How to get healthy without dieting

Tanya Cushman I started my first dietwhen I was eleven years old, sixth grade. I wasn’t overweightor anything close to it, but I came into the kitchenbefore school one morning, and my mom was making herselfa chocolate milkshake for breakfast. If you can remember being eleven,you can imagine how awesome that sounded.

When she told me it was a diet shakethat was supposed to help her lose weight, I thought that was even better. Even though I was just a child, I had internalized enoughof the early ’90s supermodel culture to know that being thin was a good thing. My mom agreed to shareher SlimFast with me, and 15 years later, I was still struggling every dayto be happy with food and with myself.

During that time, I triedevery diet that crossed my path. In high school, I wouldn’t touch a foodif it had a single gram of fat. In college, carbswere the forbidden fruit – literally. I’ve eaten more cabbage soup,grapefruit halves and boneless, skinless chicken breasts than any human ever should. And I have to say, all these diets worked. I mean, I lost that same 10 poundsat least 20 times. (Laughter) So I know how seductive diets are.

I know how good it feelsto work hard at something and have everyone tell youhow great you look. But I also know the heartbreak that comes from tryingto relax just a little and having your cheat dayturn into a cheat week and then a cheat month, leaving you worse offthan where you started, only with an extra layer of shameand misery that come with failure. Restrictive diets can work amazingly well, but only for a short period of time.

In the long run, which it turns outis what most of us actually care about, diets make losing weightand getting healthy harder – not easier. Diets create bad habits, they instill a scarcity mindsetaround food that often leads to bingeing, and they can even permanentlyalter your metabolism for the worse. They’re not awesome. So what should you do instead? They’re rare, but there are people who manage to lose weightand keep it off indefinitely without dieting.

Members of the NationalWeight Control Registry have lost at least 30 poundsand kept it off for at least a year, but on average, they’ve lost 66 poundsand kept it off for over five years. What’s their secret? They’ve each adopteda personalized pattern of healthy habits that works for them. The cliché thing to sayis that they’ve built a healthy lifestyle. And in fact, this is the only method that seems to consistently help peoplelose weight and stay healthy. The problem, the reasonmost people aren’t able to do this is that making this elusivelifestyle change is actually really hard.

But it isn’t impossible, and I believe more people could do it if they knew how to best usetheir time and energy. Today, I’m going to give youthree ways to do this. First, the new habits you want to createneed to be intrinsically enjoyable, not simply doable or tolerable. One of the biggest mistakes we makewhen trying to build healthy habits is choosing activitieswe don’t actually like, like pushing our workoutsway beyond our fitness level or eating flavorless foodsbecause they’re supposed to be healthy. This approach works in direct oppositionto how your brain forms habits and is never sustainable.

For a habit to form,you need a cue or reminder: something that you can seeor hear or feel, like the smell of fresh brewing coffee. This creates a desire in youto take a certain action, like getting a cup of coffee. And you do this action because you anticipatesome kind of reward or satisfaction, like that warm tasty beverage and that little hit of energythat comes with it. Without that feeling of satisfaction,the cue is never reinforced and the behavior never becomes automatic.

And if it isn’t automatic,it isn’t a real habit. So what does it mean that it needs to beintrinsically enjoyable? This means that the thingyou enjoy, the reward, needs to be a propertyof the activity itself. So you shouldn’t start rewardingyourself for going for a run by watching an extra hourof TV before bed. It’s not going to cut it.

In fact, these extrinsic rewards, rewards that are not directlylinked to the activity, have been shown to underminemotivation in the long run by turning something that youmight have actually enjoyed into a chore that youcan now talk yourself out of. So you need to like the activity itself. That is your reward. In my own case, this meantfalling in love with the farmers market. I had no idea that simple foodslike carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes could taste so much better than the ones I’d been buyingmy entire life at the grocery store.

I have even startedto love foods I used to hate, like beets and Brussels sprouts. All of a sudden,I was excited to learn to cook. Something I’d had zero interest infor my entire life. Almost overnight,healthy eating became my joy, my defaults and a lifelong new identity. This is what an intrinsically enjoyablehabit looks and feels like. Okay, so what if you don’t like to run? Don’t. Choose a different activitythat you do enjoy to get yourself moving. What if all activity feels a littledaunting because you’re out of shape? Start smaller.

Choose something less strenuousthat is enjoyable, like an evening stroll around the block. Don’t worry abouthow many calories it burns. Worry about starting a habitthat you like. The second part of your new strategy is cultivating awareness aroundyour thoughts, actions and emotions. The buzzword for this is mindfulness.

The reason mindfulness is so important is that your current habitsoccur virtually automatically. Remember this is a definingcharacteristic of habits. You go through your day on autopilot, and before you know it,you’re in front of your computer munching on some chips you grabbed in the break room. Mindfulness is a skill that allows you to become awareof your current mental state. It creates the pause necessary for you to reflecton your values before acting, giving you the mental flexibilityyou need to choose something new.

Think about how you feelwhen you get home from work. You’re probably tired and hungry, maybe not in the best moodafter fighting traffic. This morning, you planned on cookinga healthy meal when you got home, but now there’s a good chancethat you don’t feel like it. This combination of fatigue,hunger and frustration is triggering youto want calorie-rich food that does not take a lot of effort. So that easy pizza in the freezeris pulling you much more strongly than the low-calorie fishand veggies in the fridge that require prep and cooking.

Being aware of these individual feelings, rather than simply reacting to themor trying to resist them, is a powerful skill because once you do it, you can then ask yourselfif those feelings are worth acting on or if it’s worth it to dothe healthier thing anyway, even if it’s a little harder today. And here’s the thing: even if in this instance you decidethat you really are too tired to cook, a pizza really is the best option, that awareness can help you recognize that there’s actually something you can doto prevent this situation in the future.

For instance, you could grab a handful of nutsbefore leaving the office to avoid compoundingyour fatigue with hunger. Or maybe the dinner you chose to cookwas too ambitious or not exciting enough, and you need to choose a different meal to jump start your new cooking habit. New habits will almost always feel likemore work the first few times you do them. But if they’re intrinsically rewarding, eventually it will start to feellike the easiest option. Mindfulness is whatwill help you get there. This is why I recommenddeveloping a regular mindful practice to develop this skill. Even if it is justa simple breathing exercise.

Practicing mindfulness when it’s easy,when you are not triggered, makes it much more likely you’ll succeed in the more difficult situationsyou’ll face in your life. The third part of your new strategy might be the most important. It is developing a growth mindset. “Growth mindset” is a termcoined by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe the belief that you can overcomeobstacles of perseverance and develop your skills with effort.

A growth mindset standsin contrast to a fixed mindset, which is the belief that your talentsand traits are set at birth and you can’t reallychange much with effort. In my experience, health is one of the most difficult areasof life to develop a growth mindset. Because when diet after dietleaves you heavier and less healthy, it’s easy to start believingthat the problem is you. You start to develop a personal narrative about how you arejust not a fitness person or you just love comfort food too much.

When you start to believestories like this about yourself, it becomes very difficultto make meaningful change. This is the trap of the fixed mindset. Fortunately, a growth mindsetis something you can develop. It involves understanding that all humans are capableof learning and developing their skills. And you are no exception. You can learn to cook. You can learn to like foodyou hated as a kid. You can become an active personeven if you hate the gym. And you can prioritize your own self-care even if you work long hoursor have a family – or both.

Developing a growth mindsetalso requires understanding that missteps are partof the learning process. Not only do setbacks not define you, they are opportunities to grow and learn more about how youand the world work – both individually and together. If a baby falls down when learningto walk, is he a failure? Of course not. Rather than focusingon how things didn’t work out for you or what’s impossible to change, someone with a growth mindset always remains focusedon what is workable. They keep their attention on their actionsand the things they can control to get a different outcome next time.

To cultivate this mindset in yourself, I love Russ Harris’s suggestionto ask yourself three questions: What worked? What didn’t work? And what can I do differently next time? These three questionsare a simple framework you can use to get your mind awayfrom unhelpful thoughts of failure and toward positive action, shifting your mindsetfrom fixed to growth. Changing things like beliefsand habits is not easy. Developing a mindfulpractice takes effort.

And working to discoverhealthy habits you actually enjoy takes a lot of self-reflectionand a willingness to try things even without complete confidencethat they’re going to work. But it’s possible to make progressin all these areas – if you focus your energyin the right places. I spent 15 years forcing myselfto eat foods that left me unsatisfied and do workouts that made me miserable. And all I had to show for itwas extra body weight and a deep frustrationwith myself and how I looked. It only took a couple of monthsto start seeing results once I changed my strategy.

After several years, not only had my effortnot backfired as usual, but I had met and even exceededmy fitness goals. But by then, that felt less importantthan the fact that I was actually happy. The daily struggle I’d lived withfor almost my entire life had ended. My lifestyle had definitely changed. I was eating way more vegetables, rarely bothered with processed foods, was cooking regularlyand was active daily. But I adored all these things. They brought me joy and fulfillment. My healthy habits were nowan expression of self-love rather than self-hatred.

I’ve now been happy and healthyfor as long as I spent dieting – nearly 15 years. In some ways, the changehas felt momentous. But in other ways, it’s felt like the easiestand most natural thing in the world, like this was always the wayit was meant to be. Because this is how it feels to workwith your mind, instead of against it.

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