“Check out our new 30-day detox!”
“Sign up for the 90-day paleo challenge!”
“Get ready for bikini weather with our 45-day beach booty diet!”
 
Most every gym, website, and self-proclaimed Facebook fitness expert on the planet has their own version of the above statements. And if they do, they’re not helping you; they’re just selling something.
 
First things first: Anything with the word “detox” in it that does not involve a hospital stay or an in-residence rehab program for substance abuse is a sham. Your body has a very sophisticated system for removing toxins from the body, and when that stops working, you become acutely ill and wake up attached to machines that beep a lot. While it’s true that any substance in sufficient quantity can become toxic (water, oxygen, etc.), your body has mechanisms to handle those too, and none of them require some special potion that your friend you haven’t talked to since high school tries to sell you in their living room.
Breaking Muscle Shop
 
What most of these “challenges” pretend to offer is weight loss. But you didn’t get into the sad shape you’re in from six weeks of nutritional transgressions. You didn’t develop a beer gut that obscures your toes by skipping the gym for a month. You got to where you are by a steady slide into a sedentary lifestyle and the Standard American Diet. Sure, time and age have played their part, but it’s not as if you were qualifying for the Boston Marathon until the day you turned 35, and the next day found yourself 50lbs overweight and unable to do a bodyweight back squat.
 
The process of destroying that lean high school kid in your old yearbook photos took years, even decades.
So what do you suppose is going to change when you sign up for your workplace’s Biggest Loser contest? Sure, you’ll drop a few pounds (of retained water, most likely) and feel good about yourself for a while, but then what? Will you have changed the underlying reasons why you needed to enter the contest in the first place?
 
What the proponents of time-limited diet challenges are willfully ignoring is that once the challenge is over, almost everybody goes right back to where they were before they started. The statistics surrounding long-term maintenance of weight loss from dieting are daunting, and they only get more discouraging as the timeline lengthens.1 To make things worse, research has shown that repeatedly restricting food intake can actually increase consumption of that same food once the challenge is over.2 And when you do plow through that “thank God it’s over” binge meal, your body has become more efficient at storing those calories as fat.3
 
In short, temporary diets set you up for failure psychologically as well as physically. They are the start of the yoyo cycle that doesn’t help you achieve long-term weight loss, and has been shown to correlate with eating disorders.4
 
Still want to sign up for No Carbs ‘till Christmas?
 

Advanced Techniques and Diet Newbies

Coaches who sell these short-run programs will tell you that they’ve done their clients a world of good. Why, just look at Julie, she’s lost 9 inches*! (*Julie was measured at 11 different points on her body, and that number is a total. Let’s not pad our stats with meaningless numbers, m’kay?) But those coaches aren’t taking the long view, and they’re failing their athletes because of it.
 
These same coaches may be smart enough to not allow their athletes to try and move big weight before they have the essential mechanics of the movement mastered. They teach them the underlying principles of the exercise, making sure they understand how it works and how to do it safely, before introducing the complexities of speed or load. So why do they advocate short bouts of advanced, complicated, extremely challenging diet protocols for people who are just as inexperienced in the kitchen as they are in the weight room?
 
Challenging people who are just starting to try and lose weight to cut entire food groups from their diet is like putting Grace in the middle of an on-ramp program. It’s too hard, too complicated, and at best, they’ll just survive it and learn nothing. At worst, they’ll be so miserable that they’ll quit and never try again.
 

The Wrong Lesson

To be fair, there was a lesson you were supposed to take from your “Low Fat Lent” challenge, and it wasn’t the 9,000 calorie celebration dinner you had at Cheesecake Factory on Easter Sunday. You weren’t supposed to be striving toward a plate full of caloric reward; you were supposed to be learning a new dietary principle that could help you achieve your goals. 
 
It’s just that challenges are a horrible tool for teaching those principles. They tend to make drastic, sweeping changes to your existing routine, which prevents you from learning about what works for you and what doesn’t. Changing a single variable for a span of time and assessing the results makes it much easier to evaluate whether that was a positive change. And as a bonus, you won’t be dragging yourself through the day and dreading every meal, activity, and trip to the grocery store, because most of your daily life will remain the same.
 
Time-limited challenges for diet or exercise are ineffectual precisely because they’re time-limited. The changes you need to make to get yourself back into something like operational condition are permanent.
 
Let me be clear: There will never again come a time when you can crush 4,000 calories a day of TV dinners, beer, and circus peanuts, while you sit on your ass watching TMZ, and not gain weight in a hurry.
Think back to that calculus class you took in high school. You spent two-thirds of the semester writing notes to your girlfriend (kids, that’s what texting used to be). When it came time for the final exam, you were way behind. So you did what you had to, crammed for a few nights before the test, and figured out enough of the material to get the grade you needed. And then forgot every single bit of it for the rest of your life, because they invented these things called computers that do calculus for us.
 
Temporary challenges are exactly the same. You’ve been neglecting your body for the last decade or more. Suddenly, something causes you to want to change that. There’s a wedding coming up, or a class reunion, or you’re in the military and you fail a fitness test. Or your gym is hosting a challenge. So you make a huge, sweeping change to your lifestyle, and try to adopt methods designed by someone else, for someone else, using principles you don’t understand. Then, when it’s over, you go back to what you were doing before, and gain back whatever you lost. With interest.
 

The Cure That Kills You

Temporary diet challenges aren’t just ineffectual, they’re dangerously counterproductive. Every time you try one and fail—every time you lose 10lbs and gain back 15—it’s another brick in the mental wall. Failure becomes a pattern, an accepted and expected part of the process. Do it enough times, and the mere thought of trying to improve yourself physically can induce anxiety and hopelessness.
 
Repeatedly attempting and failing to improve your health using temporary, unsustainable nutrition strategies is a guaranteed way to persuade yourself that you can’t actually change your health. It rapidly erodes your belief in self-efficacy, which is the psychological driving force behind every phase of personal change, from deciding to do it, to gathering the motivation and perseverance required, to maintaining the change after you have enacted it.5
 
disordered eating
When your diet challenge fails, it lowers your expectation of future success. [Photo credit: daniellehelm | CC BY 2.0]
 
Perhaps the greater danger presented by temporary diets is that they reinforce a mistaken impression of what should be considered normal. While the intent is that you discover a new nutritional habit that you will incorporate into your lifestyle, the end date of the challenge creates a mental separation from what you consider your normal life. Nobody who is trying to quit smoking succeeds by saying they’re only going to try for six weeks, and then smoke an entire pack of cigarettes to celebrate. Likewise, if giving up soda is something you need to do to improve your health, that is a decision you need to make permanently, not for 30 days.
 
Even if you do manage stick to the rules of the challenge once it’s over, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be closer to your goals. Individual variances in body chemistry, activity level, sleep quality, genetics, and environmental factors mean that the same weight loss tools work differently—or sometimes not at all—for different people.
 

This Is Your Life

If you’re signed up for one of these plans, stop. Just stop. Take a step back, look at where you are, where you’re trying to be, and figure out whether that six-week challenge is actually going to get you there. (Spoiler alert: It won’t.) Figure out what the underlying principle of the challenge is, and then decide if that’s something you can incorporate into your daily routine for the rest of your life. If it is, do you really need the drama and stress of a challenge to get it done, or would you be better served approaching your lifestyle overhaul more calmly and methodically? 
 
If you’re grossly overweight and unable to run to your car from the door of the grocery store, doing a “30 Day No Carb Detox Challenge” isn’t going to solve any of your problems. It’s just going to send your body into a biochemical tailspin, your mood into the gutter, and poison your future chances at success.
 
Instead, replace one thing that you know is horrible for you (say, soda) with something that you know would do you good (like water). Do that, not for thirty or sixty or a hundred days, but do it until it’s your new normal. However long that takes. Then make another change. When you hear people saying to make small changes, this is what they’re talking about. And it works.
 
It's not sexy, or sloganize-able, and worst of all (for the diet industry) there isn’t any money to be made off of it. And because there’s nothing to sell, you won’t find this advice smeared all over the internet.
 
If you want a new body, you’re going to get there with a new lifestyle, and the key part of that is life. Bit by bit, you’re going to have to change your mind, the environment you create for yourself, even the way you interact with your friends. It won’t be easy, and parts of it won’t be fun, and it won’t be fast. But it will be a lasting, sustainable, maintainable change, and that’s more than anybody selling a challenge can claim.
 

Make the Decision

I’ve spent the last few thousand words telling you what won’t work, and why. Now let’s get into what you should do.
 
The first thing that has to change for any dramatic physical improvement isn’t your grocery list, or your gym membership. It’s between your ears. Changing your body will require changing the habits that comprise your lifestyle, and that starts with changing your mind.
 
It sounds too simple, but the first step you have to take is to decide to do the darn thing. Creating a solid intention in your mind is the first step toward defeating your lousy nutritional habits. Making that decision is thought to act as a cognitive barrier against the old habits themselves.6 The decision itself immediately creates new associations for the improved habits that will replace your old ones. All that’s required for those roots of habit change to take hold is for you to stick to that intentional decision—indeed, to re-make it every day—until such time that it becomes automatic.
 
Whatever your turning point is, it has to be part of a rock-solid intention to value your health.
 
Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it will be easy. Changes to your nutritional habits carry the baggage of our addictive tendencies toward food. In addition to the complicated cognitive processes of habits, the chemical effects that food (especially food that’s bad for us) has on the body and mind make reorganizing your nutritional priorities an uphill battle. The neural mechanisms of substance addiction and those that reinforce bad eating habits are eerily similar.7 This is yet another reason to distance yourself from all the diet challenges the industry is trying to sell you. Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t get people sober by asking them to quit drinking temporarily. You aren’t going to change your relationship with cheeseburgers, fries, and tubs of ice cream with that method, either.
 
The creation of rock-solid intention is going to need a driving force. You have to have a reason why you’re doing it. That reason is going to be different for everybody, and your reason isn’t likely to work for anyone else. Some people look in the mirror one day and can no longer stand what they see. Others are shocked into realistically evaluating their physical state by the sudden illness or death of a loved one. Maybe the neglect of their health results in their own scrape with near death, and that becomes a wake-up call. Still others simply have something they want to accomplish that requires them to be in much better shape.
 
Whatever the turning point is for you, you’ll only be able to enact the changes if you decide they are a priority for yourself. Anybody who has kids can tell you that we are born with an instinctive hatred of being told what to do, and the research agrees. Reaching autonomous goals is much more likely than goals someone else tries to force on you.8 This is because goals you set for yourself have the advantage of being reinforced by your personal interests and central values.
 
If you want to succeed at changing your life, you can’t just say it. It can’t be because somebody told you. Your health must become something that you hold dear; something you prioritize over other things like keeping up with your favorite sitcom and nights at the bar. It has to approach the level of a moral imperative, and become something on which you are not willing to compromise, come hell or high water. Change your mind, persuade yourself through whatever means necessary that the change you are trying to make is The Big Important Thing, and all the rest will follow.
 

Get Smart on Food

The next thing, and perhaps the most complicated, is to develop nutritional literacy. The food industry has colluded with the government for decades to make this as difficult as possible, and the result is that we are nutritionally dumber and physically fatter than we’ve ever been.
 
Food labeling is the Wild West. Words like “natural” and “organic” and “farm-raised” and “fresh” often mean nothing like what you’d assume. There can be wide nutritional differences between two of the same foods that were raised different ways.9 To make things almost impossible, lobbying groups have helped steer the government, the media, and even the scientific community to alternately deride and praise various foods, industries, and macronutrients. 
 
John Yudkin published Pure, White and Deadly way back in 1972, in an attempt to warn the public of the many and various dangers of excessive sugar consumption. His warning came during the explosion of processed and prepared foods all across the Western world. For his efforts, he was publicly humiliated, academically discredited, and all but banned from the collegiate department he had helped create. His crime wasn’t bad science; it was bad politics. The sugar lobby had already won the war in Washington and London, and those who opposed them were heretics.
 
The US government posted its first dietary guidelines in 1980, unwittingly kicking off the obesity epidemic. Fat and cholesterol were so effectively maligned that people still think eating fat will make them fat, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.10 Sugar, under a bewildering array of pseudonyms, is added to an astonishing 74% of packaged foods in the aisles of your local supermarket.11 The lobbying groups for beef, pork, eggs, and dairy have all had their turn in the sun, leading to wave after wave of impossibly conflicting dietary information and advice. And all of this has been dutifully parroted by physicians.
 
Based on what we understand today, the government could not have written a more effective recipe for sickness and obesity.
So how do you learn to eat smarter and avoid falling victim to clever marketing and bad advice? First, start reading. A lot. You don’t have this food thing nearly as figured out as you might suppose. You didn’t stop learning about the world once you’d reached third grade, and you shouldn’t stop learning about how to take care of your body, ever. Read widely, but pay special attention to scholarly articles and emerging research into food quality and its relationship to health. Just as you (hopefully) learned to avoid fake news sites over the last election cycle, beware of fake food news sites that exist solely to make outrageous claims and drive ad revenue.
 
Apply a thick layer of skepticism to the label of any product you buy. Question what every word on the package means. The good news is, most of the healthier things you buy have very little labeling at all. Raw produce has only a tiny sticker, if you buy it at a supermarket. Meat and eggs from your local, ethical farms and butchers often have no label at all, just plain white or brown paper wrapping. The less the package has to explain to you, the better the food probably is for you.
 
The best practice to ensure you are getting the highest quality food is to shorten the distance between you and the person who grew it. As much as possible, buy your food whole, and directly from the farmer. If you are able to buy directly from farmers and producers, ask them questions. What do they feed their animals? Where do they house them? What chemicals do they use on their fruits and vegetables? If they’re happy to discuss these things with you at length, there’s a good chance they’re doing it right and producing a healthy, wholesome product for you. If they get impatient and start dodging questions, there’s a good chance they have something to hide. Go someplace else. If they give you answers you don’t understand, make a note to go look them up later.
 
In short, you are going to have to stop being passive in how you acquire food. You will need to develop an assertive attitude toward the things you are putting into your body. This is going to take more of your time, money, and energy, and that’s okay. Doing things the easy and expedient way is a big part of what got you fat and sick in the first place. Remember, this isn’t something you’re attempting for a month. You are creating the foundation for a lifestyle that will improve your health and quality of life for the rest of your natural days. Don’t sweat the hours you’re putting into it; they’ll pay off down the road.
 

Get Real About Your Habits

The next element in the equation of changing your nutritional life is accountability. This begins with an accurate assessment of what you’re already doing in the grocery store and the kitchen. Are your treats really treats, or are they staples? Does your weekly pizza night turn into two full days of pizza because you ordered more of it than you could possibly eat in a single sitting? Does the lid of the ice cream tub rarely get put back on, once you’ve taken it off?
 
Study after study has found that people drastically underestimate their caloric intake.12 Our cognitive biases and coping mechanisms conspire to create a reality in our minds that is in stark contrast to what’s actually going on. And so we’re left in a self-perpetuating condition: eating more than we think, exercising less than we think, and all the while, fighting metabolisms that have been broken by persistent overeating and sedentarism.
 
Make no mistake, losing a substantial amount of weight is an endlessly complicated process. Sometimes calories aren’t just calories.13 Metabolism is complicated and flexible, and your body actively fights weight loss.14 Even how full you feel after a meal can change based on what your plate looks like, how fast you eat, and how much sleep you’ve gotten. Trying to understand the thousands of variables at play is enough to make you want to plow through a family-sized Hungry Man dinner, just out of stress.
 
But the basic equation remains true. If you create a sustained and sustainable caloric deficit, your body will burn fat to cover the shortfall, and you will lose weight. The trick is to take it slow, and find out what’s going to work for you.
 
The problem may be as complex as it is immense, but the solution couldn’t be more simple.
 
Write it down.
Even if you don’t track calories or macros (though it wouldn’t hurt), or intentionally change a single thing about your diet and exercise regimens, the simple act of factually recording them can give you valuable insight into what’s really going on. You won’t have the option of mentally rounding down your intake if it’s written in a notebook or stored in an app on your phone. You can get any one of dozens of fitness tracker devices to give you a better read on your actual activity levels. Some of them will even capture data about your sleep. The more data, the better, but don’t allow yourself to become overwhelmed with capturing all of the minutia. Just make sure whatever you do record is honest, consistent, and accurate.
 

Pick Your Battles, One at a Time

Once you have an accurate record of what you’re eating and doing, you can create a more intelligent plan. Look at the landscape of your nutrition, and find the one thing that you can change right now. It can be a small thing, and you can do it gradually if you need to. But you have to decide to make that change, and make it part of who you are from that day forth.
 
Let’s say you’re among the half of Americans who drink soda, and you drink the average 2.6 glasses of the stuff per day. You know that soda has literally zero redeeming nutritional quality, and that the 100g of sugar in all that soda isn’t doing your waistline any favors. The best thing would be for you to just stop drinking it, period. You could also say that you’ll cut back to one can per day for a couple weeks, then go off of it entirely. Whatever road you choose, commit to it and execute. You have to reclassify soda in your mind as something that is no longer part of who you are, like smoking cigarettes or listening to Nickelback.
 
Some foods are not good for you, that's the bottom line.
Some things are going to become excluded by your new value system for your health. 
 
If the majority of your food comes in boxes or bags, and preparing it involves all of four minutes in the microwave, the place you need to start with your lifestyle change is food quality. Armed with all that new knowledge you gained by following the advice above, you need to start making your own food. Preparing your own meals is an important step for both your nutrition and your relationship with food.
 
I know that a lot of you are thinking you don’t have the time to prepare your own meals. But I’m here to tell you that you can make the time to take care of your body now, or your body will force you to make the time for it later, when it starts to break down and not allow you to do the things you want to do. There are certain and unavoidable consequences to the shortcuts you are taking now. If you say you don’t have time to make food to keep you healthy, it’s time to take a step back from your life and reevaluate your values and priorities.
 
From there, it’s a matter of identifying and eliminating, one at a time, the things in your diet that aren’t helping you get to your goals. It could be pasta, or pizza, or ice cream, or beer. You can cut things out entirely, or relegate them to only special occasions. Try it for at least a month, maybe two, and then see if it did anything for you. If your health or body composition have improved, great! Keep that item on the No-Fly list. If not, feel free to add it back in.
 

Find Some Friends

All of these changes are going to involve your whole life, not just the couple hours a day you spend putting things in your mouth. Your food budget may have to increase, as you rely less and less on cheap, pre-made garbage to get your calories. Your time budget is going to change, too. You may even find that your relationship with your drinking buddies is altered.
 
That last one is an unintended consequence of taking better care of yourself, but it’s not as big of a deal as you will initially think. Your circle of friends has changed over the years as your interests and priorities have changed, and this circumstance will be no different. When you make the commitment to stop killing yourself with what you eat, you will find yourself associating with more like-minded people.
 
In fact, to increase your chances of success, it’s best that you seek them out.15 Get your family on board with the changes you’re trying to make. Reassure them that you won’t be doing anything sudden or drastic, and you’ll increase your chances of getting buy-in. Join a gym or find an online group that will help support and advise you through the process. Get a coach. You are establishing a new normal for yourself, so it’s best to surround yourself with people for who already consider normal the lifestyle you’re striving to achieve.
 

Skip the Challenge and Fix Your Life

Everybody wants a quick fix to a problem that took a lifetime to create. All too often, that’s how we choose our politicians, how we handle our finances, and how we address our physical health. But no matter what slick title or clever marketing is attached, quick fixes do not yield lasting results. At best, you end up right back where you started. At worst, you are damaged by the attempt and left less healthy than before.
 
If you truly want to lose weight or improve your health and fitness in any area, settle in for the long haul. Made the decision in your mind, acknowledge where you are, and how long it may take for you to get to where you want to be. Be honest with yourself about the current state of your habits. Make changes that you can maintain forever, not just for a few weeks. Get help from family, friends, and professionals in the industry who are willing to commit to you for years, not days. Be willing to invest the time and money into improving your health, and realize that there is not a date when you can stop making that investment.
 
You can change. You can get healthy and fit in ways you never dreamed possible. But to do it, you will need more than a 45-day challenge. The challenge will last the rest of your life.
 
None of this is magic:
 

References:

1. Wing, Rena R., and Suzanne Phelan. "Long-term weight loss maintenance." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 82, no. 1 (2005): 222S-225S.

2. Cifani, Carlo, Carlo Polidori, Sergio Melotto, Roberto Ciccocioppo, and Maurizio Massi. "A preclinical model of binge eating elicited by yo-yo dieting and stressful exposure to food: effect of sibutramine, fluoxetine, topiramate, and midazolam." Psychopharmacology 204, no. 1 (2009): 113-125.

3. Brownell, Kelly D., M. R. C. Greenwood, Eliot Stellar, and E. Eileen Shrager. "The effects of repeated cycles of weight loss and regain in rats." Physiology & Behavior 38, no. 4 (1986): 459-464.

4. Heatherton, Todd F., Fary Mahamedi, Meg Striepe, Alison E. Field, and Pamela Keel. "A 10-year longitudinal study of body weight, dieting, and eating disorder symptoms." Journal of Abnormal Psychology 106, no. 1 (1997): 117.

5. Bandura, Albert. Self‐efficacy. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994.

6. Danner, Unna N., Henk Aarts, Esther K. Papies, and Nanne K. de Vries. "Paving the path for habit change: Cognitive shielding of intentions against habit intrusion." British Journal of Health Psychology 16, no. 1 (2011): 189-200.

7. Gearhardt, Ashley N., Sonja Yokum, Patrick T. Orr, Eric Stice, William R. Corbin, and Kelly D. Brownell. "Neural correlates of food addiction." Archives of General Psychiatry 68, no. 8 (2011): 808-816.

8. Miquelon, Paule, and Robert J. Vallerand. "Goal motives, well-being, and physical health: An integrative model." Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne 49, no. 3 (2008): 241.

9. Daley, Cynthia A., Amber Abbott, Patrick S. Doyle, Glenn A. Nader, and Stephanie Larson. "A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef." Nutrition Journal 9, no. 1 (2010): 1.

10. Willett, Walter C. "Dietary fat and obesity: an unconvincing relation." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 68 (1998): 1149-50.

11. Ng, Shu Wen, Meghan M. Slining, and Barry M. Popkin. "Use of caloric and noncaloric sweeteners in US consumer packaged foods, 2005-2009." Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 112, no. 11 (2012): 1828-1834.

12. Lichtman, Steven W., Krystyna Pisarska, Ellen Raynes Berman, Michele Pestone, Hillary Dowling, Esther Offenbacher, Hope Weisel, Stanley Heshka, Dwight E. Matthews, and Steven B. Heymsfield. "Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects." New England Journal of Medicine 327, no. 27 (1992): 1893-1898.

13. Feinman, Richard D., and Eugene J. Fine. ""A calorie is a calorie" violates the second law of thermodynamics." Nutrition Journal 3, no. 1 (2004): 1.

14. Harris, Ruth Babette. "Role of set-point theory in regulation of body weight." The FASEB Journal 4, no. 15 (1990): 3310-3318.

15. Wing, Rena R., and Robert W. Jeffery. "Benefits of recruiting participants with friends and increasing social support for weight loss and maintenance." Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 67, no. 1 (1999): 132.

 

 

 

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