another, and another. Low-carb, low-fat, Paleo, etc. You name it, I gave it a go, looking for the secret. I switched coaches, because surely a new coach would have a better plan for me. And then the next coach. And well, of course, another show.
But this time staying on my plan wasn’t so easy. I’d slip up and then attempt to compensate. This time I wasn’t getting as lean. This time all my efforts weren’t rewarded with a trophy. Now more frustrated than ever, I gained the weight back and more.
Seeing the Light
It took a couple failed attempts at preparing for competitions before I finally came to my senses. Strict dieting wasn’t the answer. Seeking a certain look wasn’t the answer. I had to learn to live with balance and exercise for the love of fitness and my health again, not just a number on the scale or a certain appearance.
It took many years for me to get back to eating intuitively and to be able to maintain my weight. During that path my weight fluctuated, usually based on my lifestyle at the time. Too much drinking and slacking off in the gym equated with a bigger pant size. Being more careful and training for a race or a goal would have me back in my comfort zone. I figured out how to live without extremes. I could be fit and healthy without food obsession and constant dieting. I could literally have my cake and eat it too.
During this time, I learned a valuable lesson, one that I try to share through The Skinny and the Thick of it. Balance and consistently making better choices is the answer. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about superfoods and shakes and carefully calculated meals. It’s making healthy choices consistently, eating less healthy foods in moderation, removing emotions from foods and being active.
That’s not to say there isn’t a time for strict meal plans, carefully calculated macro and micro nutrients, and weighing and measuring food. If you are an advanced athlete and are after a specific goal, it’s necessary. If you have special dietary needs, you may not meet them otherwise. But in general, hardline rules are not the best method for long-term weight loss. While some people may be able to follow a strict diet without any repercussions, most cannot.
Meal plans and macronutrient guidelines do have their place, when they are crafted specifically to meet an individuals needs and are adjusted based on biofeedback. When someone is just learning how to eat well, or recovering from disordered eating, they can be extremely valuable, and can serve as a guide towards intuitive eating. But they shouldn’t be cookie-cutter, extremely restrictive and should never eliminate food groups or remove all thought from eating. This leads to the dark side described above.
The average person simply needs to evaluate their current diet and work to improve it. A coach can be extremely valuable in this process, helping to work through triggers, providing an objective eye and holding clients accountable while they work towards their goals. But a cookie-cutter eat-this-not-that diet is not the answer. And while eating can be manipulated over time periods to meet specific goals, there should never be a stop and start to a diet. It’s a lifestyle or it’s not going to work in the long run.
Personally, I haven’t dieted at all since I’ve had my baby. I haven’t calculated macros or measured my food. I have plenty of treats and enjoy my daily glass of red wine. And I’m just a few pounds away from my pre-baby weight at three months post-c-section. No, it’s certainly not good genetics.
I’m extremely active, and I consistently eat well. I cook nearly all my meals. Most are protein rich, low in saturated fats, contain little to no artificial ingredients and are filled with nutrients. I am able to eat a small amount of a decadent food and no longer eat things because they are in front of me. I rarely clean my plate out to eat. Instead, I listen to when I’m no longer hungry and stop eating – even if it’s pizza or french fries or dessert. I drink plenty of water. I eat my veggies. I seek balance, not perfection.
All this is to say, when you’re frustrated with your weight and looking for an answer, look beyond strict diets. I learned the hard way, and I’m sure many people out there can relate to my story. Looking for more advice on how to lose weight without rules and extreme restriction? Check out some of my past posts:
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