The average adult will try an estimated 126 different diets in their lifetime, according to one poll. Yet nearly all of them fail. That's because even when a diet is successful in the short term, it's almost always impossible to stick with over the long term, so we give up.

Why do we try all these diets? Precisely because they don’t work, so we just keep trying new quick fixes, thinking it's us that fail, not the diet. But I can attest to the fact that as a registered dietician, I have seen and heard of every possible diet and listened to tales of woe from hundreds of clients. And here's what I always tell them: Long-term results are never achieved by so-called diets, which are, by their very nature, temporary, restrictive, and can leave us harboring self-destructive and detrimental habits. They teach what not to do!

So how can we best unlearn the harmful habits from fad diets with effective strategies for long-term health? Here are five pieces of sage advice from a Registered Dietician to help you navigate implementing a healthy, plant-based diet that will set you up for a lifetime of health.

1. Don't Group Food Into ‘Good’ vs ‘Bad’

Diet culture certainly teaches us that there are ‘Allowed/Good’ foods vs ‘Off-Limits/Bad’ foods. The reality is that, in isolation, no food is good or bad. It’s overall diet patterns that matter. There is nothing inherently wrong with indulging in your favorite vegan donut. Attaching morality to food creates unnecessary guilt, fear, and shame around eating. When you feel guilty and ashamed for eating something, what are you likely to do next? Drown those emotions by consuming more of that food that made you feel guilty and ashamed.

Taking a more neutral stance towards food can help take the guilt out of eating and make food more enjoyable again. Instead of classifying food into “Good” and ‘Bad” try asking yourself about how you are feeling after eating a certain food. How does that food taste, how does it feel in your body? This helps you approach food with curiosity vs judgment.

Yellow lentils, pumpkin, roasted turmeric cauliflower and vegetables in one bowl - healthy vegetarian food on a dark background, top view
Getty Images/iStockphoto

2. Count Colourful Plants Instead of Numbers

Delete that calorie counting app from your phone and just eat lots of colorful plants. Focusing too much on counting calories can lead to obsessive behavior around food, can cause that disconnect with our body, and can reduce the pleasure in eating. Favoring the number of plants over calories or points, just makes sense.

Calorie for calorie, plants are the most nutrient-dense out of all the foods. There is also so much data around the healing properties of plant-based diets – it’s overwhelming. Plants are naturally low in calories and provide a lot of satiating fiber – which animal products don’t have – so weight loss will be a natural consequence of eating more colorful plants. As well, eating a variety of plants will help to diversify your gut microbiome, which is always being linked to various aspects of our health, along with our weight.

3. Don't Fear Carbohydrates

There always seems to be some food or food component that diet culture likes to blame for all of our weight/health concerns. For the past decade, it’s been carbohydrates. Previously, it was fat. Carbohydrates are important. They’re the preferred fuel source for our bodies. I’m a marathon runner and I would not be able to complete my long runs without carbohydrates for fuel. Carbohydrates also have the function of sparing protein; without carbohydrates, we would likely begin to use precious muscle for fuel.

It’s also important to remember that not all carbohydrates act in our bodies in the same way. Those whole, high-fiber carbohydrates are going to keep your blood sugars more stable and keep you fueled for longer than an ultra-processed piece of candy.

Let’s stop classifying all foods that contain carbohydrates in the same way and let’s remove the fear from this macronutrient. Our body requires carbohydrates.

4. Focus on Preparing Real, Whole Foods

Whole and real foods are so much more satisfying than processed foods. Not only are whole foods more nutritious with the intact fiber and retained vitamins and minerals, but there is also a psychological component of preparing a meal yourself vs quickly heating up a readily prepared meal.

It’s so much easier and time-efficient to pop that veggie burger in the microwave, especially since we are living such fast-paced lives. But psychologically, heating up a frozen meal and then quickly moving onto the next task, causes us to look at eating as just a ‘checkbox’ on our to-do list. There’s no enjoyment in that. Instead, we should embrace cooking as a form of self-care. The actual act of making sustenance for yourself and others is significant. It sends a message that you are important. It also can help raise self-esteem and confidence. In addition, it’s a practice of mindfulness – which is a significant tool in helping to reduce stress. By now, I think we all know the harmful effects of stress.

5. Keep Closer Tabs on Internal Hunger Cues

We are so disconnected from our bodies in today’s world – in a variety of ways. However, we are especially disconnected from our hunger cues. We are very aware of our hunger at the beginning of life – but this becomes muddled as life goes on. One reason for losing our hunger signals stems from diet culture; we eat according to external food rules (points, calories, etc). Or perhaps we learn to eat according to a schedule; breakfast is at 7 am, lunch is at 12 pm, etc. If we are not very aware of when we are actually hungry, then we are not aware of when we are actually full. This is the perfect storm for overeating and binge eating. We can try a few things to help get back in touch with those internal hunger cues again. You can start with trying to ensure that you are eating enough, as an undernourished body won’t provide accurate hunger cues.

Next, you can try to rank your hunger on a scale of zero to 10, before during, and after eating.  These are just a few things that have helped my clients get back in touch with their hunger cues.

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