“Diet” has become a hated four-letter word, prompting images of celery sticks and cottage cheese, refusing to even look at a potato chip or piece of chocolate, endless hours on a treadmill or sidewalk, weight training until we drop and spend a week unable to move without our muscles screaming. In short, misery. And when we embrace that image, we give up before we start.
Then comes a steady stream of shakes, pills, supplements, and programs, each proclaiming its own benefits. Lose weight by eating only cabbage, drinking tea to clean out your colon, taking this pill or that supplement. Count calories, carbs, points…the sheer volume of options can be both confusing and overwhelming, adding to the sense of “just forget it and pass the cheese balls.” And too many of these programs compound the problem by being complete scams designed to do little more than make your wallet lighter. It can take finesse to learn what’s real and what’s fake.
One step at a time, one meal at a time. One shopping trip at a time.
But choosing to get your body and life healthier doesn’t have to be a chore. It just has to be a choice. Then once you decide to do something, the next step is to figure out precisely what that something should be. And it’s different for each of us because we’re each unique individuals. Finding what works for you—in terms of budget, taste, kitchen aptitude, and any medical needs—can lead quickly to healthier food choices and meal plans, burning fat and getting fit as you go. So don’t start with companies; start with you.
First, take a quick self-evaluation (seriously, write it down):
- How much do you currently weigh, and how much should you weigh?
- If you need to lose, how much do you need to lose, and what sort of a time frame would you like to lose it in? Be realistic here: most health professionals suggest safe and maintainable weight loss is no more than 1 to 2 pounds per week. How much would you like to lose in three months, six, twelve?
- Do you have any health concerns or issues you need to talk about with your doctor before starting a diet program? (Medication interference, questions, and concerns with exercise). Different conditions require different dietary paths. And complicated conditions like fibromyalgia or Crohn’s may require an ongoing process of dietary tweaking.
- How dedicated are you? It’s a lot easier to start slow and build up than to dive in and get burned out six weeks down the road. The slow way is also more likely to lead to lifetime habits.
- What’s your schedule and kitchen aptitude like, and what sort of a budget do you have to work with? Will you do better with pre-prepared frozen meals and replacement shakes, or do you have both the time and motivation to rediscover your kitchen and cook for yourself? Do you have other family members who will be eating the same food as you, or are you on your own path and will have to cook twice?
So now that you know you, plans are more comfortable to evaluate. Don’t be intimidated or discouraged by all the claims; every one of these plans has one essential thing in common: despite all the “help you” reassurances, they are ultimately out to do one thing. And that gets you to buy their product.
The best defense against the marketing? Set some goals and adjust your mindset.
Setting Your Goals, Changing Your Attitude
Whether you’re eighteen or eighty, twenty pounds overweight or a hundred twenty, one thing is standard: you can’t get where you want if you don’t know where you’re going. Setting goals before you start a diet program is one of the most important things you can do in order to be successful. You draw your very own road map, something you can hold on your phone or post on your fridge. You stay accountable because you have a plan. And you can match a program to your plan far easier than trying to match your plan to a program.
Can’t pass up the chips today? Buy a small bag (yes, it’s not a better deal money-wise, but it’s a better deal health-wise), and add a bag of baby carrots as well. Just make sure you decide to eat both as well.
Goal-setting comes naturally to some; others need a little help drawing the map. Here are some essential starting points:
- Weight-wise, where am I now, and where do I want to be?
- What are my personal body image goals (be specific)? Am I looking to be slimmer simply, or more toned/buff/fit?
- What can I do to get healthier overall?
- How will I change my eating habits over the next month, three months, six months?
- How will I deal with setbacks, cheats, and plateaus? (This is more emotional dealing than anything—basically, how will I stay motivated to adjust my plan?)
- What kind of program best suits me? ( Pills, products, plans, cooking at home).
Once you get the basics, you can tailor it more to your specific needs and your personal details. This list is for you alone, so be very honest; lying to yourself is a sure way to let yourself down later. You can be accountable to a buddy then, if you want.
Write or print out your goal list and post it in an area personal to you, bedroom door or bathroom mirror—someplace you will see it every day before you head to the kitchen.
Success or failure is literally all in your head. Many people today start off with “diet” as a negative thing, equating it almost exclusively with deprivation of delicious food. But half the battle is changing that mindset. Healthy eating does not have to mean bland food. We’ve simply been programmed to believe that by countless marketers.
It’s also important not to confuse diet with nutrition. The Huffington Post recently posted a fantastic article explaining the difference. In a nutshell, diets do work if you think about them the right way.
They break “diet” down as an acronym: a diet is simply “Decide (how) I’ll Eat Today.”
“No one’s perfect, and trying to be perfect overnight is just going to derail you.”
And that really is the core of it: decide how you’ll eat today. When you stop in the convenience store for your coffee, choose for today to have an apple or banana instead of the donut (the fruit is actually cheaper, too). It’s still sweet, but it’s got nutrition the donut doesn’t. Or decide for today on a salad instead of a burger at the drive-thru or restaurant. If you’re at home cooking, the simple choice of a chicken breast over a burger patty today can make a difference. Start with today; then you can worry about tomorrow.
One step at a time, one meal at a time. One shopping trip at a time. Can’t pass up the chips today? Buy a small bag (yes, it’s not a better deal money-wise, but it’s a better deal health-wise), and add a bag of baby carrots as well. Just make sure you decide to eat both as well.
No one’s perfect, and trying to be perfect overnight is just going to derail you. We all have comfort food triggers, and some days, all the grapes in the world aren’t going to make up for a bowl of mashed potatoes. So have a small bowl, but don’t eat it feeling guilty—enjoy it, let it comfort you. Be gentle with yourself without catering to previous habits. It’s all in the attitude. By choosing smaller portions of the maybe-not-so-great-for-us foods we love best, having them only occasionally, and supplementing with healthier additions alongside, the sense of deprivation and misery with a “diet” fades, and we’re better able to stick to our goals.
Basically, the shorter the ingredient list, the more naturally nutritious the food. Another tip is that frozen fruits and vegetables tend to retain more nutrients than canned.
Dieting does require some willpower as well. But willpower isn’t “I’m not going to eat those potato chips sitting on the counter”—it’s “I’m not going to buy those potato chips this trip. Then they won’t be staring at me from the counter in the first place.” That said, knowing which chips have better nutrients can help when that willpower fails—“I might have bought chips, but I bought more nutritious chips than usual, and I’ll share them over dinner with Dave.”
Many times right eating decisions start with preparation at the grocery store. Willpower starts with you being proactive when it counts, and your current choices in the cart will translate into better cooking and eating habits at home.
Do be aware, though, that not all “healthy” foods are actually healthy. When manufacturers take out fat, they tend to add sugar; when they take out sugar, they tend to add fat or one of many artificial sweeteners. And low-fat and no-fat processing is generally done chemically. Preservatives, designed to prolong shelf life, are chemical as well. Basically, the shorter the ingredient list, the more naturally nutritious the food. Another tip is that frozen fruits and vegetables tend to retain more nutrients than canned.
One of the best things you can do is to cook at home with whole, wholesome ingredients. We’re not all gourmet chefs, and we don’t have to be. There are dozens of cookbooks and hundreds of websites for simple, delicious meals that don’t require any more kitchen knowledge than boiling water and handling a knife. Even one home-prepared dinner a week can make a difference.
How Do I Choose the Right Diet for Me?
Choosing a diet is extremely tough for many people simply because of the sheer number of choices and the sheer volume of marketing. Blog reviews, celebrity endorsements, television shows, and infomercials all proclaim the next high “miracle” diet. So how do you navigate those waters?
The New York Times ran a great article in May of 2016 on diets and the reason so many people fail at them. The problem is literally all in our heads—neuroscience.
Metabolic suppression is one of several powerful tools that the brain uses to keep the body within a specific weight range, called the setpoint. The range, which varies from person to person, is determined by genes and life experience. … The brain’s weight-regulation system considers your set point to be the correct weight for you, whether or not your doctor agrees. If someone starts at 120 pounds and drops to 80, her brain rightfully declares a starvation state of emergency, using every method available to get that weight back up to standard. 
Looking for a “miracle” isn’t going to do the trick. Looking for a lifestyle instead, something you can stick with long-term, something you can enjoy along the way…
So regardless of which program we try, if the goal is quick weight loss, we’re literally at war with our own body, and it’s going to be a tough fight. And truth be told, the industry knows it:
In private, even the diet industry agrees that weight loss is rarely sustained. A report for members of the industry stated: “In 2002, 231 million Europeans attempted some form of diet. Of these only, 1 percent will achieve permanent weight loss.” 
Looking for a “miracle” isn’t going to do the trick. Looking for a lifestyle instead, something you can stick with long-term, something you can enjoy along the way, will go a long way to beating back the enemy in your brain.
The first step in mapping out that victory is talking to your doctor. And while many doctors will simply tell you, “You need to lose weight,” they don’t always go beyond that as to how. So it’s up to you to ask the right questions.
- What (if any) medical conditions do I have?
- What medications (if any) am I taking and what sorts of foods may react badly with them (grapefruit is well-known interferon with many drugs)
- What types of exercise should I start with?
- Within what time frame should I be building up my exercise?
The next step is to combine the list from your doctor with your self-evaluation from earlier, and your goal list. Combining the information from all three will help you narrow your research starting point.
Navigating the sea of diet options can be hazardous. And avoiding the sharks—companies out to scam you—takes some savvy. Here are some tips for avoiding sharks:
How long has the company been in business? Anything less than a year should be approached with caution. You can check the Better Business Bureau website; most reputable companies have profiles and list when they started.
Is the product/program sold in stores and major online retailers, sold only through the company website or “distributors,” or both?
The object is to trim your waistline, not your wallet. Product and pill diets tend to be the most expensive; cookbook-style plans less.
Does the company have any noteworthy certifications? Keep in mind that “FDA registered” and “FDA-approved” are not the same thing. Labs must be registered, whether a product is approved or not. And the FDA only approves drugs—anything classified as a supplement isn’t under regulation.
Are testimonials verifiable? Are outside reviews available, or is the only opinion the praise on the company paraphernalia?
Does the marketing use any of the following buzzwords: miracle, astonishing, astounding, groundbreaking, or “rush my trial today!”? Is there an excess of exclamation points in the text?
Be wary of “free trial” offers. Many of them automatically “enroll” you in an auto-ship program, noted only in their Terms and Conditions, which most people never read. This means that in x days from when you place the order, they’ll ship you another bottle of the product without notifying you again, and charge your bank card a very high price, and they’ll do it every month until you call and cancel. And getting hold of someone to cancel it is rarely easy.
Be careful with distributor programs. Oft times if something goes wrong, the corporate office will tell you they don’t have any liability for offenses by their distributors. Find out up front who you deal with if there’s a problem.
Finally, it’s essential to choose a diet you can afford. The object is to trim your waistline, not your wallet. Product and pill diets tend to be the most expensive; cookbook-style plans less. But only you know which format is right for you.
Diet Trends, Good or Bad?
America has been a dieting culture to one degree or another since the late nineteenth century. And diet trends are as common as rainfall. A lot of them are little more than hype, which tends to make us skeptical. But not all diet trends are wrong; there are some which have stood the test of time and have been around for decades. And even those change as we learn more about nutrition.
For example, low-fat diets have been around since the early 1950s, rising to the status of almost an ideology. But many low-fat and no-fat foods add sugar and salt, which are also significant contributors to obesity and other medical problems. Confusing labels and conflicting information from health professionals and the media just make it worse.
Trendy diets either stand or fall; some almost immediately, some over time, either because they simply don’t work, or because they’re not sustainable in the long-term. The trick is to understand your body is unique, and too much of anything is never a great idea. Whole, unprocessed foods never go out of style, though, and adjusting your mindset to include that fact will help you find the right plan for you.
So what makes a proper diet versus a “fad,” and is there a way to tell at a glance? There are at least a few useful guidelines:
Is It Sustainable?
Can you stick with it without feeling miserable? We tend to think of diets as a punishment rather than enlightenment. The thing is, even the worst offenses shouldn’t be punished forever. Any food that leaves you miserable for months on end isn’t going to stand the test of time.
NOTE: Anything under 1200 calories a day is not healthy by just about any medical professional’s judgment. For a week, maybe; but mostly it just puts your body in starvation mode, where it’ll hang onto every single fat cell it can — kind of defeats the purpose.
Our bodies need all three groups of nutrients to function correctly. Protein feeds our brain and our muscles; studies have shown that schoolchildren who don’t eat breakfast don’t perform as well in class not only because they’re distracted by being hungry, but because their brains don’t have the fuel to function correctly. Carbohydrates give us the energy to move and help in brain function as well. One early side effect of low-carb diets is known as “keto-flu,” and the symptoms include a general lethargy and “brain fog.” Fats provide a backup source of fuel, maintain core body temperature, and absorb certain nutrients.
Does It Encourage the Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables?
Yes, fruit contains sugar, but it’s natural instead of processed, and whole grains are nutrient-rich as well. As long as you’re not eating only fruits (recommendations range from 2-4 servings per day), but incorporating vegetables as well, any proper diet should include generous amounts of this vital group. And there’s nothing better than a mango-blueberry salad with plenty of dark leafy greens as a backdrop.
Does It Encourage Exercise as Well as Diet?
No diet, no matter how many endorsements and testimonials it has, is going to work correctly from the cushy comfort of the couch — not one. Our bodies were made to move; unfortunately, most of us now have jobs where we sit for hours. Any diet promising dramatic or even moderate weight loss without any sort of movement at all is blowing smoke. The simple act of taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or parking twenty spaces further out than you usually do and walking the extra distance, is a step toward a healthier you. Getting up from your desk each hour and walking the length of a hallway and back (there’s science behind this) improves both health and productivity. A solid diet plan should include some form of exercise.
Is It Overly Expensive for What You Get?
This gets harder because the expense is a subjective concept. But some diets are so blatantly overpriced it’s almost comical. Check reviews for this one, if you can; keep in mind that reports on a company website generally skew very positive, because that’s marketing—they don’t make money if their own website has reviews calling their plan “useless.”
There are several diet plans in the last decade, or so that is multi-faceted: they include a food/exercise plan, but they also include a lot of supplements they claim you just can’t do without. Energy drinks, herbal cleanses, and vitamin supplements—all designed to make you think you’re getting a lot for the massive price tag you’re paying. The problem is a lot of them—one example is the Advocare diet—have far more interest in selling product than in actually working. Many, but not all of them, are actually multi-level marketing setups, where distributors get paid not only for the product they sell but how many more affiliates they can sign up. Reviews for Advocare aren’t great, and you can find similar products across the market for less money.
One of the most influential endorsers out there today is Dr. Mehmet Oz. A product gets touted on his show; it’s likely to see a considerable boost in sales. The problem is, just because he endorses it, doesn’t mean it works.
Let’s look at some popular “featured” diets in terms of those guidelines.
Benefiber has never been touted as a diet plan; it’s first and foremost a fiber supplement. But fiber doesn’t just keep our digestive system “regular”—preventing both constipation and loose stools. Fiber also takes longer to break down, resulting in an extended period of “feeling full.” Benefiber powder mixes with any liquid or soft food, is tasteless, is widely available, and is not expensive. So sustainable, affordable, and easy to add to a healthy, fresh food, get-out-and-move lifestyle. But not a weight loss miracle, and it doesn’t claim to be. A useful Benefiber review can be found here.
Metabolife Ultra is a diet pill that makes a lot of promises, much like its predecessor, Metabolife Complete. What it doesn’t make is a case for healthy foods and exercise — active ingredients Garcinia cambogia and caffeine claim to melt fat and boost metabolism while squelching your appetite. Most of the reviews indicate it does neither more than mildly. This Metabolife Ultra review concludes that, in short, it promises big and performs small.
Shakes and smoothies have been a diet trend staple for a long time. Beachbody LLC’s Shakeology weight loss shakes offer the standard: convenience with alleged nutrition. And there’s nothing wrong with on-the-go amenities in our busy world. But Shakeology is also one of the highest-priced prepackaged shakes on the market at $5.41 per serving. And the calorie count is too low to serve as a proper meal replacement. Remember that 1200 calorie minimum safe limit? That means for three meals, each should average 400 calories. Shakeology shakes are only 150 calories when mixed with water. Beachbody LLC does stress a workout plan as well, but overall these shakes seem to be more geared to workout recovery than actual diet. And there are much cheaper alternatives on the market.
NOTE: Shakeology contains Ashwaganda, which should never be ingested if you’re pregnant or nursing.
One of the most influential endorsers out there today is Dr. Mehmet Oz. A product gets touted on his show, it’s likely to see a huge boost in sales. The problem is, just because he endorses it, doesn’t mean it works. Diet trends will come and go, but a healthy lifestyle can last a lifetime.
Meratrim is another diet pill, available from several brands, claiming to inhibit fat cell production, so your body burns more of what’s already stored. It claims clinical research backing, but it turns out that research was heavily biased toward the company. A lot of people bought it because Dr. Oz endorsed it, only to find it not only didn’t work, but came with a lot of gastrointestinal side effects. This seems to have been one of the products that led to the credibility-downslide of the popular television doctor. Expensive and not touting a healthy lifestyle in tandem with its product, Meratrim doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny at all.
Sometimes a product can meet all the guidelines and still be short-lived simply because technology is always moving forward. Fitness trackers—watchlike devices designed to track your steps, pulse rate, food eaten in some cases, and calories burned—have come into their own in the past decade. Bodybugg was one of the first. Developed by the same company that owns 24-Hour Fitness gyms, it combined the armband device with an online tool. But it wasn’t very user-friendly, came with a lot of extra fees, and soon it was outclassed by more sophisticated devices like Fitbit. Bodybugg was discontinued in January of 2016.
Generally, anything with “Phen” in the name is at least trying to look like Phentermine, a prescription-only drug designed for extreme weight loss in a short amount of time. It’s to be used under the strictest of doctor supervision, has myriad side effects, and is specifically for seriously overweight people (100-plus pounds) who haven’t had any luck with other methods—or who need to get down to a safe weight for surgery. So if a product is using “Phen” as part of their name, they’re trying to convince you their product gets the same results.
Problem is, none of these products do. Phen375, for example, contains no phentermine at all (it’s illegal outside prescription substances). It relies on caffeine, cayenne pepper—said to raise the body’s core temperature so it burns more fat…this isn’t proven—and L-Carnitine, and promises “immediate results” when used with their meal plan.
Its cost is sky-high ($140 per month) and reviews for Phen375 on other sites are less than inspiring. It’s sold only through its website or “affiliates,” so finding candid, objective customer reviews takes some digging. Red flags all over the place on this one.
Diet trends will come and go, but a healthy lifestyle can last a lifetime. Knowing yourself, setting realistic goals, being smart about researching programs, and knowing how to spot a scam can all help you find a diet that will work best for you. But even the best diet still takes the decision to make a change, and make it every single day. And the hardest part is changing your mindset from “this is punishment for eating bad” to “it’s time to get better.”
Start today by doing one healthy thing. Whether it’s exchanging your soda for water for one meal, picking the apple over the donut, or taking that 10-minute walk, do one thing. Then tomorrow, do two. The next day, three, and so on. It takes three weeks to establish a habit, and by then you’ll have added twenty-one healthy choices to your life.
If you do choose to follow a plan or take a supplement, be smart. There is nothing more frustrating than investing your hard-earned money on a program or product that does not work. Watch out for the warning signs of a scam, and do a little searching on individual ingredients to make sure they actually do what the marketing claims. Take side effect reports seriously. And always let your doctor know what you’re doing or taking.
Stay focused; some days will be easier than others. Even days when you have to argue with yourself for that good choice, you’re still making it. Enlist a friend to help you stay accountable.
Stay hopeful; shake off the stumbles and start again. Indulge when you need to, but keep it in check; sometimes all you need is a small treat combined with your bigger healthy choice. Try new foods; you never know when a fruit or vegetable you’ve never had before will become a new favorite. The Web is bursting with healthy recipes to bring out the best in your meals.
And most of all, move forward; make each day a step in the right direction. The right diet really can change your health, your mood, and your life.