“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”
2010 marks the beginning of not just a new year, but a new decade. Rather than using this as an excuse to set and/or stick to diet resolutions of years past, consider setting an anti-resolution to stop the cycle:
Decide today to quit diets and never pick up another one.
For some people (my former self included) chronic dieting is a way of life. Structured diets help us feel secure and in control of our fate, while giving us something to strive for and accomplish.
In a twisted way, diets can be comforting and giving them up can be as difficult for some as quitting smoking.
But most people are not trying to stop dieting, they are trying to do it better. Dieting is usually seen as a positive ambition, a form of self-improvement.
But what if diets do more harm than good? What if they lower instead of raise your quality of life?
Weight loss and better health through food and exercise are wonderful aspirations, but contrary to popular wisdom they are not synonymous with dieting. If your goals are long-term and not for specific or imminent events, then dieting will never help you achieve them.
Healthy eating and regular exercise need to be your default, automatic behaviors and not a special case scenario; weight loss diets by definition are temporary–an exception, not the rule. This is another way of saying our daily, habitual behaviors are unhealthy and promote weight gain.
Typical diets address the symptom, but ignore the problem.
Most of us will sidestep this logic by convincing ourselves that once our desired weight loss is achieved through dieting (and that’s a big IF it is achieved) we will enter into a “maintenance stage.” But maintenance is only a theoretical purgatory that looks just like the original diet dressed up to be a little sexier.
The real test of a diet’s success is not weeks or months, but years and decades later. And since we never think of diets on these long time scales, most will fail eventually. This is an uphill battle of regular slip-ups and constant restriction.
How about a different strategy?
This decade instead of picking a diet with the goal of losing X number of pounds, decide on a list of healthy habits you want to adopt over the next several months and years that will help you reach your long-term health goals. Building habits may not result in the same quick results you’d experience on a traditional diet (though they can), but you will continue to see results for many months and the changes will be permanent.
Habits take approximately 4-6 weeks to form, and most people can only adopt 2-3 new habits simultaneously. Use your list to set up short-term behavioral goals throughout the year to gauge your progress.
To start, choose the habits that are easiest and most fun for you personally. Set an end date to examine your progress in 1-2 months. Write it in your calendar and set aside 15-30 minutes that day for the analysis. (e.g. By February 15, I will bring my own lunch to work at least 4 days a week).
Remember that habits can be either positive or negative, such as the proactive taking the stairs at least twice per day versus the reductive limiting dessert to once per week. A good strategy is to pair a negative habit with a positive one that can replace it. For instance, limit red meat to once per week pairs nicely with eat fish 3 times per week, particularly if you are accustomed to eating lots of protein.
Once you have successfully integrated a few new habits into your healthstyle, pick 1 or 2 more for the following months. Continue to add new habits, minimize bad ones and assess your progress at regular intervals. Start now, and don’t wait until next January to evaluate your results.
By the end of 2010 you should be able to adopt 5-10 new habits that will significantly improve your health both immediately and in decades to come. As your health improves, your goals may evolve to reflect new and possibly more advanced ambitions. This is good, it means you’re making progress.
Not everyone will have the same aspirations or be able to tolerate the same daily routines, so you should think carefully and set goals you think you can achieve. Whenever possible, try to write your goals in specific rather than general terms. For example, instead of writing eat more vegetables, write eat something green at both lunch and dinner.
Don’t get hung up on setting guidelines you can follow 100% of the time, the goal is to set routines you can achieve most of the time. Remember, exceptions are okay and an inevitable part of life. For this exercise we are focusing on what you do as habit. That is, your average meals where you have control over what you eat.
Here are just a few examples of healthy habits to get you started, but these are only meant as inspiration. Spend some time making your own list and assigning priority to each habit. If you have any questions or suggestions, please write them below in the comments.
Healthy habits for a new decade
- Make vegetables the centerpiece of dinner at least 5 days per week.
- Limit dessert to once per week or less.
- Replace soda with sparkling water during lunch.
- Do not eat from the bread basket at restaurants.
- Include legumes in at least 4 meals per week.
- Take the stairs to the office at least 4 times per week.
- Eat breakfast everyday.
- Do not eat foods with added sugar.
- Shop at the farmers market every weekend.
- Put down your fork between each bite of food.
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