Dieting doesn’t work: here’s what does

At this time of year, the windows of my local bookshop are crowded with the latest books guaranteeing magical ways to lose weight. These books will have been written by an alleged ‘celebrity’ who is young, toned, slim and pretty, male or female. They will all claim that what they offer is not a ‘diet’ – oh no, it is a new way of eating. They assure you that their method is ‘easy’.

How is it that we continue to fall for these promises? For a few years I offered weight loss coaching as a kind of side bar to my mainstream coaching practice and I came to understand the lure of the ‘magic’ diet. My clients were desperate. Most of them were fully familiar with a wide range of diets and most of them had tried many, always with the same result: rapid initial weight loss had been followed invariably by regaining and in some cases adding to their original weight. They all believed that whatever the new wonder diet, this time it would work. (There is some cynical fun to be had in seeing that quite a few of the past authors of such books have themselves become a little porky, having failed to stick to their own advice.)

The core problem with diets – and no diet book will ever own up to this – is that it merely replaces one kind of disordered eating with another. So if you follow Lighter Life, you spend your first sixteen weeks eating packeted substitutes for normal food. If you follow the 5/2, you starve for two days out of five. If you follow calorie counting, you become obsessive about the calorie content of everything you eat.

This is not sustainable. We are a herd species and eating together is part of what makes us tick. We like to be included and being included means eating in the same way as everyone around you. When you are on a diet you have to fiddle around with special little meals just for you. You may weigh everything you cook or consume. You are constantly having to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, this is one of my fast days’, or ‘I don’t eat carbs’ or ‘I can’t eat broad beans because they are too high on the GI Index’. This gets tedious – for you and everyone else. The sense of deprivation becomes overwhelming. Sooner or later it is all too difficult and the miracle diet is stealthily abandoned.

Although all these systems contain advice on how to ease back into everyday eating, in effect by offering this advice they reveal the intrinsic difficulty: a ‘diet’ is consciously or unconsciously seen as a temporary measure before normal service can be resumed and of course this is exactly what happens.

What works

What works is to concentrate far more on how you eat than on what you eat. Yes it is important to make plant-based food the majority of what you eat and to give fruit and veg the starring role with moderate amounts of lean protein. But the real secret is to focus on HOW:

  • Are you really hungry? People with eating disorders and this includes over-eaters, have lost the connection between food and hunger. If you imagine a ‘hunger thermometer’ with a ten point scale, the ideal place to be is at 5. If it’s only 3, don’t eat. If it’s 7 or 8, you’ve left it too long
  • It’s fine to leave food on your plate when you have had enough. Your mother’s view no longer counts
  • Never eat in front of any kind of screen – it will tempt you to gobble down the food and gobbling means that your brain does not have time to understand that you really have had enough food – this process takes roughly 20 minutes
  • Cook from scratch, then you know exactly what is in what you are eating. There is plenty of wonderful food that can be cooked quickly in little more time than it takes to open a packet or bottle
  • Never eat food straight from a box or packet
  • Don’t eat anything that has to be queued for, or that is brought by a delivery man on a bike
  • Don’t eat standing up or while travelling on the Tube/metro, walking or sitting at a desk
  • Avoid eating alone if you can. Conversation slows eating down and discussion of the food can increase your sense of relish
  • Eat slowly. Put your cutlery down between mouthfuls
  • Food that you eat with your hands is designed to be gulped down, see above, so avoid it. Set a table, arrange the food attractively on a real plate; use cutlery and a napkin.

If you do all this, and stick to it – will you lose weight and then keep it off? I think most likely you will, though very very slowly. Slow and steady is better than fast and dramatic.

My weight loss clients saw food as their enemy. They were afraid of food. Despite, in some cases, more than a decade of overeating, they did not enjoy food; they were eating at superfast speed without really tasting it. The real secret of weight control is to see food as your friend, to savour it. But this is too simple and maybe too counter-intuitive for the publishers of diet books and their authors. There is money to be made out of the phoney promises and complicated systems with accompanying recipes and that is what keeps the whole dishonest business going.