Why Diets Fail

You not only have the best of intentions, but you’ve also got a solid plan — and you thought you had a steel will to match. So why can’t you just stick to your stinking diet?

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As a reader of Oxygen, you’re probably not planning to become a contestant on the next season of The Biggest Loser. But we all know that sometimes life can throw us curveballs — job changes, kids, relationship upheavals — that can throw us off our game for a while. And when the dust finally settles, we find ourselves needing to get back into fighting trim.

So what’s a girl to do when that happens? That’s right: Go on a diet. We’re not talking a crazy fad diet — as a fitness-minded woman, you know you can’t survive on 500 calories a day or cut entire food groups out of your life and actually be successful over the long haul. You know you need small, frequent meals with lots of protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. So why are you having trouble just doing it?

The problem, says Gregg Steinberg, a sports psychologist in Nashville, Tenn., and author of Full Throttle (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2009), is probably somewhere between your mind and your emotions. “You have to be aware of your emotions and what’s creating your habit,” he explains. “You have to know, ‘When I’m stressed, I like to eat.’ ‘When some adverse thing happens to me at work, I just shut down.’ So the first step is to be aware of our emotions and how they’ve driven our habits in a certain direction.”

Because everyone (no, it’s not just you!) tends to fall back into old patterns under pressure, the key to long-lasting change is creating new habits to carry you through the tough moments. That means recognizing, again, the emotional state you’re in, but then intentionally creating a positive link between it and the new behavior you’re trying to make habitual. “Everyone is going to get stressed, have bad days, feel de-motivated sometimes,” Steinberg says. But by linking negative emotions to positive habits — going to the gym or taking a walk — “then we create a healthy lifestyle that will last for the rest of our lives. They aren’t just diets,” he says. “They’re habits that become lasting change.”

Visualizing the goal is also a helpful tool for lasting success. But instead of plastering your work space with photos of your favorite fitness model and using that as a visual motivator to remind you to lay off the receptionist’s candy jar when that 3 p.m. slump strikes, Steinberg suggests remembering very specifically a time when you were at your peak — reaching back to a tangible place in your past when you felt like you were “in the zone” instead of reaching forward to a place you’ve probably never been and can’t relate to on a personal level. “I ask people, ‘When you were the healthiest and had the greatest push toward health, what buzzwords come to mind?’ They might say, ‘Hawaii sunset.’ That implies when they felt at peace, weren’t stressed out. It relates to a time when they were at their best, so they can relive those same emotions,” Steinberg explains.

Once you identify what those buzzwords are for you, use them to push yourself in the right direction every time you’re tempted to fall back into old habits. The result will be positive reinforcement until you succeed in creating the new habit. “I have this thing called the ‘triad of greatness,’” Steinberg says. “You’re emotionally aware of your best state and the ones that create problems in your life; you prepare yourself to have the correct emotions; and then you create the right habits. You don’t raise your game under pressure — all the great ones fall back into their habits. And anyone can do that.”