How to Eliminate the Stress of Dieting

How to Eliminate the Stress of Dieting

Anyone on a diet can tell you it isn’t fun.  It’s ironic.  Following a diet is supposed to take the guesswork out of what to eat.  Simple and easy, right? But, easier said than done.  The whole experience can end up being a litany of deprivation, too much change at once, and the installation of “cheat days” or “cheat occasions.”

As it turns out, something that is supposed to make things simple and easy actually doesn’t.  The evidence?  95% of diets fail.  That means that a person’s well intended actions are for naught. 

So, hang on to your seats…I am about to give you a different perspective, and use a very strong word to describe what is going on when a person chooses to go on a diet. 

Spelling out the problem

That person on a diet is choosing a system that keeps them in a position as VICTIM.  Before you shut this down, let me explain.  In the end, you might even thank me. 

When you are just following along, you are giving up the power to make your own choices.  You can tell yourself that you have a goal and the motivation to lose weight.  That is good.  Going on a diet seems like the obvious solution.  In fact, dieting is still considered the front-line way to lose weight. 

But the fact remains that you are following someone else’s plan.  The premise is that you have been eating the wrong way, and you need to follow a program in order to get the pounds off.  The problem?  You are not given the chance to figure this out for yourself. 

Another problem here is that people would rather have someone tell them what to do than take on the complex task of figuring it out for themselves.  Sounds a bit harsh, I know.  Actually, it’s understandable.  Many of us would not know where to start in order to make a series of behavior changes that would lead to long term weight loss and maintenance. 

The two systems for weight loss

Let me point to a huge body of research.  What if I told you that there are two systems for losing weight?  One predicts (again and again) eventual lack of compliance or follow-through toward the end goal of losing weight, and the other one (again and again) predicts persistence and positive outcomes regarding weight loss goal attainment.  Would you be interested to discover what they are?  If not for you, for someone you know and love? 

The one that predicts lack of compliance and frustrating failure to follow through is one that relies on external (a.k.a. extrinsic) control to allegedly motivate toward goal attainment. It’s called a diet.

The other one that predicts persistence and success relies on internal (intrinsic) control to get people to their goals and beyond.  It’s called behavior change.

To elaborate: 

There is something in our makeup as humans that is with us all the time.  In order to be masters of our own fate (like how to eat in order to lose weight and maintain the weight loss) we need to tap in to these.  According to bazillions of studies, we have certain human psychological needs that must be met if we are to move forward with making choices that are in line with our desires and goals. 

These needs are (1) the need for autonomy, (2) the need for competence and mastery, and (3) the need for relatedness, or acceptance from others. 

How does this relate to losing weight and keeping it off? 

The kicker is that when we choose external, imposed, programs to follow, our psychological needs are not met, making it very difficult to reach personal goals.

By this time, you may be wondering how in the world are you (we) supposed to satisfy our psychological needs in order to get the weight off.  Seems like a big ask.  And what does that even mean? 

To get more concrete, here are three big ways to lay the foundation for success. 

  1.  Become aware of your personal rationale for the goal. Not just “I should”, or even “I want to be healthier.”  It’s more like, “I want to live longer and have the quality of life that allows me to be there for my children and grandchildren.”  So, nothing vague, and something that means enough to you to keep you going on the tough days. 
  2.  Learn to develop your own choices.  What are you ready, willing and able to change about how you eat?  Learn to pick a few small habits that you can let go of and replace with something that cuts down on calories, portions, or gets you away from quantities of sugar, fat, salt, and processed foods.  Make a few small changes at a time and get used to them so that they become automatic.  This is not a temporary deprivation but a long-term change. 
  3. Learn to acknowledge and deal with your unique barriers and conflicts.  That would include developing a good network of people who support your efforts and don’t sabotage you.  It also includes learning to put up boundaries with those who don’t support you.  You may need to delve into becoming more aware of what was considered “normal” eating as you were growing up.   You may also need to seek help using techniques such as mindfulness, self-talk, affirmations, and development of self-awareness of current attitudes and barriers. 

If you were agreeing that it is a big ask, you are right!  That is another reason why people chose the seemingly more straightforward way of dieting as a way to lose weight.  But, the way to really conquer is to get into mastery of the issue, slowly but surely.  But the good news is that you can take your time, chip away at it, and get help. 

That leads to the last thing to mention. Make the mental switch from feeling like you need immediate, large, results in order to see progress and stay motivated.  Instead, realize you are going to be around for a long time.  Give yourself the gift of gradual change, focusing on small victories, and feeling great knowing that you are on the right track. 


There is a more in-depth version of this article published in Kristen’s Health and Human Nature Blog in Psychology Today, 8/03/21.

© 2021 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: Vadym Petrochenko/iStock

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