Something I hear people say from time-to-time in defense of extreme 30-day-type diets is that they help you create healthy habits.
This is perhaps the most ass-backwards things I’ve ever heard.
Creating new and sustainable healthy habits is about incrementally adding positive changes on top of what you already do.
On the other hand, trying to create “new healthy habits” by removing a large selection of food choices would be like quitting your job so that you’ll be able to create the habit of going to the gym.
Well yeah… if you don’t have much else to do, then sure it’ll be relatively easy to start working out.
But you wouldn’t have really created a lasting habit for exercise. You didn’t find a way to make it work with your life. You created a temporary artificial context that made it happen by default.
Similarly… well OF COURSE you’ll eat more fruits, vegetables, and lean protein if you avoid beans, dairy, grains, sugar, and perhaps other foods. You have to eat SOMETHING, right?
But this isn’t the same as creating new habits for eating more fruits, more veggies, or more protein – it’s another temporary artificial context that makes these things happen nearly by default.
When the time comes sooner or later for you to return to a less restrictive diet, you will likely find you have not truly developed the habits of integrating these foods into your diet. You didn’t practice getting more veggies in in combination with your favorite and regular recipes – you practiced how to get more veggies when doing a super-restrictive diet. Not the same thing.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you personally have the potential to make the habit changes stick. So let’s look at what is at risk other than a month wasted and healthy habits not formed.
For starters, cultivating the habit of being fearful of totally safe foods after 30 days of people telling you how “toxic” they are. So I guess maybe there is a habit-change component to these diets… but it’s not a good one. It’s often reported that these types of dietary challenges acted as a catalyst to a full blown eating disorder.
Similarly, this period of internalizing this narrative of “these foods hurt a lot of people” or “these foods cause inflammation” and you make yourself more prone to suffering negative consequences due to the nocebo effect.
The nocebo effect is similar to the placebo effect in that one’s beliefs impact the reaction experienced. Whereas the placebo effect causes positive outcomes (“I took this pill and my knee is all better! What do you mean it was just sugar? Impossible!”), the nocebo effect causes negative outcomes (“Ever since I learned how inflammatory grains are, my stomach is hurting a lot more!”).
It doesn’t necessarily stop at the nocebo effect though. If on a diet that eliminates dairy for an extended period of time, our bodies start to down-regulate production of the enzyme needed for digestion, which can then lead to discomfort upon reintroducing dairy products.
In other words, these diets that are allegedly about helping you “uncover” sensitivities can actually CREATE sensitivities.
Side note: if you believe an elimination diet could be beneficial for you to uncover a dietary trigger for a condition you have, ask your doctor for a referral to see a Registered Dietitian. Elimination diets require the clinical expertise of a Registered Dietitian – not fad diet gurus.
One last negative consequence to consider, though I’m sure there are dozens more, is what type of attitudes do you think you’ll develop about the “approved” foods? If every time you want ice cream you’re force feeding yourself a sweet potato, how positively are you going to view that sweet potato? I’m gonna guess on day 31 you’re never going to want to see a sweet potato again.
So far we’ve talked about why viewing a restrictive diet as a way to create new healthy habits is misguided and also the very serious risks long term of these types of diets. So what do we do to create positive changes?
- Simply focusing on ADDING the new behaviors – not randomly abstaining from other habits in hopes that good ones will fall in place. Let’s literally just focus on adding in the good ones! The most direct way to eat more vegetables: focus on eating more vegetables.
- Build those behaviors on top of things you already do – for nutrition changes, this is relatively straightforward. Examples: a salad every day with lunch, pairing your favorite pasta dish with two different types of vegetables, adding a banana to your toast and peanut butter. This stuff isn’t fancy – it just works. You don’t need a list of 20 foods to avoid, you just need to add something you want to do on top of something you already do.
- Focus on ONE change at a time – the fewer changes you focus on at any given time, the greater your chance for success. Zero would be a crappy number to focus on, so by default that gives us one as a pretty damn good choice.
- Surround yourself with like-minded people who are focused on creating healthy habit changes without succumbing to restrictive fad diets. Amber Rogers and I created this community online with the Habit Project™, where people work on becoming strong, confident, and healthy working on one habit at a time. In real life, you can focus on making sure to spend more time with people focused on adding positive behaviors rather than creating restrictive behaviors.
I hope this article helped to outline why short term diets are not only a poor approach towards creating positive changes but also have a high potential of being counter-productive. Likewise, I hope you’re now clearer on what to do instead.
The Habit Project is a Registered Trademark of Sean Flanagan Fitness & Nutrition, Oakland CA 2016