How to really make diets work

Clinical Psychologist subiaco perth food weight management emotional eating

When we chose food as our topic for January it was inevitable that the topic of diets would come up.

Many New Year's resolutions made each year are to do with dieting – to try a new fad diet, to lose weight, to have a healthier diet, to cut out the emotional eating. Unfortunately many of these resolutions fall by the wayside.

So how can we really make diets work? Well, it's surprising just how much psychology comes into play when it comes to diets - it's involved in many aspects of behaviour change, from looking at intentions, awareness, motivation, goal-setting and planning, self-talk, reward and reinforcement, and dealing with setbacks.

With that in mind, let’s look at applying some psychology to really make your new diet stick. Try these Six Simple Tips.

 Tip 1.   Know you, your relationship with food, and your dieting pitfalls

The first step to dieting success is to gain a really clear picture of who you are and what your relationship with food is like. This will help you set realistic expectations, make achievable plans for a healthy and sustainable diet, and watch out for pitfalls that may potentially derail your diet.

What’s motivating you to change your diet? Is it to feel better in your body? Is it to have more energy to exercise or run around with your kids? Is it about a magic goal weight? Is it out of principle and ethics that you’re making a change to your diet? Is it to manage a chronic health condition such as Type 2 diabetes?

What’s your relationship with food like? Do you enjoy eating, or do you mindlessly engage in hand to mouth action whenever food is placed in front of you? Is your eating ruled by internal or external cues? (To read more on this topic, see our previous article Food, Mood, + The Brain.) 

What are your dieting pitfalls? Do you seek out convenience? Does your mood rule your food choices? Do you fall down when it comes to planning a healthy diet? Do you cave in when pressured to join in the drinking and eating? Do you fail to pay attention to portion size?

Now that you’re armed with more insight into how you tick when it comes to food you’re better able to make your diet work in the longer term. 

Tip 2.   Manage your expectations

It’s common to see diets abandoned because changes aren’t happening according to plan. Perhaps you don’t feel as energetic as you thought you would, or you haven’t lost as much weight as you should’ve, your body hasn't transformed into a certain shape, or your progress is just too slow for your liking.

Alternatively, diets may fall down because they’re just too much of a hassle to follow. After all, who has the time or energy to prepare a strict menu after a stressful day, or find the ingredients that meet your dietary requirements?

Sure, there may be frustrations in relation to the progress of your diet, or the actual act of preparing food, that impact on the success of your diet. However, it may also help to look at your expectations as it’s often the gap between expectation and reality when it comes to diet goals that leads to frustration and disappointment.

Specifically, is your goal weight (and the time frame in which you set out to achieve it) realistic? Does your diet fit in with your lifestyle in terms of what you’re able to eat or how much effort is required to prepare each meal? Are you sufficiently equipped to handle situations that may threaten to derail your diet (e.g. dinner parties, emotions that trigger eating, 'pushy' friends and family that heap servings onto your plate)?

By developing appropriate expectations you’re more likely to see progress towards your goal and therefore to maintain motivation to stay on track.

Tip 3.  Think big, act small

Yes, your diet goals may be lofty, but making small changes is a great place to commence. An ideal starting point when it comes to making easy small changes is to swap parts of your current diet for healthier options.

In an excellent piece by Dr Sarah McKay, neuroscientist and founder of The Neuroscience Academy, on How Festive Food Can Affect Your Mood, Dr McKay talks about how making simple swaps to your diet can have a positive impact on mood and protect against dementia.

While the focus of her article is on food swaps for the festive season, the concept of making simple shifts is highly relevant beyond Christmas puddings and roast turkey. After all, the ability to see concrete progress in making changes to your diet can act as a powerful motivator to keep you on track. Tips outlined by Dr McKay include:

  • Swapping chips for raw nuts
  • Swapping a pavlova for fresh fruit
  • Swapping BBQ lamb for leaner salmon
  • Swapping butter or margarine for extra-virgin olive oil

By making small changes and incorporating these regularly into your everyday life you’re on the way to establishing this new eating pattern. So, the big question is: What simple swaps can you make to your own diet?

Tip 4.  Plan, plan, plan

If you’re making changes to your diet it helps to plan, plan, plan, particularly in the areas of what you cook, how to approach eating out, and also how to cope with high risk situations.

Plan what you cook. Preparing food for a diet meal after meal, day after day, week after week, month after month, may end up seeming a bit of a drag after a while. Time pressure may dictate that you revert back to the same handful of quick and easy dishes that you have on high rotation – eventually monotony can set in and potentially derail your diet. So how can you increase your chance of diet success?

Enter weekly menu plans. Yes, it does perhaps sound like it sucks the spontaneity out of eating, but if you’re going to make a diet stick it helps to get organised. Planning for the week ahead means you take the daily hassles out of deciding what to cook and saves you another trip to the supermarket. It also means that you can set variety in your diet for the week ahead and decrease the likelihood of food boredom.

For some inspiration, take a leaf out of Anna’s Food Prep Sundays blog. Anna’s blog is focused on IBS friendly recipes, and what really shines through is the use of a structured menu plan with recipes and shopping lists so the process of agonising each afternoon as to what you’ll prepare that night for dinner can be eliminated. 

Plan ahead when eating out. Dining out can be a veritable minefield as you navigate an unfamiliar menu looking for options that best fit in with your chosen diet. It may help to do some research beforehand about the menu you’ll have, or at least have a rudimentary understanding of the types of foods to choose so that you maximise your chance of successful eating.

Plan how you will cope with risky situations. If you’ve previously fallen off the diet wagon take a closer look at what led to the slip ups (see Point 1 in this article on Knowing your Diet Pitfalls).

Risky situations may be actual events (e.g. The party season, movie marathons, night markets), moods (e.g. Stress, boredom), or even peer pressure (e.g. Everyone else is having seconds, the food has been heaped on your plate and you don’t want to offend anyone, or all of your friends are wolfing down Nutella-filled doughnuts at your catch up). So, plan head as to how you will handle these situations and you’re less likely to fall off the diet wagon.

Tip 5.  Monitor your self-talk

Self-talk and mindset are things that we go on (and on) about here at The Skill Collective, and with good reason. You see, when we’re talking about food and dieting, our thoughts can impact on what we eat in the following ways: 

Attitudes towards food including labelling certain foods as good or bad and holding other rigid food rules that dictate when, where, and how much you can eat (e.g. “I mustn’t eat any more junk food, it’ll mean that I’ve failed my diet.”)

Thoughts that contribute to stress (and other negative emotions) and trigger emotional eating (e.g. “How am I possibly going to finish this project on time? The deadline is so unrealistic!”). Indeed, a study reviewing factors in successful dieting found that dieters who regained weight were more likely to eat in response to stressful or negative life events compared to those who kept the weight off. [1]

Thoughts that lead to placing you in ‘risky’ situations (e.g. “After the day I’ve had who has time to prepare dinner? I’m just going to catch up with Taylor at the local bar for a quick bite to eat.”)

Thoughts that justify falling off your diet wagon (e.g. “It’s been such a hectic week…I kind of deserve a treat for all of the hard work I’ve put in. I can always make up for it tomorrow.” or "I need some Tim Tams to help me make it through this report!").

Thoughts in response to slip-ups that can lead to a permanent exit from your diet (e.g. “What’s the point…my diets never work anyway. Chalk this up to yet another failed attempt.”).

Unhelpful thinking styles (e.g. Black and white thinking style, Catastrophising, Shoulds and Musts) can come into effect at each step in the thought process when it comes to food and diets. To read more about thinking styles head on over here

In fact, mindset is so important when it comes to successful dieting that Dr Judith Beck, a renowned psychologist who has been working in the area of dieting for several decades now (in addition to her vast body of work in other areas of psychology), advocates working on changing the mindset before changing the food intake [2].

That is, Dr Beck identifies that successful dieting requires learning how to diet, including recognising past eating patterns, recognising the difference between cravings and hunger, and eating in a mindful manner (including paying attention to when you are full, savouring your meal). You can read more about Beck’s perspective at her Beck Solution Diet website. 

Tip 6.  Allocate treats

Imagine being told that you can never have your favourite treat again (let’s use Nutella-filled doughnuts as an example). What’s it like to think that that’s the case? Do any of the following thoughts go through your mind?

  • “Never again? How can I bear that?”
  • “No person should have to live like this! I don’t know if I can do it?”
  • “It’s not fair! Everyone else is allowed to!”

Suddenly, it then becomes the forbidden fruit, and perhaps even more appealing because it’s ‘naughty’. All of a sudden, you see the forbidden fruit everywhere, and the temptation may become too difficult to bear.

Well the good news is that having regular treats have been found to be an important factor in adhering to diets [2]. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all at the dessert buffet, however there is something to be said about regular small treats helping to maintain motivation to stay on diets for longer and to really make them work. Be sure to practice some mindful eating so that you can really savour your treat.

With these tips in mind we hope you’re one step closer to dieting success! Stay tuned for our next post which will be on eating disorders.


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[1] Elfhag, K., & Rössner, S. (2005). Who succeeds in maintaining weight loss? A conceptual review of factors associated with weight loss maintenance and weight regain. Obesity reviews, 6, 67-85.

[2] Beck, J.S. (2016, June). A cognitive behavioural approach to weight loss and maintenance. Workshop presented at the 8th World Congress of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies. Melbourne, VIC.