You’ve heard it so many times that you probably say it in your sleep. “Diets don’t work; if you want to lose weight and keep it off, you have to make a lifestyle change.”
But what does a lifestyle change look or feel like, and how do you know when you’ve made one? The way some people talk about it, you’d think there’s some sort of mystical wisdom you get when you “make the change” that tells you when and what to eat, and how to stop worrying about the number on the scale. Does this mean you’ll finally stop craving chocolate and start liking tofu?
The basic difference between a diet mentality and a lifestyle mentality is simply a matter of perspective. Having the right perspective may not make tofu taste better than chocolate, but it can make all the difference in the world when it comes to achieving your goals, avoiding unnecessary suffering along the way, and hanging onto your achievements over the long haul.
Here are the main ways a diet differs from a lifestyle:
- A diet is all about numbers—the number on the scale and the number of calories you eat and burn. Success is defined in terms of how well you stick to your numbers.
A lifestyle change is all about you. It’s about lining up your eating and physical activity with your real goals and desires. Success is defined in terms of how these changes make you feel about yourself.
- The diet mentality assumes that reaching a certain weight is the key to finding happiness and solving other problems. That’s why messing up the numbers on any given day can be so upsetting—it means you’ve messed up on just about everything that really matters.
The lifestyle approach assumes that being overweight is usually the result of other problems, not the cause. Addressing these problems directly is the best way to solve both the problems themselves and your weight issues. This means focusing on many things, not just the numbers on the scale or the Nutrition Tracker. Numbers only tell a small part of the story, and “bad” numbers often provide good clues into areas that need attention.
- Going on a diet involves an external and temporary change in eating technique. You start counting and measuring, and you stop eating some foods and substitute others, based on the rules of whatever diet plan you are using. Maybe you throw in some exercise to burn a few extra calories. You assume that it’s the technique that produces the results, not you. The results of a diet are external; if you’re lucky, you may change on the outside—but not on the inside. Once you reach your goal weight, you don’t need the technique anymore, and things gradually go back to “normal.” So does your weight—and then some. And, of course, all the problems you hoped the weight loss would solve are still there.
Making a lifestyle change involves an internal and permanent change in your relationship with food, eating, and physical activity. You recognize that the primary problem isn’t what you eat, or even how much you eat, but how and why you eat. Eating mindlessly and impulsively (without intention or awareness) and/or using food to manage your emotions and distract yourself from unpleasant thoughts—this is what really needs to change. Learning to take good care of yourself emotionally, physically, and spiritually—so that you don’t want to use eating to solve problems it really can’t—is a lifelong learning process that is constantly changing as your needs and circumstances change.
This doesn’t mean the surface level things don’t matter. Clearly, controlling how much and what you eat is vital, and caring how you look is a great motivator. The real issue here is where you fit into the picture. The key to both permanent weight loss and feeling satisfied and happy with yourself and your life is to take personal responsibility for what you can control, and let go of everything else.
Many factors that are out of your control—your genes, age, medical status and previous weight history— will affect your weight and appearance. These factors may determine how much weight you can lose, how quickly you’ll lose it, and how you’ll look and feel when you’ve gone as far as you can go. When you focus too narrowly on the numbers on the scale or what you see in the mirror, you are staking your happiness and satisfaction on things you really can’t control. That pretty much guarantees that you’ll be chronically worried, stressed, and uncomfortable—and more likely than ever to have problems with emotional eating.
And when you rely too much on external (diet) tools, techniques, and rules to determine your behavior, you are turning over your personal responsibility to the tools and techniques. If you find yourself frequently losing motivation or feeling powerless to control your own behavior, it’s probably because you’re counting on the tools to do your part of the work for you. You’re the only one who can decide what’s right for you; only you can change your attitude and perspective to match your personal reality.
In fact, one of the best ways you can start the transition from a diet to a lifestyle is by taking on the responsibility to identify the problems you need to work on and gather the info you need. Whether it’s coming to terms with emotional eating, improving your body image, or finding a vision of the life you want to live—you’ll find that you aren’t alone and that plenty of support and help is available.
You just need to take that first step away from the diet mentality and closer to a new and improved life(style).