- Studies suggest that making sudden extreme changes to your diet is often not sustainable.
- According to research, people are more likely to give up on their goals if they feel too challenged..
- Experts agree that extreme and abrupt changes can be both mentally and physically challenging..
- Focusing on the small improvements you can make on a daily basis is key.
For many people, the new year is an opportunity to review habits and make big changes to their lifestyle, especially when it comes to diet. Sometimes that means going on a very different diet than you were on before.
It can be tempting to go to extremes on the cusp of a new year, but abrupt changes can be hard to stick to, and many people often slip back into old habits quickly.
In fact, scientific studies suggest that making big, sweeping changes to your diet may not produce the best results.
Another study suggests that people tend to choose the path of least resistance, and when it comes to changing our behaviors, dietary or otherwise, we’re more likely to give up if the change seems too challenging.
If you’re on a mission to review your eating habits this year, the results of the above studies may seem daunting, but health experts suggest there are other ways to form healthy habits.
According to Sasha Parkin, a nutritional therapist at Wild Nutrition, one of the reasons extreme changes are so hard to stick to is that it takes time for the body to adjust.
“If you signed up to run a marathon, you wouldn’t expect your body to be able to complete it the day after you signed up,” he notes. “Doing mass dietary reviews is a bit like that. It’s very taxing on the body, and when it’s not working, which research shows is often the case, it’s extremely demotivating.”
Decreased motivation aside, a lot happens on a physical level when you try to change too much too fast.
“If we’ve been eating the same type of diet for months or years, and then we decide to drastically change this in a short period of time, it’s going to be a shock to the system,” says Parkin.
“This can cause unfavorable effects, such as blood sugar control problems, feeling fatigued, and even increasing our stress hormone cortisol, which in turn tells our bodies to retain excess fat.”
Over time, Parkin says, crash dieting can eventually lead to dysregulation of the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, which can, frustratingly, make improvements even more difficult if you decide to try again.
Of course, not everything is physical. When you review your eating habits, there is often a lot going on mentally as well.
“Studies show that when people change and severely restrict their diet, they tend to worry with thoughts about food and crave food. As willpower and motivation are finite, the level of restriction is often unsustainable,” explains Chartered Psychologist Catherine Hallissey.
In turn, this can lead to feelings of personal failure, self-criticism, and guilt, and increases the likelihood that you’ll seek solace through familiar comfort foods.
Hallissey says it all comes down to instant gratification. We want to see results fast. But it’s by delaying gratification and implementing small, manageable changes that we can really make sustainable improvements.
Whether it’s adding an extra serving of vegetables at dinner or committing to reducing portion sizes, making one or two small changes at a time is certainly easier to stick to and less mentally and physically challenging.
“Starting small avoids unnecessary stress on the body and can make for a more enjoyable experience, one that focuses on self-care rather than self-depreciation,” says Parkin. “In turn, this promotes a sense of accomplishment when we can kick off new habits, for example, having a healthy lunch or avoiding that second cookie.”
Parkin says that the dopamine hit we get when we achieve something promotes the positive cycle that encourages us to continue on the path.
Another reason small changes are easier to stick with is that it takes time to build a habit.
You may have heard that it takes 21 days for a new behavior to become a habit, but some estimates suggest it can take much longer.
According to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a new behavior to become automatic.
When it comes to diet, your new habits need time to take hold.
“Small changes require less willpower to stick with. This means that, over a gradual period, they are easier to maintain and more likely to become habitual,” explains Hallissey.
Parkin points out that bad habits didn’t form overnight, and breaking them won’t be a quick process either.
So how exactly do you take a more gradual approach to forming healthier habits?
Parkin says it’s very individual, but the ideal is to wait three months to see a really positive change.
She advises mastering one change at a time and taking a meal-by-meal approach. “Start with a healthy breakfast. Once you’re happy with this, move on to lunch and see what improvements you can make there.
Hallissey recommends a similar approach. She says it’s about focusing on small behaviors that she can do on a daily basis, like gradually increasing her water intake from three glasses to four or slowly reducing the number of tablespoons of sugar she has in her tea.
“Once these changes become automatic, consider adding new changes,” she advises, noting that it’s all about adding new healthy habits one at a time, rather than trying to do them all at once.
Adapting your environment to support your goals can further cement your new habits.
“Lasting change is easier when you change your environment to support your new habit, rather than relying on willpower and motivation,” Hallissey explains. “This is even more important when you’re busy, tired, or stressed.”
To create an environment that sets you up for success, she advises preparing meals, always having healthy snacks on hand, and a bottle of water nearby.
Hallissey also believes that letting go of the perfectionist mindset is key.
“Remember that perfection isn’t the goal, so don’t take an all-or-nothing approach,” she advises. “Instead, make use of the two-day rule. The two-day rule simply means that you do your best not to skip the new habit a second time. So, for example, if you missed the gym one day, you make sure to go the next day.”
As you approach any new goal, it can be tempting to make extreme changes, but experts say abrupt and quick fixes are unlikely to lead to lasting change.
You may find that demotivating, but you may choose to view it as a positive. You don’t have to deprive yourself or go to extremes to make improvements. You can make positive changes with less effort, and as a result, those new habits are more likely to stick. It’s a win-win.
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