diets don't workLast week, I was sitting with a group of my Menu for Change patients at an event, and one of my long-time patients (she’s been seeing me almost every week for more than a year) said that whenever she tells someone about Menu for Change, they ask her, “So, what’s the diet like?”

She looked at me, and we laughed, and I said, “I would rather die than put someone on a diet.”

And that’s the truth. I say that not simply because diets don’t work (they don’t), but because the word “diet” is so joyless, if not from the get-go then definitely once you get to the point in the dieting process when following its rules for one more day feels like torture, or when you’re “done” with the diet and start watching some or all of your lost pounds creep back on (many people end up gaining more than they lost, contributing to steady weight gain over a period of years and decades).

Why Diets Don’t Work

Here’s the main problem with diets: They are based on extrinsic rules that no mere mortal can follow forever, which practically guarantees weight regain, and while they address what to eat and when to eat, they don’t adequately delve into why we eat.

  • Why do we eat when we aren’t hungry? Is it because we’re sad? Happy? Bored? Excited? Lonely? Scared? Stressed? Celebrating? Angry? Sociable? In pain?
  • Why do we go through the day, taking care of everything and everyone but ourselves, feeling nary a lick of hunger, but the moment we are able to slow down (like at the end of the workday), we are suddenly so ravenous that we want to eat whatever is nailed down?
  • Why do we eat in secret? Why do we feel guilty when we eat certain foods? Why do we eat foods that taste good in the moment but make us feel bloated and gross afterward—and then eat the same foods on other occasions even though we know that they make us feel bloated and gross?
  • Why do we believe that we’re not worthy enough to actually sit down and take a proper lunch break?
  • Why do we feel like we have to eat whatever food someone offers us, even when we’re not hungry or don’t like the food being offered?
  • Why do we feel like there’s something wrong with eating when we feel actual, clear-as-a-bell, bonafide physical hunger signals?
  • Why do we feel like we can’t trust our bodies and our taste preferences to tell us what and how much to eat—but we can trust a cookie-cutter menu plan from someone who’s just met us (or has never met us)?

Why Do We Still Want A Diet, When Diets Have Already Failed Us?

Most people who end up in my office have been on a number of diets, and many have been on almost every diet known to (wo)man. Honestly, when I see a patient who has never dieted or fretted about food, it’s almost shocking, a fact that I find quite sad. Many of my patients don’t want to ever go on another diet, they want to learn another way to deal with why they eat the way they do. But even though Menu for Change is not a diet, and we are (I think) clear about that, I have some new patients who seem to think I’m going to hand them the aforementioned cookie-cutter menu plan and wave a magic wand and tra-la-la, the weight will melt away!

There Is No Magic Wand

I wish I had a magic wand (it would come in handy in so many ways, especially if it comes with a crystal ball). When your relationship food has become corrupted by diets or other outside influences, it doesn’t heal overnight. It take time to undo damage that has happened over years or even decades. Many of my patients know a fair amount about nutrition (some know a LOT about nutrition), but that knowledge hasn’t helped them consistently eat in a way that serves their physical and emotional well-being.

As I often say, we bring a lot of baggage to the table when we sit down to eat.

diets don't workChoosing A Better Path

That’s why I listen when people talk about their food and dieting histories. I look for the places where they are really struggling or stumbling. Sometimes it’s with what they’re eating, but mostly it’s with the why. Every single one of my patients is successful in so many areas of their lives, but feeling good about how they eat, and how it makes them feel, has eluded them. Which is tragic, because food is fundamental. We need food to live, but food is also part of the fabric that gives meaning to our lives. Food is part of almost every celebration. Food is part of so many memories. Food is a legitimate source of pleasure (although it shouldn’t be our only source of pleasure).

That’s why I help people cultivate intuitive and mindful eating skills, as long as they are open to that (some I think just really want me to tell them what, when and how much to eat). I teach practical skills, like developing your own meal plan, so you don’t find yourself ravenous and with no idea what’s for dinner, and setting polite but firm boundaries for dealing with food pushers. And self-care. I am big on self-care, because if you are stressed and not sleeping enough, then it’s harder to eat well. Becoming an intuitive and mindful eater and undoing old unhealthful eating patterns and thoughts about food takes time and persistence. Again, there’s no magic wand I can wave (or a crystal ball I can gaze into to tell you exactly how long it will take), but the results are deeper and more meaningful.