Diet Detective’s Report on Creating a Livable Diet

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Some of what I’m about to tell you may seem obvious or sound like nothing more than common sense — and to some it may be both. But I’ve found that, for almost all my clients, understanding how to create a livable diet is not common sense — it may make sense, but it’s not common sense. There is a world of difference.

So what is a livable diet? Simply put, it’s a diet you can live with for the rest of your life. Still not sure? Let me ask you a quick question: How long can you hold your breath? If you’re good, maybe 30 or 40 seconds. So, yes, you can do it, but only for a very short period of time. Well, that’s how most people diet — they can do it for a bit, but they can’t keep holding their breath forever. Here are a few tips and revelations that will help you create your own livable diet.

Most Diets Work. Yes, that’s correct; most diets do work in the short run. Every diet, whether from a book or a commercial program, provides a plausible reason why it is different from any other diet. You buy in to the rationale and then follow the instructions. And no matter what diet you’re on, you’ll be lowering your overall caloric intake. As a result, you’ll lose weight. You can do Atkins, South Beach, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers — but is the one you’ve chosen really “right” for you? It might be right, but you need to make sure. There have been points in my career as a health advocate when I’ve criticized certain diets, but the reality is that it’s not the diet that’s the problem (unless it’s clearly unhealthy and puts the individual at health risk); it’s the individual following the dieting. People are picking diets that, in the long run, are not “livable.” So again, it’s not necessarily the diet, but figuring out what works for you long term. In fact, Consumer Reports did a diet survey and found that 4,000 of the 32,000 respondents were able to lose an average of 37 pounds and maintain the loss for five or more years by using “self-directed lifestyle changes.” In fact, 83 percent of successful losers did it on their own — with no specific commercial weight-loss program or book. The key to long-term success is to come up with a plan that works for you — that is, to individualize your eating and exercise program.

Why Diets Do Not Work. There are so many reasons why your diet may not work, but it’s usually for one of the following reasons.

  • Do I Really Have To Count Calories, and What Does It Mean To Eat Fewer Calories? Most of you get that you need to lower calories, and that may come from following a low-carb diet, a South Beach diet or Jenny Craig, but there is still confusion about what “cutting” calories actually means for everyday eating. If, for example, you cut too many calories your body will slow down your metabolism. What a nightmare! It’s as if you can’t win. If you cut too many calories during your quest to trim down, you throw your body into a tailspin. It’s the biology of survival in action: When you eat more, your metabolism speeds up to burn off more consumed calories. When you eat less, your metabolism slows down to compensate for the lack of calories. Therefore, when you subject yourself to eating less through drastic dieting methods, your body goes into “starvation mode” and becomes a fuel-efficiency machine in an attempt to burn as little energy as possible. Your basic metabolic rate decreases and you store fat, making it difficult to take off the pounds. There is also evidence that your body attempts to minimize activity (by making you tired and lethargic so you can’t move much), making it even more difficult to burn calories. This is hardly what you want when you’re trying to lose weight. Thus, the typical diet cycling emerges: The more effort you put into limiting your calories, the more your body resists weight loss.

    Diet Detective Tip: To get a general idea of how many calories you should be consuming: Women typically need 1,800 calories or fewer per day, while men need about 2,200. A quick rule of thumb to calculate your calorie needs is 10 calories per pound of your current weight for weight loss or 14 calories per pound for weight maintenance.

  • Deny = Diet = Eat More: The fact is that the minute you deny yourself something, you become fixated on that object. “Going on a diet” traditionally involves food deprivation. Therefore, as soon as you decide to diet and come up with lists of foods you can’t eat, you might as well put up a neon sign flashing, “EAT — EAT — EAT.” Any time you try telling yourself not to do something, that’s exactly what you’ll find yourself doing. If you try not to think about something, just remembering not to think about it brings it to the front of our consciousness — exactly the opposite of what you want. In fact, Dan Wegner, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Harvard University, did an experiment in which he told participants NOT to think about white bears, and then talked with them for the next 30 minutes. The result: All they talked about were white bears — they mentioned them 30 times on average. (see: Paradoxical Effects of Thought Submission)

    Diet Detective Tip: Try coming up with lists of what you can eat that’s healthy and tasty instead of thinking about what you can’t.

  • Diets = Untasty Boring Foods. The most important factor to consider when you begin to think about creating a livable diet is accommodating your own individual food preferences and your personality when it comes to food. If you don’t do that, you’ll be feeling deprived, you’ll be suffering, and you won’t stick to the diet you’ve chosen because it won’t be satisfying. In fact, the Journal of Nutrition reports that taste is the single most important reason people choose the foods they do, and that this is also an important factor for regulating “hunger, satiety and voluntary food intake.”

    Diet Detective Tip: Look for Calorie Bargains, foods that taste great but are healthier and lower in calories than what you normally eat (and that you won’t end up eating too much of — which would negate the Calorie Bargain effect). To help you find Calorie Bargains, start by purchasing a few cookbooks or going online. You should certainly get a copy of Lisa Lillian’s new book: Hungry Girl 1-2-3. Also, take a look at the Web site and their line of books. Then there are magazines such as Cooking Light. If you’re eating out, today most restaurants will accommodate your taste preferences and cook things in a healthy way. Learn a few “healthier” phrases such as: “Can I have that prepared without oil?”; “Please bake that, instead of frying”; and “Prepare it plain, but use lots of garlic and spices.” Make sure to call restaurants before you go to see how foods are prepared. Also, decide what you’re going to order ahead of time. Don’t wing it.

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