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Why Diets Don't Work

How to Change Your Eating Habits to Actually Promote Weight Loss

The holidays are rapidly approaching and I'm seeing a lot of discussion about diets on my newsfeed. Lots of my friends are doing month-long challenges (no sugar, no alcohol, no processed foods, no carbs, etc... ) and gearing up for their New Year's resolutions. 

I love that people are trying to change their eating habits for the better, but sometimes their attempts are either overreaching or fall short. When people ask me for advice on what diet to follow, my answer is almost always disappointing to them. 

The truth is, these extreme, all-or-nothing diets will get you results in the short term as long as you're following them exactly... expect to lose about five to ten percent of your starting weight over the first six months. UCLA researchers have found, though, that after following dieters for over two years, 83 percent of those people were likely to regain more weight than they had lost. 

But... why?

Weight loss can be explained as simply as calories in versus calories out. If you regularly expend more calories than you consume, you should lose weight. Keeping that in mind, it's easy to see how diets like Keto, Paleo, and Atkins work. By limiting entire food groups, you would have a hard time consuming more calories than you need. Eating fewer calories = weight loss. Hooray, let's do Keto forever!

Wait, no.

You see, when diets work only by depriving you, they can be insanely difficult to follow. For the first week or so, you're feeling good about taking charge of your diet. You're probably spending hours on Pinterest saving Paleo 'bread' recipes and crafting shopping lists that include more bacon than you've ever dreamed of consuming... and coconut oil. ALL of the coconut oil. 

But reality hits when you go out to dinner with friends, or attend a birthday party. Maybe your spouse isn't on board and insists on eating ice cream RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU. Suddenly you're looking down at your cloud bread and it doesn't look so great. And you begin to wonder if it would be really all that bad if you just... ate... one... tiny... bite... of... cake.

Which, inevitably, turns into a giant piece of cake, with ice cream, and is that a cookie? Because that's going in my face, too. But tomorrow, it's back to no carbs, ever. 

You see, this is when things start to go awry. Worst-case scenario, these kind of diets can lead to disordered eating patterns of binge eating and deprivation. At the very least, you find yourself in a cycle of minimal weight loss followed by regain that can have a negative impact on your health.

Evidence suggests that repeatedly losing and gaining weight is linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and altered immune function.

So, when people ask me what diet they should follow, what do I tell them? 

It's almost anticlimactic in its simplicity: whatever you can stick to for the long term.  

In other words, ignore the latest fad diet plans and come up with a few reasonable changes you can live with. I spent years trying every new pill and crazy diet that came out, but when I began by making small changes (cutting out soda and fast food), I started seeing results that were almost effortless. 

Start by keeping a food journal for a week. If that seems too daunting, maybe just a couple of days will be enough. You have to be totally honest, though, because omitting anything will leave you with an inaccurate idea of what you're consuming in a day. Yes, you have to record that fun-size Snickers you stole from your kid's Halloween candy. Of course you need to include the ice cream you ate out of the carton while standing in front of the open freezer at 2:00 am. It's not like your body will say, "You didn't put it in a bowl? Well those calories don't count!" Don't forget to record your beverages... this is often a surprising source of excess calories for a lot of people. 

Once you have a few days of eating recorded, read through it and think about where your problem areas lie. If you find that you tend to eat in the evening out of boredom, look for a way to occupy yourself. Read, take up knitting, do crossword puzzles, build a miniature replica of the Michael Myers house from the Halloween movies... anything to keep your mind off of food. If you really just can't stay out of the kitchen, keep carrot sticks, sweet peppers, celery, and other crunchy veggies in the fridge. Stop buying the chips and cookies that you might normally gravitate to. If you don't have it, you can't eat it.

If soda (diet or otherwise) is your vice, get rid of it. I know I just lost a few of you ("But I can't LIVE without my diet Coke!"), but really... yes you can. If you think you can do it, limit yourself to one a day. Not one giant swimming-pool-size vat of fountain diet Coke from the gas station, but one 12 ounce can. If that sounds like it's too tempting, cut it out completely. You will not die. Switch to plain water. If you want something caffeinated, drink coffee or iced tea (with limited to no sweeteners). 

If you still feel a bit lost, I suggest talking to a health or fitness professional. Your local hospital probably has a registered dietitian on staff, and you can always ask your primary care physician to refer you. Most fitness facilities have personal trainers that can help you with some basic calorie calculations, diet advice, and suggestions to keep you on track. I would even suggest looking into Weight Watchers if you have one near you. 

If you've made it this far and still want to try a diet like Keto, understand that you may not be able to stay on it for the long haul and be prepared to re-introduce "forbidden" foods slowly. No matter what you decide, talk to your doctor or a dietitian before making any drastic changes to your eating habits. 

Remember, a lifetime of not-so-great habits can't be erased overnight. Be sure to celebrate little victories. Set reasonable goals that will lead to your big goal. Above all, be patient with yourself. 

Have questions? Find me on Instagram @ashlee.fit, or on Facebook

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