by Jacquelyn J. Core JD PhD

Many people have tried a diet to lose weight, and for many a diet worked. Most of those have tried more than one, and goodness knows there are plenty. For nearly all who have lost weight, it has been regained. Sound familiar? As the US obesity rate rises, what can you do when diets fail you? The answer is surprisingly simple. The biggest reason diets fail is that they are hard to follow for any significant period of time.

First let’s examine why diets work. Most people think diets work because they reduce caloric intake, and in some cases that is true. The bigger reality is that on virtually any diet most people eat better than they did before the diet. Let’s face it, if you always made the best food choices for your body you would not need a diet. The reality is that all of us make poor food choices at times. Primarily, as a result, when we go on a diet the best thing we gain is awareness… mindfulness. Being mindful of what we put in our mouth usually helps us. We watch what we eat, and we make better choices, even if not entirely voluntarily.

Diets, however, are often based on restriction… a long list of “don’t”s that is not sustainable for any significant period of time. As a result, what happens is that on diets we eliminate at least some of the most detrimental things we eat. Unfortunately, though, living in scarcity leaves us worn out and beat down… and we abandon the diet in favor of our old way of eating. The weight we lost returns.

The real issue is how to create sustainable changes without scarcity. Diets can’t do that. Let me, instead, suggest to you that you approach food positively. Asking yourself a series of questions can help put you on the right path. The key to losing weight is eliminating highly processed food and limiting meat and dairy in favor of REAL food. It’s actually very simple, and many diets help achieve that goal. But, how do you eliminate highly processed food and limit meat and dairy in favor of real food without a diet?

First, let’s define food. Food is natural. It does not need an ingredient list or a bar code. It typically does not come in a box. Think of food as a single ingredient, often fresh, and work from there. Hint, these are found in the perimeter of the grocery store. Venture into the messy innards of the grocery store infrequently and with skepticism.

Ask yourself:

• What food do you love? Make a list. Start with every fruit and vegetable you love. Add to your list (after the fruits and vegetables) any other whole foods that you love (grains, meat, and dairy go here).

• What fruits and vegetables have you not tried? If there are fruits and vegetables you have not tried, put those on the list. Your best health will come from a variety of fruits and vegetables, so let’s focus on those. You can’t claim you don’t love it if you have not tried it.

• What other fruits and vegetables are you willing to eat? Add those to the list last. There may be things that you don’t love, that you have tried, but that you would be willing to eat. Maybe you don’t love broccoli but would be willing to eat it.

Here comes the simple part: eat those things when you are hungry. Try to focus on whole foods with as many varied fruits and vegetables you can eat. Eat the most of what you love which will not leave you with that feeling of scarcity. I often have people tell me “I love blueberries.” When I ask “how often do you eat blueberries?” they say three times per year. If that’s the case then eating those more often should not be a hardship. Instead of focusing on a long list of what you cannot have, focus on what you can have and love (everything on your new list). Don’t tell yourself “I can’t eat Oreos.” (you can still occasionally eat an Oreo…they are even vegan! Just don’t eat a whole package…and don’t put them on the list.) Instead of focusing on what you can’t have, start trying to remind yourself of the things that you CAN have and that you love. Tell yourself “I can eat as many blueberries as I want!”

I love doing the illustration for people where I place a Big Mac and a five gallon bucket of salad on a table next to one another. Most people are surprised to learn that the salad has LESS calories… If you eat more real food in your diet, you will have less need to eat highly processed food. And whole fruits and vegetables are nutrient dense but calorie low. Sustainable weight loss is about ditching the diet, moving naturally, and focusing on real food that you love. Eliminate your scarcity mentality, and you will eliminate your extra weight for good.