The Difference Between Diet and Sustainable Lifestyle Changes


Over the past few months, I have seen my husband change his eating habits and steadily lose weight, including those extra pounds. He cut back on his beloved sweet tea, gave up chocolate, and ate fish without drowning it in tartar sauce. He notches his belt and buys clothes one size smaller.

This all surprised me, given her long-term struggle with weight gain and high blood pressure. He used to go on a crash diet every two years before his physical exam was due, only to regain every pound, then a few. I was worried about him, but I had pretty much given up. And then our primary care physician casually mentioned a lifestyle program offered by the practice, and my husband agreed to try it. It involves weekly visits and a modest weight loss of six pounds in six months. My husband did that and more.

He’s not the only one facing the reality that diets often don’t work. Changing your lifestyle can be much more effective – if you can stick to it. This journey requires honesty, goal setting and vigilance. And if you want to go that route, here’s what to consider when deciding what’s best for you:

1. Define your goals

Before committing to a lifestyle change, set long-term goals, says Michelle Edacheril-Moore, family nurse practitioner at BJC Health Care in O’Fallon, Missouri. Be honest with yourself. Decide if you want to eat healthier meals, exercise more, lose weight fast, or reduce your weight and keep it off for the long term. Usually losing weight quickly and keeping it off doesn’t happen at the same time, says Edacheril-Moore.

Next, commit to your goals. “We all have things we want to do, but sometimes we’re not willing to put in the work to achieve everything we want,” adds Edarcheril-Moore. Finding your internal motivation may depend on knowing that you’re making changes because you can see the health benefits, says Elisabetta Politi, registered dietitian at Duke Lifestyle and Health Management Center in Durham, North Carolina.

2. Plan your meals

Take the time to plan your meals, which is different from preparing meals. With meal planning, you can adapt to your nutritional goals and make room for what’s going on in your daily life, says Edacheril-Moore. You’ll waste less food and won’t feel like you missed goals because life happens, says Edacheril-Moore.

To avoid feeling hungry between meals, snack on some protein. Snack on a piece of low-fat string cheese or sip on a protein shake. During meals, eat a bite of protein first, then a bite of carbs.

Wondering what to store in your pantry? Choose foods that you don’t find boring. And remember this basic Edacheril-Moore rule: “Food that goes bad is probably good for you.” Food that stays good is probably bad for you.

3. Eat mindfully

There is a right way to eat according to nutritionists. If you want to get the most out of your meal, take the time to consume your food slowly. Eat mindfully can make you more aware of what and how much you eat, and can improve the social aspect of eating, enjoying a meal with others. Pay attention to when you overeat. For some, overpowering is more common when reading or scrolling on an electronic device. Find and stick to habits that help you eat mindfully.

4. Be responsible

When I asked my husband what made him so determined to stick with this lifestyle change, he said it was accountability via weekly meetings with Edacheril-Moore. You can find this support through friends and family, or with a lifestyle program in your community or a local university.

Conversely, lack of support can cause you to fall back into old habits. “I’ve seen where the lack of support, whether from friends and/or family, has caused people to go back to their old ways. Who you surround yourself with really has a significant impact on your actions and thought processes,” says Edacheril-Moore.

Also remember that we all make a mistake. Give yourself grace. If you’re trying to change the choices you’ve made for decades, it will take time for you to start feeling like you’ve established new routines. “Understand that changing your lifestyle means you change your lifestyle. It’s not a simple task,” she says.

5. Stay alert

Losing weight and committing to healthy choices, or an exercise routine, is an uphill battle, Politi says. Even though we know more about nutrition and fitness than, say, 40 years ago, our environment can get in the way of weight loss. We depend on cars and are probably not as active as our parents or grandparents were.

Internal motivation is important, she adds. Take a problem-solving approach to lifestyle change. Watch your stress. Take note if your exercise habits begin to decrease or if the overeating returns. Think of being overweight as a recurring condition, like controlling your blood pressure. Life gets complicated. We lose jobs, people we love get sick or die, and the weight comes back, Politi says.

As for my husband, he is energetic and stays motivated. The more he sees the benefits, the deeper he digs into the commitment. Every day does not bring success. He stresses over things. Some days I watch him walk to the pantry and back out. Most of the time, he would much rather polish anything than go for a walk. Each stage of life offers a different challenge. “It’s not a lack of willpower, it’s just difficult,” Politi says.


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