Eating Disorders Healthy Eating Mental Health

Already fallen off the New Year’s diet wagon? It’s not your fault

January is upon us, and along with icy roads and chapped lips come the obligatory New Year’s resolutions to get in shape.

After a December filled with get-togethers, travel, fewer days at the office, and more socially acceptable indulgences with food and drink, returning to work and school in the new year often inspires people to embark on new health practices to compensate for their “bad” or “indulgent” behaviour during the holidays.

Yes, this is the time of year when the diet and wellness industry thrives – 75 per cent of all gym memberships are taken out in January, with most people stopping within three to five visits.

Are we doomed to fail from the outset?

Diets and extreme changes to eating patterns often yield results initially, which can make them very motivating at the onset. But it is important to remember that our body interprets dieting as starvation.

“When people eventually ‘fall off the wagon’ or aren’t able to sustain their diet in the long term, it’s because their bodies are working very hard to keep them alive and protect them, not because they don’t have will power,” says Ali Eberhardt, registered dietitian with the Provincial Adult Tertiary Specialized Eating Disorders Program at St. Paul’s Hospital. “Increased cravings, preoccupation with food and an enhanced sense of taste are all physiological responses to restricting food intake, to encourage us to feed our bodies.”

Over sixty years of research has shown there isn’t a specific diet that can help people lose weight and keep that weight off in the long term. Literature suggests that more than 90 per cent of people who attempt weight loss regain that weight within five years because the diets are too challenging to follow for long periods of time.

“Weight cycling actually has more adverse effects on health than just a high body weight,” says Hannah Robinson, who is also a registered dietitian with the Provincial Adult Tertiary Specialized Eating Disorders Program at St. Paul’s Hospital. “Weight cycling – or yo-yo dieting – often results in people being less healthy and a higher weight than when they embarked on their first diet.”

To lose weight, many people create rules and label foods as good or bad, or themselves as strong or weak. Not only can this set people up for nutrient deficiencies, but it also has negative mental and emotional implications including guilt, shame and mistrust of the body. There are many factors outside of our control like genetics, age, race, gender and socioeconomic status that determine what an individual’s optimal weight will be.

Setting SMART goals

 “As no-diet dietitians, we think setting goals to improve health is very important and can be very effective,” says Ali. “ The first step is getting clear on your intentions. Do you want to have more energy and avoid the afternoon slump? Great! The next step is finding out what behaviours are going to help you with that. Maybe it’s by adding in an extra snack or maybe it’s about swapping your caffeinated beverages out for a herbal variety. The last step is to set specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely (SMART) goals to set these new behaviours in motion. Maybe your goal can be to pack crackers and cheese with you to work three times next week, or maybe you could try having a decaf tea after lunch instead of a coffee.”

Ensuring your goals are exciting and meaningful to you is an important predictor for success. Setting goals because other people told you to, or because you feel like you should, are often not sustainable. Setting SMART goals that don’t compromise your mental, emotional or social health, and focusing on changing behaviours that don’t leave you feeling deprived are important for sustainability. 

Adding vs restricting

“We always encourage people to find things they can be adding into their life – instead of cutting out –  to prevent them from feeling deprived and frustrated,” says Hannah. “For example instead of forbidding yourself from ever buying your lunch out, set an intention to pack a lunch twice a week. It is hard to implement a “don’t” where as an active intention can be planned for strategically. Pre-plan a dinner to make extra for lunch leftovers, purchase a reusable lunch container to make bringing a lunch easier to transport, or leave some extra items at work (like salad dressing, a jar of peanut butter or frozen bread) to reduce barriers to sticking with your plan.”

Ensuring you continue to fuel your body with enough energy – including the foods you love – is the most helpful strategy to manage this.

Extreme dietary practices can interfere with people’s ability to socialize or fully participate in activities they love. Dieting can become very difficult to sustain if it comes at the cost of friendships, relationships, hobbies or interests.

Want more?

Ali Eberhardt (L) and Hannah Robinson (R) are registered dietitians with the Provincial Adult Tertiary Specialized Eating Disorders Program at St. Paul’s Hospital. They host a podcast, Let Us Eat Cake, where they aim to break down nutrition information, using science and by explaining how our bodies and nutrition actually work.

The newest season of Let Us Eat Cake premiered on January 2! Listen on any platform you listen to podcasts on: Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Play Music, or on our website

Ali and Hannah are also on Instagram @eatcakepod and on Facebook @Let Us Eat Cake Podcast.

Give us your comments and story ideas