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By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
I loathe the word diet. Technically, it can simply mean a manner or style of eating, such a vegetarian diet or Mediterranean diet, but for most people, the 'D word' means a short term period of deprivation and downright misery, that will inevitably be abandoned. That's one of the reasons I didn't use the word diet in the title of my latest book S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim (the S.A.S.S! stands for Simple and Satisfying Solutions).
While it is a weight loss strategy, the book is really all about getting into balance; and in my experience, when you do just that, you'll lose weight as a side effect. Even better, if you stay in balance, you'll keep the weight off. That's why no matter what type of program you try, the real key to shedding pounds for good — which is what everyone really wants — is stick-with-it-ness.
If you can't realistically see yourself happily hanging in there six weeks or six months from the start, chances are you'll regain all or more of the weight you lose. Have you been down that road before? If so, avoid going there again, by asking yourself these five questions:
Is it one size fits all?
A lot of weight loss programs are designed for the average woman, who is 5'4" and based on a moderate activity level. If you're taller or shorter, less or more active, or you're a man, you shouldn't be following the same plan as a woman of average height who exercises for 30 minutes five days a week. If you can't or don't know how to modify an approach for your body's needs, it probably won't work for you.
Does the premise make sense?
When I meet with a new client, I ask them about every other diet or weight loss program they've tried in the past. As we talk through each one, I often hear things like, "I didn't really understand it, but I lost nine pounds." This is often because many diets have nothing to do with science, or how the human body optimally works, but because you ate less or ate differently, you lost weight. And while that may be one way to cut excess calories, it may not be the best way to build or maintain muscle mass and lose body fat, optimize energy, and best support your immune system and overall health. In other words, the 'whys' behind any approach really matter, and if they're flimsy or fishy, you may be seriously shortchanging yourself.
Keep reading for three more questions to ask before trying any diet.
Is it safe and healthy?
There are a lot of ways to lose weight, but some of them result in weight loss at the expense of your health, and in my book, that's not OK. Over the years I've seen people do some pretty drastic things, from starvation diets, to jaw wiring, and risky diet pills — I've even had clients take up smoking because they heard that's how celebrities stay slim. Obviously smoking is unhealthy, but a diet or weight loss program that's too strict, severe, or imbalanced is also dangerous, because it can result in the loss of muscle and bone density, a weaker immune system, organ damage, fatigue, depression, and hair loss. A woman once asked me if it was normal for a diet to cause your gums to bleed, and the answer is definitely no (she was on a 500-calorie-a-day diet). A safe, healthy weight loss plan should never provide less nourishment than it takes to support your ideal weight. So if you weigh 150 and the healthy weight for your height is 125, only eating enough to support 100 pounds is going to leave you with a big nutrition shortfall — one that won't result in losing more body fat. The reality is, the cells that comprise 'you' at your ideal weight need a steady supply of fuel to perform their jobs, and your body is also always repairing, maintaining, and regenerating itself. When the amount of raw materials needed to do all of this work doesn't show up, those jobs don't get done, and your body breaks down. Any plan that doesn't strike the right balance is going to leave you lacking, which isn't safe or healthy, physically or emotionally.
Can I dine out?
I communicate with many of my clients daily, and navigating going out to eat is always an issue that comes up. If you're following a plan that doesn't allow you to dine out, you only have two choices — don't go out, or go "off" the diet, a lose-lose scenario. I definitely encourage clients to look at menus ahead of time whenever possible, but any plan that has stick-with-it-ness should definitely include tools that allow you to eat at restaurants without feeling like you totally blew it.
Can I splurge?
I often ask clients to list which foods they can realistically kiss goodbye, and which they know in their guts they can't forego forever. It's an interesting exercise, because the can't-live-without food list usually ends up being fairly short, then we talk about savvy ways to enjoy these items. As a nutritionist, I'm never, ever going to say that a doughnut is healthy or recommend eating one, but I've been in private practice long enough to know that when people swear off foods they can't or aren't ready to give up, they either overeat other things in an attempt to get that fix, or they eventually give in and binge on the forbidden food. A much saner strategy is to create some balance, like having one doughnut with a skim latte and fresh fruit, rather than three doughnuts and a café mocha. This anti-black-and-white strategy may seem unconventional, but it makes so much more sense, because it allows you to satisfy an urge without feeling stuffed, sluggish, and remorseful.