Why a diet isn’t the best way to manage your weight

December 20, 2022 in Healthy Living  •  By Miles Varn, MD

They start appearing as you get close to the new year–ads and articles about which diets are the best for quick weight loss. Losing weight, especially after a month of enjoying parties, dinners, and treats between Thanksgiving and the winter holidays, is on a lot of people’s minds this time of year. In fact, it’s one of the top New Year’s resolutions year after year.

But there’s an important difference between dieting and healthy eating for weight management. Dieting is focused solely on the goal of losing weight. It usually entails restricting the number of calories and cutting out some categories of foods entirely. It’s not a sustainable approach to eating for the long term and the weight you lose is often regained once you stop following the diet to a T.

Healthy eating is focused on choosing foods that provide more nutrients, like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats, and legumes. You don’t have to cut out treats. Instead, enjoy them in moderation. What you eat is only one part of a healthy lifestyle. Being active, managing stress, and getting enough good quality sleep also play a role in managing your weight and in your overall health and wellbeing.

Diet red flags

How can you distinguish between reliable healthy eating advice and unhealthy diets? Look for these red flags:

  • It’s very restrictive. Whether the diet significantly limits your daily calorie intake, makes certain foods or food groups off limits, or requires you to eat the same foods all the time, that’s a sign that the plan isn’t focused on nutrition and healthy choices.
  • It categorizes foods as “good” or “bad”. Assigning foods a moral value can encourage an unhealthy relationship with food. Eating any food you enjoy in moderation helps you avoid cravings that can lead to binging on that “forbidden” food.
  • It isn’t flexible. Nutrition isn’t a one-size-fits all thing. Your eating plan should incorporate foods you like in amounts that are appropriate for your age, activity level, and overall health. You should also eat a wide variety of foods and consider trying new foods, for example adding a new vegetable to your weekly shopping list or choosing a leaner cut of meat or a non-meat protein.
  • It promises significant rapid weight loss. Losing ten pounds in a week is not only very hard, it’s also very unhealthy. And even if you hit that goal, quick weight loss is extremely difficult to maintain if you stop severely restricting calories.

To build a healthy eating and weight management plan that you’ll enjoy and be better able to stick with for the long term, follow these strategies:

  • Choose whole foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, and proteins rather than highly processed foods like commercial baked goods, candy, chips, cured meats, or frozen prepared meals.
  • Drink water or plain tea or coffee with your meals instead of soda, sugared teas, or juice. Whole fruits, rather than juice, contain fiber and help you feel full.
  • If you’re not active, start small. Jumping right into an hourlong cardio class can be discouraging and lead to getting injured if you’re not usually active. Instead, start with a 15 minute walk twice a day. Before you start any exercise plan, talk with your healthcare provider to find out what’s safe and appropriate for you, especially if you’re living with a chronic health condition.
  • Get evidence-based information and resources to help you build your plan. Your healthcare provider or a health advisor can provide reliable information on nutrition, exercise, and healthy weight management strategies. They can also connect you with specialists like dietitians and trainers who can guide you as you work on building healthy habits.