Start Your New Diet Like You Start to Train – Gradually
You wouldn’t go from zero training to a 5 x 1-mile track workout in a day, why do the same with a new nutrition plan? Ease into your new, healthier habits just like you’d start (or restart) your training.
While one popular saying says that it takes 21 days to make a habit, the reality is that when it comes to overhauling your diet or implementing a new eating plan, slow and steady wins the race. Indeed, like with any lifestyle-related goal, the old adage “patience is a virtue” is much more applicable.
Research studies have long investigated the role that psychologically banning certain foods from your diet can have; one study showed that participants who abstained from their favorite snack ended up consuming 133% more of the food when presented with the opportunity 24 hours later. While we know that prohibition usually backfires (remember, prohibition?), food choices are also intrinsically linked to impulsivity, anxiety, social pressure, income, and a myriad of other influences, which can all present roadblocks when adapting to dietary changes.
Slow and Steady
Challenges aside, if there’s one thing that experts across fields agree on, it’s that for a diet to work in the long run, it must first and foremost be as sustainable as possible—for you. Nicole Avena, PhD, assistant professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, visiting professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University, and author of Why Diets Fail: Because You’re Addicted to Sugar, says that it’s imperative to start slow—just like you would approach an ambitious training plan.
“Most people go in with extreme mindsets, and they want results fast. The best way to overhaul your diet is by starting one day at a time and changing one habit at a time,” Avena said. “This not only makes it easier to form new habits, but it also allows your body time to adjust to a new diet.”
“Making small changes over a longer period of time will prevent uncomfortable feelings towards food and diet changes,” she added, recommending that people frame any changes in a positive light. “Have the mindset of adding, not taking away. By adding more fruit and vegetables to your diet, for example, instead of setting a hard boundary of ‘no sweets,’ you create a mindset set for success.”
The New Diet Rules
Avena says that consistency is key—but so too is variety. “Have a routine and change up your diet often,” she said. “Many people tend to eat the same foods everyday, thinking that is the only way to achieve a goal, but it really makes things harder and limits your micronutrient intake. Having a routine can also benefit your intake and digestion, along with a multivitamin.”
To stay on track, she advises meal prepping in line with your goals and going easy on yourself if you fluctuate on the scales. One thing she does not abide by, however, is a rewards-based system that views certain foods as treats. “In terms of rewarding with food, this creates a poor relationship with food and labels things as good or bad. I think rewards in general are a great motivator when implemented correctly—instead of rewarding with a ‘cheat meal’ or dessert, enjoy a day out with friends, a trip to a local park to read, or do something you enjoy will keep you motivated to have more days like that and stay on track.”
Andrea Marcellus, a life coach, fitness expert, and author of self-help book, The Way In, agrees that non food-related daily rewards, and the act of feeling accomplished by achieving a goal, helps release dopamine in our brains and thus makes for an easier transition. She advises that for any dietary approach to be attainable and sustainable, it should echo how you already eat. Think: tweaking and optimizing what you currently do, versus adhering to a total new regimen, and sticking to the meal times you know.
Marcellus also says being mentally present and engaged while you eat is important. “The nerves in our jaw signal relaxation as we chew, so it’s important to eat at the table, or even standing at the counter—not in front of the TV or while you are working. When we don’t focus on the act of eating, but rather use it as an accompaniment to another task, it becomes more about being a soothing behavior than about fueling and nurturing our body, making it harder to avoid overeating.”
In good news for athletes—who tend to be goal-oriented by nature—another thing that Marcellus sees as helpful is knowing what their motivation is. “People who know the big ‘why’ behind their goal are most successful,” she said. “It’s about purpose.” She advises using an app, like her own AND/life app, to log small daily goals around things like standing, hydration, food strategy, and exercise, so you can track your progress. “This continually fuels your sense of achievement and helps turn those beneficial choices into habits,” she said.
The Pitfalls of Too Much, Too Soon
Jessica Rangel is an Endurance Coach at Life Time in Warrenville, Illinois, and a top age-group triathlete and finisher (she has competed in two Ironmans and multiple Boston Marathons). Rangel says that for athletes looking to implement a change, consulting a registered dietitian or nutritionist is the first step, because there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet.
“Switching too frequently between meal plans does not give one’s body time to adapt to changes. Much like completing a triathlon, if one changes plans too quickly and does not adequately train, it will show in one’s performance.”
“Never try anything new on race day,” she added, echoing a common refrain that again draws a connection between changes in diet and changes in training. “Nutrition should be practiced, changed, and adapted to during training, not on race day. Making a major diet change days before a race, or even weeks before a long-distance race can have drastic effects on your health and athletic performance, resulting in dehydration, cramping, bloating, GI distress, and fatigue.”
Like Avena and Marcellus, Rangel says that ditching the traditional “diet equals scarcity” mentality will set you up for success. “I often replace the word ‘diet’ with ‘lifestyle,’ she said. “A diet is often viewed as a short-term strict limit on certain foods, whereas a lifestyle change is just the opposite, it incorporates mind, body, and spirit, all of which need to be in sync in order to make forward progress.”
“A sustainable lifestyle change is one in which an athlete balances their training with their nutrition. I like the motto, ‘Eat to fuel your training, don’t train to fuel your eating.’ By keeping your blood sugar level continuous throughout work, life, and training, you’ll feel more energized, and the body will respond better. This will be displayed through enhanced physical performance, better sleep, and improved mood.”
The Brain/Diet Relationship
Despite one’s best intentions, these experts are well aware that our complex relationships to food can be fraught with emotions. Afterall, Avena, quite literally, wrote the book on food addiction.
“The worst thing is when someone starts a new diet/lifestyle and begins to hate the relationship they have with food,” she said. “One can also start to experience extreme hormonal shifts, like being ‘hangry,’ while extreme dieting. This can alter relationships with family and friends, causing more mental health issues and stress. It’s also very common to develop body dysmorphia while extreme dieting.”
Avena warns against allowing your body to emotionally attach itself to highly addictive compounds, like salt and sugar. “These ingredients are found in many processed foods and are highly palatable, or crave-able, making our brains think we want more even if we are stuffed. But someone can be addicted to any kind of food, even if it does not have a high sugar or sodium content. Food can hold emotional ties and the feeling of safety and security. Our brains like to feel comfortable and at peace, which is why some have emotional ties and addictions to certain foods.”
Beyond the physiological effect, Rangel offers some advice for what athletes should watch out for when trying a new eating style. If you constantly feel fatigued, hungry, thirsty, achy, and have heart palpitations, these are all signs that perhaps too many diet changes were done at once,” she said. Just like extreme soreness, fatigue, and even injury can accompany a training plan that moves too quick, too fast.
Avena concludes that a healthy relationship with a healthy diet should be viewed as the ultimate investment in yourself. “Food is not the enemy, and we need it to live happy, healthy lives,” she said, adding that the shift could even be imperceptible, but like improvements in fitness over a short time. “Taking time to yourself daily and staying positive, even if you don’t see a change, can make habits stick. Think of changing your diet as an act of self-care, and reward yourself for putting you first. Positivity makes the whole process of building a new lifestyle easy. ”