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November 8, 2012

The 5 Phases of Successful Dieting

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” –Tony Robbins

Going on a diet is a predictable process. After 15 years in the fitness industry and having worked with hundreds of nutrition clients, I’ve started to pick up on distinct phases that clients go through. Having yo-yo’ed myself for years and watched it happen with competitors and people who go too strict for too long, the dieting process is fairly predictable–not easy–but easy to anticipate.

Some parts are tougher than others, and it’s important to understand each piece so that we can create a plan of attack when things start to get difficult. When we know what to expect, we can prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally for those times that we want to give up and revert to the old way.

Many people are jaded by diets and the process. That is completely understandable; I get dozens of emails every week from women who have “tried every diet out there” and after years of trying, are no better off, and in many ways are worse off–fatter, with more metabolic damage, not to mention mentally exhausted. I totally get it.

So how to do you get past the tough parts once and for all to establish a foothold at the more effortless sustainability phase? By first understanding the process, then understanding when the difficulties are most likely to rise and then knowing how to move through those obstacles, rather than backing off, giving up and marking another diet off the list as a failure.

Here are the phases, including what to expect, when to anticipate difficulties and how to navigate them:

Phase 1: Excitement

Humans are funny–we get more excited about looking and planning for a diet than actually doing one. We get excited in the anticipation of starting a new plan and the potential for this one to be THE one that finally works for us. We tell everyone what we are going to do, print out the meal plan, buy the food, prep it, get all set to get results that this plan will deliver.

What to do: This is great, and excitement is better than not, BUT the insight in this phase is that we often are already putting our success in someone/something else’s hands. By relying on “the plan” rather than our ability to actually DO the plan, we are forced to make something completely foreign to us work. Can it happen? Sure, for short periods of time anyway–like a contest prep. But if you want to be successful long term, start now by taking OWNERSHIP of your expectations and your willingness to do the work necessary. There’s no miracle plan and understanding this up front allows us to ready ourselves mentality for the fact that we cannot rely on “the plan,” but instead need to work IT.

Phase 2: Overhaul

The first 2-4 weeks of a new diet are when we are now doing something that is fairly foreign to us–new foods, new prep techniques, new schedule, new workouts, new amount of MENTAL ENERGY needed to comply. I call this the Overhaul because we have taken what we used to do and have ditched it for something completely new. The excitement is usually fairly strong here because most dieters will lose 5-10 lbs in the first 1-2 weeks via shedding water and those kind of fast results motivate us to keep going.

What to do: In this phase, it is important to realize that doing someone else’s plan for you might be fine for the first 2-4 weeks because you are motivated, but eventually, your old habits have a way of creeping back in if you don’t stay aware and take responsibility. Prepare yourself mentally for that and examine all the new actions you are taking and decide which ones you might be able to continue to do long-term, and which ones will need adjustment. The more realistic and HONEST you can be with yourself at this point, the better you will do. Make a list and mark all aspects that will be tough to do long-term and provide yourself an alternative way of doing it that works for you.

Phase 3: Struggle

This is actually very predictable, and happens around 4-6 weeks into a new plan–things start to get tough, we stop seeing results as quickly (or at all) and we want to give up. We say, Welp, this one isn’t for me. Back to the drawing board. THIS POINT IS THE MOST CRITICAL FOR YOUR LONG-TERM SUCCESS. What you do here determines your ability to move forward or fail again. It is the people who move through this phase that ultimately figure it out and find an easier, more sustainable approach.

What to do: Awareness that this will happen is the first step. Knowing that, once again, there is no magic plan that will work for you. If you want it to work, you have to WORK IT. And at this point, you need to buckle down and work your ass off–meaning, lean into the struggle to figure it out. Don’t give up. Put your big-girl pants on and take responsibility for figuring out this phase. Metabolic Effect calls this “being a dieting detective” because you honestly need to figure out how you can continue on at this point, figuring out what work for you, asking questions, getting introspective. Look at what you’re doing and ask, what is working for me? What is not? What can I do long-term? What is unsustainable? How can I make my NEW habits work with my OLD habits??

An example would be morning workouts. You might be motivated to work out first thing in the morning for the first few weeks (as the diet outlines) but you are not a morning person so after a while, your old habits of staying up too late, hitting snooze a thousand times and then sleeping past your workouts start to occur. This is not a judgment–this is simply the reality and the power of habits. They own us–our conscious intentions do not, in the long run. Which is why at this point, we need to address HABITS. How can we take old habits and replace them with new ones? Getting up early might not be the answer for you, but instead give yourself permission to work out after work instead. But then do whatever you need to do to make sure you don’t skip. Plan your day, balance your energy, make an appointment you won’t miss.

This phase is all about action and finding shortcuts. Implement what can work for you long-term, and for the things that won’t, find an alternative. Be methodical and systematic. Avoid the temptation to say screw it without doing your homework! It is also at this point that you have to give up the idea of needing to be perfect with your actions. Give up the all-or-nothing dieting mindset and give yourself permission to struggle through the tough parts. And just do your best.

The toughest moments are also the most transformative. Take the reigns at this point, and own your journey, own your results, own your future.

Phase 4: Accountability

This phase occurs 8-12 weeks in and there is usually a shift here. We have taken ownership of the process, taken what seems to work for us, ditched some pieces and are moving forward, even if it’s at a slower pace. We are struggling through our new habits. Not getting it right every time, but giving ourselves permission to do our best and staying aware of the struggles that arise.

What to do: This is also a very important time for you in terms of long-term success because we are still at risk of resorting to our old way. At this point, we need some outside motivation to keep us going, and this is best found in the company of others doing the same thing–finding people who also want to live a lean lifestyle forever and are trying to figure it out. They say that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, so surrounding yourself with people who are doing what you are and who SUPPORT you is important. This can be in person, or online.

Phase 5: Ownership

You have gotten past the the most acutely difficult parts and have come to understand that your results depend on you, and on your ability to make the best choices day in and day out. Consistency is what matters, and though you might not get it right every time, you are doing it 90%+ of the time and are starting to live the lifestyle. You have owned your identity as a fit person. Things that used to be difficult are starting to get easier, old habits have fallen away and you are working your process. This part can last forever, if you continue to create your success one meal at a time, one workout at a time, one day at a time. You realize that your results are your business, and you do what you need to do on a daily basis to assure long-term success.

What to do: The goal in this phase is to never feel super-deprived, but never eat everything you want either. The goal is moderation. In order to accomplish this and make this a LIFESTYLE, you’ll need to set up rituals and habits that can you do long-term. Examples include a single weekly cheat meal, sticking to a lifting schedule with a workout buddy, allowing yourself 2-3 preemptive cheats each week, and never completely depriving yourself because you know it will only lead to bingeing and worse indulgences later.

Final thoughts

This is obviously not the end of the journey, since there will always be people who live a fit lifestyle for a long time and end up falling off the wagon years later. But this process works, so wherever you are in your journey, remember to stay aware and take responsibility.

Tight nutrition and consistent training are part of a feed-forward cycle. The more you do them, the easier it becomes to keep doing them. When you make choices that take you out of that cycle, just jump back in wherever you are. No choices are irreversible. There is always an opportunity for you to jump back into a lean lifestyle. Don’t get overwhelmed and call yourself a failure. Don’t buy into your own negative self-talk–JUST DO SOMETHING. Action is the fastest way back to results!

Best of luck! But more importantly, best of YOU! ox Jill


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