Tips for the Beginning Dieter

How to pause your new diet to maintain your committement

Posted Aug 10, 2010

When people start a new sport, say skiing, running or tennis, they start slowly. A bunny slope for the new skier, jogging for the runner and a tennis partner who expertly hits all the balls into the racket of a brand new tennis player are all appropriate for beginners.

The new dieter should also be allowed to start slowly but this is rarely the case. The early days of many diet plans are designed to get the weight off as quickly as possible and this means that the dieter must learn and immediately obey every rule set out by the diet program. This is expected despite the fact that many plans are extremely complicated and designed to take over the life of the dieter. The novice may have to learn how to weigh and measure everything that she eats, figure out the difference in points between orange and grapefruit juice, record every morsel that crosses her lips, and eat all the food on plans offering prepared meals and snacks (no substitutes allowed).

For the novice dieters, indeed for many dieters, all this is very hard to do. Unless the dieter is living in a residential weight-loss center where all this is done for her, she has to figure out how to shop and prepare the foods on the plan, learn how to measure an ounce of dry spaghetti (without spilling the pasta on the floor) and eyeball a banana and tell whether it is small or medium. Her taste buds must adapt themselves to salad dressings consisting of lemon juice or vinegar and skinless chicken breasts seasoned only with mustard. Social interactions that restrict food choices pose additional problems, as the new dieter struggles to balance the demands of the diet with the demands of a relative to eat. The admonition to keep a food record represents an additional burden, as the dieter must remember at l1 PM whether she ate six or was it seven grapes as a snack at 4 PM. And because the dieter has a life, one that probably includes family and work responsibilities, she also has to worry about what to eat at work and what to feed the family and herself at dinner.

These challenges may be simply too much. It is as if a person who can barely jog down the block and back again is told to run a marathon or someone who just learned how to tread water is expected to swim the English Channel. In order for a dieter to reach a successful completion, she has to be allowed to feel her way into the diet gradually, retreat from it if it seems too overwhelming and then start again. It's like the way most of us who spend summers in New England enter the frigid ocean water. Few plunge in and if they do, may feel frozen in place. The rest of us go in gradually until our bodies feel accustomed to the temperature and then happily paddle around until we start turning blue.

The following guidelines are designed to help you, the new or returning dieter, start a diet successfully so that it will end successfully.

1. Begin when you have the appropriate equipment and food and not before. (You aren't allowed to bowl until you put on the right shoes or go on the ice without ice skates.) Equip your kitchen with measuring cups and spoons, a couple of sharp knives and a cutting board, a carrot peeler (good for potatoes also) and some sturdy cookware. If you are over a certain age, make sure you have your reading glasses with you to check food labels when you go food shopping. Buy foods that will make up the staples of your diet and in a form you are willing to eat. Hate milk? Eat cottage cheese. Don't like cooking vegetables just for yourself? Buy packaged salad mixes and peeled, sliced, bagged vegetables. Cooked lean roast beef, chicken and turkey are available at the deli counter, if you don't want to convert a raw chicken breast into something edible.

2. Get rid of the tempting, fattening foods in your house, your car, your desk at work and your bag or briefcase. You can't be expected to resist popping an old Halloween candy into your mouth if it falls out of your linen closet or finishing off a quart of ice cream stuck behind a bag of frozen Brussels sprouts.

3. Plan menus that are convenient and comfortable for you. This is like planning a running route as a beginning runner. You would not start out jogging up a hill if making it to the end of your driveway was about all you could do without need oxygen. The same is true about what you eat. No time for breakfast? Don't plan on making egg-white omelets. Eat cereal and milk, toast with a low-calorie spreadable cheese, or a bowl of oatmeal with a dollop of yogurt. Are you in the car from 4 to 6 PM taking your kids to their activities? Make suppers for all of you that can be assembled in minutes. Note: Invest in a rice cooker. They keep rice fresh and warm for hours and it is lovely to come home to the scent of jasmine or basmati rice. Add roast chicken bought from the supermarket and bagged salad and cut up veggies from the produce section. Your dinner for everyone will be ready before your kids have washed their hands.

4. Anticipate problems before they occur. Business meals, travel, social obligations and vacations may conflict with the diet program's menus and often the timing of meals. If you realize before you start the diet that there will be times when you will not be able to follow it, then you will avoid feeling guilty and angry with yourself.

5. Expect mistakes. Remember starting at the bottom of the learning curve means that you can only get better at what you are doing. Anyone who wants to get better at a sport or playing an instrument or writing a book has to practice. So if you make a mistake following the diet, you are in a club with an infinite number of members.

6. Allow yourself a time-out if following the diet becomes difficult, frustrating or overwhelming. When you feel your motivation slowing down and excuses replacing adherence to the diet, stop. Beginning runners are told to run for 2-3 minutes and then walk until their breathing slows down, usually about a minute. The pause gives them the strength and stamina to start up again. Do the same with the diet. Be mindful of what you are eating during the diet pause so you don't risk gaining weight but do relax your strict adherence to the diet plan. Take time-outs as often as necessary during the early days of the diet. Eventually, just as the new runner can drop the run-walk-run pattern and just run, you will be able to drop your diet pauses and just diet. The diet will feel easy and comfortable all the way to your goal.