The words “diet book” will bring you nearly 90,000 choices on Boost that to over 250,000 with the right phrases. The titles may change as they mount from year to year, but the phenomenon itself does not: the New Year starts, and a diet book deluge pushes the false starts that end with the speedy return of the same old habits. Or, as Jane Brody recently put it in The Empty-Diet-Claim Season, “Quick-fix books invite a hasty return to bad eating habits.” On the other hand, a book can help you to lose weight and stay fit—but never in the ways you might expect.

Certain basic truths don’t make bestsellers. For instance, that it is rarely easy to lose weight and keep it off. Or that you really do need to eat less (and keep on eating less). And you’ll often not feel like doing that. What then? Furthermore, a diet of meat and vegetables alone, to point to one popular set of titles, simply won’t suit every person on the planet. Where does that leave you? Few people take on other major habit changes—like quitting smoking—with as little forethought as some dieters. It goes without saying, as you set out to quit smoking, for example, that it will be uncomfortable at first, that you’ll need to plan for cravings and motivation dips, and that you’ll have to stick it out until a “new normal” settles in.

Extending this analogy, smokers often try five or six or seven times before stopping for good. Those stalled efforts don’t count for nothing, though. Each attempt contributes to what researchers Prochaska and Clemente call the “preparation” phase of change. In other words, these efforts teach the body and brain how to accommodate the new behavior, and how to accommodate the feelings of not doing what feels desired and comfortable. This, I believe, is where self-help books, including those 90,000 diet books, can potentially play a role.

For somewhere in those stacks may reside one or more ideas that will suit you well. You may, for example, feel really good on a very-low-carb diet. Or on one-vegetarian-meal-a-day. Whether or not you succeed in sticking with the new regime full-time, you’ve got a road map to return to. Further, if you’re actively engaged in learning how to stay more conscious of how you eat, a book can serve as a helpful reinforcer, keeping your goals foremost in your mind. The same holds true if you’re actively trying to take better care of yourself, or trying to pull away from self-defeating habits. The right book at the right time can also help cheer you on. It can perhaps offer the words you really need to hear.

The key phrases here are “actively engaged in…learning or trying.” A book won’t do that for you. However, once you take those first steps, even if tentative, toward eating in a way that works for your body, long-term, you might find one or more of those books helpful tools. Of course, those tools will only help if their advice is fundamentally sound. (Beware of any that suggest overindulging daily through December, than cutting back drastically in January!) Generally speaking, avoid those that propose extreme solutions that you couldn’t possibly see yourself doing or living with forever.

What I call “sane eating” involves finding “a way to eat that maintains a healthy enough weight, without worry or guilt, that we can more or less stick with forever, not just for the course of a diet.” Those who’ve managed to maintain losses of 10 or 25 or 100 or more pounds will always agree with those words. We live in a world that does a lot that does not support that goal, though. We need to find our own best ways of reaching that goal. And sometimes books are part of that journey.

For more on sane eating, read through the “Habit Changes” archive on my Eat Sanely blog

About the Author

Terese Weinstein Katz Ph.D.

Terese Weinstein Katz, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, eating disorder specialist and diet coach. Her website offers tools for lifelong freedom from weight issues.

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