The simple reason your diet might not be working
Have you decided to revamp your diet? Then you’re probably thinking about cutting out doughnuts, hot chips and other ‘naughty’ foods you know aren’t good for you.
If so, your diet may not succeed for one simple reason: you’ve chosen the wrong strategy.
Such were the findings from research published online on July 8 this year in the journal Psychology & Marketing.
The new research involved three studies and a total of 542 study participants.
The researchers identified two main strategies when it comes to health goals.
One method – known as avoidance – refers to what happens when dieters cut out their favourite foods and replace them with less-desirable options.
The other strategy – known as ‘approach’ – is when dieters focus on increasing the amount of healthy foods they consume.
The researchers found that those who employed the ‘approach’ method (increasing their intake of healthy foods) were more successful in their health goals than those who tried to avoid unhealthy stuff.
“Dieters who restrict themselves from consuming the foods they love most may be setting themselves up for failure,” said lead author Meredith David, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business.
“Instead, they may be better off by allowing occasional ‘treats’ and focusing attention on healthy foods that they enjoy and making it a point to include those tasty, but healthy foods in their diet.”
But the study didn’t just analyse people’s methods in trying to achieve their health goals, it also took into account their levels of self-control.
Researchers found that people with low self-control tended to head down the ‘avoidance’ route, and were less likely to succeed in their goals. Those with greater self-control took the ‘approach’ method, which was more motivating.
Clinical Psychologist Dr Lara Winten isn’t surprised by these findings.
She believes foods should never be restricted or banned. Doing so only encourages “cognitive rigidity”, turning foods into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choices with no middle ground.
It can also cause a “deprivation” mentality, which can then lead to bingeing behaviours and feelings of failure.
Such thinking is not only unrealistic; she says it’s also unlikely to lead to long-term behavioural change. Even worse, Dr Winten worries it can lead to disordered eating thoughts and behaviours.
Accredited Practicing Dietitian Jessica Bailes agrees that people shouldn’t focus on what they can’t eat when trying to improve their diets.
Besides, she says, we shouldn’t cut out our favourite foods. Rather, we should just keep them as ‘treats’ for special occasions, or only allow ourselves small amounts.
“The aim is quality, not quantity,” she says. “A delicate macaron is often better than a large piece of plain cake.”
Then, focus on increasing the amount of healthy foods you consume.
“…And focus specifically on those healthy foods that you really enjoy eating,” reminds David.
So don’t just munch on raw spinach leaves because they’re healthy; eat healthy foods you actually enjoy. That could be a bowl of steaming porridge with a teaspoon of maple syrup and a smattering of berries, says Bailes. Or it could be a hearty winter soup with wholemeal pasta.
Try not to dwell on the foods you’re eating less of. Instead, relish the healthy – and tasty – foods you’re now nourishing your body with.
Once you change your thinking and embrace this ‘approach’ strategy, you’ll make a positive – and likely, lasting – step in the right direction towards better health.
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