When I was 18 years old, I went on my first “diet.” Up until this point in my life I had always been naturally thin and had never even thought about what I ate. I certainly didn’t have a healthy diet - I hated most vegetables and ate my fair share of buffalo chicken tenders, macaroni and cheese, and ice cream. I definitely needed to make a change to my diet in order to be healthier, but unfortunately my motivation to change was purely based around what I looked like, not how healthy I was.
So, my first diet didn’t consist of salads, vegetables, and lean protein. It consisted of the same foods, just less. All I had heard about losing weight at the time was, if you want to lose weight, just eat less and exercise more. And that’s what I did. I did an hour or more of cardio every single day, and I cut my calorie intake in half. And I did lose weight using this strategy. My freshman year of college (when most people gain the freshman 15) I lost about 15lbs. I was hardly eating, and when I did eat, it was 2 bites here and there of all the same unhealthy foods I was eating before. That same year, I also happened to end up getting mono, suffered with severe insomnia, and made multiple trips to the doctor for viruses, ear infections, etc.
But I was skinny again, so it was totally worth it…
At age 19 I got a job as a personal trainer and I started learning more about nutrition. I realized that I needed to make some changes in order to get healthier. The popular rhetoric amongst the best trainers at this time was, “eat more to lift more and lose more fat.” That sounded good to me! I was certainly tired of feeling hungry and sick all the time, and anytime fat loss was mentioned, I was in!
So, I started eating a lot more. The positives here were that I was more conscious of the types of foods I was eating. I aimed to include a lot more lean protein in my diet and started forcing myself to eat vegetables. I tried to eat only “whole grain” carbs (at the time I didn’t really get this concept though, so that included wheat breads, whole wheat pastas, etc.) I was definitely getting a better range of nutrients in my diet.
But I paid no attention to how much I was eating. So little attention in fact, that I quickly put those 15lbs back on, plus some. I was devastated, especially because I thought this strategy was supposed to help me lose more weight, but it just made me “fatter.”
So then the real search for the “perfect diet” began. I won’t go into detail since this is already getting lengthy, but I tried it all: Atkins, intermittent fasting, paleo, IIFYM…the list goes on.
What is very clear, is that every new diet I tried was motivated by my desire to be smaller. It was never about improving my overall health. And by neglecting so many aspects of my overall health (stress management, sleep, mental health, etc.) I was failing over and over again. I wasn’t just failing at losing weight, I was also failing at sticking with these diets. Each new diet I tried was more regimented and strict than the last, and I would inevitably end up binging on the weekends or when I was home alone and there was no one to ask me, “is that on your diet?”
It wasn’t until 2014 when I had finally had enough of feeling bad all the time, that I decided to do the opposite of what I had done for the past nearly 10 years. Since no “diet” had ever worked for me, I decided I would stop trying diets. Even things that claimed they weren’t diets, but still had restrictions and rules - I decided to avoid.
Now this actual transition didn't happen over night. The first decision I made was just to eat rice again, because carbs were something I had pretty much not touched (besides when I went into failure-mode and binged on anything I could get my hands on) in years. So that was step one - eating rice - in public! Crazy, right?
My focus would evolve to be the following: including a healthy variety of vegetables and fruits, proteins, whole grains (rice, quinoa, barley, etc), and fats. Beyond that, if I was going out with friends I wouldn’t avoid a glass of wine or a couple bites of dessert. If I wanted ice cream, I would allow myself to have some ice cream, rather than torture myself over the decision, say “no thanks” when anyone else was around, and inevitably eat an entire pint once I was alone.
The more open I was with “not following the rules” the more relaxed I was able to be about food. Nothing felt like a “guilty pleasure” anymore because the guilt was gone. I could balance a healthy intake of important macronutrients with a healthy amount of “treats.” I focused on mindfulness: eating slowly and fully chewing my food, logically deciding if I was truly hungry or just craving something, etc. I took the restrictions, rules, and regulations out of eating, and it was the most incredibly freeing feeling in the world.
My immediate response was not in weight loss, but in my mental health. However, over time and without actively trying, I did begin to lose those “last 10 pounds” I had spent the last 10 years focusing on. I can’t tell you scientifically why this happened. It could have been a calorie decrease from being more mindful, it could have been more vegetables in my diet, it could have been my decreased stress levels. The point is, there wasn’t ONE nutritional strategy that finally helped me lose weight. The change I made was to quit focusing on losing weight, and start focusing on what felt healthy and what made me happy.
My biggest takeaway from all of this is that telling someone that this diet works and that diet doesn’t is so unproductive. There are plenty of people out there who went on the Paleo diet and had amazing success both physically and mentally. Just because it didn’t work for me, doesn’t take that away from them. The same goes for any diet or nutritional program out there. They exist because they work for some people. I wanted to share my story for those of you who might think there’s something wrong with you for not having success with these options. I want you to know that you aren’t alone and that sometimes it’s okay to go against what everyone else is telling you is “the best” way to accomplish your goals.