I’ve followed many many diets in my lifetime, with various motivations – to lose fat, build muscle, improve health, for ethical reasons, sometimes just to experiment.
I can concur with the observations noted in my previous post on fat shaming / acceptance, that following a diet is never easy.
Regardless of initial success, the vast majority of dieters ultimately end up falling off the wagon and returning to the aptly named SAD diet and regaining any lost weight.
Sticking to a diet is hard.
Is it possible to stick to a diet for life? Proponents of Fat Acceptance would argue that it is not, or at least not for the vast majority of people. So is it futile to even try?
While I cannot say whether it is possible for most or even any people, to stick to a certain diet for life, I would argue that this is a moot point, as sticking to one diet for life is simply not necessary.
I believe that I first came across the idea of cyclical dieting thanks to Dr Mauro DiPasquale’s Anabolic Diet (pdf). The Anabolic Diet involved following a very low carbohydrate diet during the week (maximum 30g of carbs per day), followed by very high carb / low fat refeeding over the weekend.
If your read the author’s explanations of exactly how and why the diets work, you’ll get some fascinating explanations of metabolic effects, hormone levels, fat storage mechanisms, and the like, much of which is quite convincing, and quite possibly has some truth in it.
I think in reality though, the main benefits of the diets were psychological, the increased degrees of freedom during the “cheat/free days”, made sticking to the stricter days much easier.
These cyclical diets, regardless of any potential physiological mechanisms which underpin them, have the benefit of always having some light at the end of the tunnel.
Basically it’s a lot easier to say no to the bag of donuts brough around at work, if you know you can splurge a little on the weekend.
Micro and Macro Cycling
This past success with, shall we say micro-cycling a diet – that is following a diet X days or meals per week, or 80% of the time etc, got me to thinking that to some extent I have also always macro-cycled diets.
That is to say, I never followed one single diet for more than probably 3 years straight, the majority much less.
(Though I was vegetarian for 13 years, this was 1. A different type of diet as it wasn’t calorie or macronutritent restricted, and 1. Did have numerous variations – Pescatarian, Vegan, Low Carb, Low Fat, Paleo).
Despite regularly falling off the wagon however, I never regained the fat I lost from my first successful experiments with the paleo diet, even though I abandoned this dietary dogma many years ago – how can this be?
Because I always moved (or cycled) from one diet (often slightly crazy) to another diet (sometimes crazier, sometimes less).
The key however, was that I never returned to eating how I did before.
There is No One Perfect Diet, but the SAD Diet is Definitely Bad!
There are certainly criticisms to be made of every well-known weight-loss diet out there (and the less well-known ones too).
Many are based on (to be polite) dubious science, and make claims above and beyond any reasonable expectations.
The one thing they do all have going for them, however, is that they are NOT the SAD Diet.
The evidence points to the fact that whichever diet you pick, you are probably not going to be able to stick to it long-term.
C’est la vie.
Just make sure that when you give up on Diet C, you switch straight to Diet D or E instead, and whatever you do, don’t go back to SAD!
Within whatever diet you are following now, allow for some cycling – a few meals or a couple of days per week where you allow yourself the freedom to eat whatever you want.
This will more than likely help you follow the diet for much longer than you would have done otherwise. The results might come fractionally slower in the short-term, but long-term you’ll enjoy much greater success.
Eventually, however, when the day comes when either you just can’t stand it any more, or you’ve stopped seeing results for whatever reason, don’t give up and go back to square one, simply pivot as they’d say in the world of business, and try a new approach.
Don’t be a Cyclepath
A word of warning – I’ve come a cropper in the past with cyclical diets by overdoing it on the unrestricted days.
Allowing some freedom at the weekend is great, but if the weekend starts on Friday morning, goes all the way to Sunday evening, and you go crazy at every meal, it’s quite possible to undo all the good work you did Monday to Thursday.
I’d say a better approach is to allow yourself around 3-5 free meals per week, on no specific schedule.
Often Saturday night works well socially, if you’re out with friends for a meal, but equally if you get a random craving on Wednesday afternoon, that’s as good a time as any.
Always listen to your hunger too – there’s never any need or reason to gorge yourself to the point of nausea. If you’re in a restaurant, do you really want to have a starter, the most calorific main course, plus sides, dessert and drinks?
When you do have a cheat meal, always take the time to really savour and enjoy every morsel.
No Diet and Every Diet at the Same Time
I personally don’t follow any specific diet any more, and haven’t for some time. By that, I mean I don’t follow a diet with a name, or specific rules with regards to certain foods or macronutrients.
That said, I do still tend to go through long cycles of eating similar foods for protracted periods of time.
For example, for months on end I might eat eggs with avocado every morning. Then I’ll switch to whole grain toast with peanut butter and honey. Once I get bored with this, I might switch to properly prepared porridge. What I’m not going to do is switch to pop tarts or fruit loops.
This isn’t to say you can’t enjoy the occasional pop tart – of course you can! It’s just probably not a sensible choice for every day.
The advantages of following a restrictive diet, or eating the same things every day, is it saves a lot of mental energy. It would drive me bananas if everyday I had to make a decision about what to eat, constantly calculating calories or carb or fat content.
The downside of these restrictions is that eventually you get bored or frustrated. The key is simply prolonging the utility of the diet with regular dalliances, and then preempting that inevitable fall by and having Plan B ready to go.
I’d also note, that while I don’t follow any particular diet, the vast majority of the meals I eat would be acceptable on multiple, or sometimes even all diets.
Though I do not eat Paleo, Vegan, Low Carb or Low Fat, most of my meals tick at least two of these boxes, and a few per week hit all four at once! (Well, all four if you’re generous enough to allow beans and pulses on a paleo diet).
My 3-5 cheat meals per week, would be meals or foods that don’t tick any of these boxes – think burger and fries, pizza, ice-cream etc.
I’ll compensate these divergences however by ensuring that the 24 hours prior or afterwards I consume fewer calories than usual to compensate, either by eating meals that are low in both carbs and fat (i.e. calories), or fasting altogether.
So on the one hand, I don’t follow any diet, but on the other hand, you could view it as though I’m cycling from one diet (or more) to another at every meal!
Low fat vegan breakfast, followed by low carb paleo lunch, and perhaps vegetarian mediterranean diet for tea in the form of aubergine pasta with parmesan.
Personally, I find this method works for me.
This way I can easily control my calorie and micronutrient intake, without having to go mad trying to track everything I eat, and without the need to cut out any specific foods or food groups.
Will it work for everyone? Probably not, but it could be worth a try. It’s certainly better than being SAD…