It’s the beginning of February and resolutions to eat less dessert, start a juice cleanse, or avoid the vending machine in the New Year may be beginning to lose steam. Many people may blame themselves for their lack of willpower or dedication, and while these are certainly important for initiating and sustaining any behavioral change, other factors may also contribute to the demise of a diet. By identifying where things may go wrong when dieting, we can either anticipate and prevent these problems or handle them more effectively.
The first problem with diets lies in the very way we describe them. In today’s nomenclature, the term “diet” usually refers to a temporary change in food choices that will help us fit back into our bathing suits or look good when we see an ex at an upcoming wedding. More importantly, what it doesn’t always imply is a long-term change that will redefine how we view and eat food for…get this…the rest of our lives. I know commitment can be scary, but this is one area of our life that we should welcome permanent change because lasting changes in our diet can also mean lasting changes in our energy levels, health, and waistlines. In general, as a culture we could benefit from replacing “going on or being on a diet” with “having a well balanced diet.”
An additional factor in the downfall of diets is not recognizing the potential role of food addiction. Recent research from my laboratory and others have shown that rats with a history of overeating high sugar diets show behaviors and brain changes that resemble a substance addiction. For example, these rats escalate their intake of this food over time, which may suggest tolerance, and they show evidence of craving. Interestingly, when these rats are given a drug that blocks their opioid receptors, thus preventing them from experiencing the same level of pleasure from eating as before, they show withdrawal systems such as teeth chattering and tremors. Moreover, rats that are prone to overeating are also more likely to endure electrical shocks to obtain access to tasty treats! Recent research in humans has also found evidence that some individuals may be addicted to food.
How does this play into our discussion of doomed diets? Well, if we begin changing our diet with the knowledge that we may be addicted to certain types of food, such as those high in sugar, we can anticipate possibly feeling a little out of it, irritable, or uncomfortable at first, and experiencing cravings. With this awareness, we won’t be caught off guard and defenseless; instead, we can plan strategies ahead of time to cope with these feelings so they don’t derail our efforts. For example, think of how you typically cope with unpleasant physical or emotional states and reflect on whether these strategies have been working for you. Next, jot down a few go-to activities – soak in the tub, garden, go for a run, watch a Youtube video with cute cats – whatever works for you. You can refer to this list during the initial stages of your diet change if you aren’t feeling great. This way, moments of discomfort won’t be as likely to sabotage your goal.
One you’ve begun to change your diet, you can also be prepared with different strategies for handling cravings, one of which is to identify what exactly it is you are craving. Are you craving the crunchiness of the food that you are trying to cut down on? The sweetness? Maybe the bubbly taste of the drink? This can help you find healthier alternatives. For example, if it’s the crunch you miss – try carrots or celery when you sit down to watch a movie instead of chips. If it’s carbonation – try flavored seltzer water. If it’s the sweet taste, try to eat more fruit. Although certain fruits do contain a lot of sugar, especially dried fruits, they can also be a good source of nutrients and thus, are healthier than soda, cake, cookies, or candy.
Other common diet pitfalls include black-and-white thinking, emotional eating, coping mechanisms such as escape and avoidance techniques, all of which are discussed in more detail in my recent book “Why Diets Fail.” This book also provides helpful tips for identifying sugar in its many forms on nutrition labels and guidelines for gradually cutting down on the major sources of sugar in your diet. Filled with relevant research findings, this book can help you get out of a cycle of sugar highs and crashes and on track towards a healthier you.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist/psychologist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She has published over 60 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She recently edited the book, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (Springer/Humana Press, 2013), and she has a book Why Diets Fail (Ten Speed/Crown) released in January, 2014. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association.
Gratitude is extended to Ms. Susan Murray for her assistance with this post.