3 Steps to Quit Dieting for Good

It’s that time of year again when we resolve to eat better and lose weight. But diets rarely work, and when they don’t, we end up feeling worse than when we started.

“Data shows that 95 percent of diets fail in the long term,” says UNC Health psychologist Christine M. Peat, PhD. “Most people might be able to lose a modest amount of weight for a short period of time, but they can’t keep the weight off. What ends up happening is people have this yo-yoing effect where their weight goes up and down—and up and down and up and down—and it ends up creating a lot of frustration mentally and physically.”

This doesn’t mean you’re doomed to eat terribly and gain a bunch of weight. In fact, sometimes quitting dieting and getting in tune with your body’s actual needs can result in weight loss that lasts. And if it doesn’t, you can still have a well-rounded diet that makes you feel good, without the constant pressure to make your body smaller.

Here are three steps to quit dieting for good and get healthy about food (and your weight).

1. Focus on healthy behaviors, not a number on the scale.

Health is not about a number on a scale or a certain pants or dress size, Dr. Peat says.

“It’s about a lot of different aspects of your life: how much sleep do you get, and is that sleep restful; are you engaging in some sort of physical activity that you actually enjoy doing, not punishing yourself with exercise; are you eating a variety of foods that taste good to you and nourish your body but you also enjoy eating?” Dr. Peat says. “Focus on how you can increase those types of healthy behaviors, not a certain number on the scale.”

If you’re not sleeping well or you’re scrolling on your phone until the early hours of the morning, try to take steps to improve your sleep hygiene:

  • Eliminate screen time before bed. Turn off the electronics at least an hour before lights-out.
  • Map out a sleep routine and stick to it. This means going to bed and getting up around the same time each day, even on weekends.
  • Create a bedtime routine that will help your brain unwind, relax and recognize that it’s time for sleep. Follow the same steps each evening. For example, take a warm bath, brush your teeth and read for 30 minutes before you turn out the lights. Try to include things you look forward to so you will stay consistent.

“Sleep is so crucial to everyday life,” Dr. Peat says. And lack of sleep can lead to weight gain.

When it comes to your diet or your relationship with food, think about the types of foods you’re eating. Are you eating enough fruits, vegetables and lean proteins and monitoring your salt and sugar intake?

“If you’re not getting enough protein throughout the day, that would be a good thing to work on increasing,” Dr. Peat says. “Or maybe you find that you’re skipping breakfast, and that sets you up for all kinds of challenges throughout your day. Those are much more manageable, measurable, sustainable sorts of things than trying to reduce the number on the scale.”

Avoid labeling foods as good or bad, too.

“When you just start putting foods into good categories and bad categories, it can set you up for an unhealthy relationship with food,” says UNC Health registered dietitian Elizabeth Watt. “Nobody wants to never eat some of their favorite foods.”

2. Learn to listen to your body.

One approach to changing your eating habits without dieting is known as intuitive eating. Instead of eating at a set time every day, you eat when you feel hungry and eat what your body wants. And just as you’re paying attention to hunger cues, you’re also thinking about what it feels like to be full and how certain foods make your body feel.

“Intuitive eating is taking a mindful approach to eating—you listen to your body and learn to get in touch with your body to determine what hunger feels like,” Watt says. “It’s figuring out what your hunger feels like and then giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. There are no ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods.”

Dr. Peat cautions that while intuitive eating is helpful in achieving healthy behaviors, it is not easy.

“It can be tough because we haven’t been trained how to do this in our culture,” she says. “So often, we’re eating while we’re in front of the TV or while we’re returning emails, and we’re multitasking all the time, and we don’t really pay attention to when we’re actually feeling satisfied during a meal, and that can lead us to overeat or not eat enough.”

To conquer this, try to get in tune with when you’re feeling hungry and when you’re feeling satisfied. This means when you’re eating, concentrate on the food and the company you’re with—not working, watching TV or scrolling your social media feed.

“You have to put the fork down and stop and say, ‘OK, how do I feel? What is my body telling me? Is it telling me that I’m still hungry, or am I at a place where I’m no longer hungry?’” Watt says.

To do this, you will need to slow down at mealtime. Your brain needs 20 minutes to realize you’re full, Watt says.

“If you’re taking that time to slow down and go through that process, you might find that there are some foods you thought were your favorite foods that you don’t really even like, or you might find you’re able to enjoy and savor some of those favorite foods,” she says. “Give yourself permission to have those favorite foods and then slow down and enjoy them.”

3. Set realistic goals.

If you’re making resolutions about food, be sure they are reasonable and achievable.

“When people start off the new year thinking, ‘I’m going to be a totally brand-new me. I’m going to lose all this weight. Everything is going to be different,’ when that inevitably doesn’t happen, you end up feeling guilty or like you failed in some way,” Dr. Peat says. “It behooves you to really think about reasonable, achievable goals so you can actually see some success when you’re focusing on your health behaviors.”

Talk to your doctor if you’re interested in finding a therapist or dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating. If you need a doctor, find one near you.