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Just because you lose weight on a diet doesn't mean it's a good diet

9Coach logo 9Coach 17/06/2018 Kimberly Gillan

a group of people standing in a room: 10-minute Tabata workout © Provided by Nine Digital Pty Ltd 10-minute Tabata workout Your best friend swans into a room, glowing in a new bodycon dress and singing the praises of her revolutionary new diet. She talks about the energy she has and how amazing she's feeling — all thanks to her newly adopted eating plan or superfood.

It's hard not to immediately copy what she's been doing.

But what we often fail to remember when admiring a person's weight loss is that you'll probably lose weight in the short-term by following any strict eating plan — whether it's counting calories, going Paleo, intermittent fasting or doing any kind of detox.

But can you keep it off long-term? That's the real question we should be asking, says "non-diet" dietitian Zoe Nicholson. 

"There are lots of diets that 'work' in terms of people losing weight, but there's none that actually allow people to keep that weight off long-term without regaining the weight or ending up heavier and usually feeling worse about themselves," she tells Coach. 

"If we knew how to do that, people would be doing it and we'd be a nation of thin people." 

Nicholson says that, as a society, we get fixated on the "before" and "after" photos — but we never see the "after after" photos, when people tend to regain the weight.

"Anywhere from one to five years, pretty much everyone has regained the weight," she says.

"When the body goes into an energy deficit, there's all these mechanisms that come into play that make it virtually impossible to continue dieting. 

"When the body is not getting enough food energy, it switches into famine mode and the brain releases a neurotransmitter that makes us go nuts for food: food looks better, it smells better, it tastes better."

Also, following strict diets removes a lot of the pleasure that humans derive from food. 

"We don't just eat for nutrition – [eating is] a really key part of social connection and it's really pleasurable," Nicholson explains.

"If you're restricting your food your brain is thinking about food all the time."

Nicholson says most people give up on a diet when their weight plateaus – often before they have reached their weight goal. 

"If you haven't lost all the weight, it's like, 'Why would you continue dieting?'" she says.

"People see that as a lack of willpower or self-control, but it's not – it's the human condition and it means that your body is doing exactly what it needs to do. 

"If World War III breaks out and there is a famine, we'd put all our energy into seeking food – the food-seeking behaviours in a self-imposed famine are just as strong."

So by now, you're probably thinking that this is the most uninspiring story you've ever read, and wondering what's the point in even trying to lose weight if the odds are so stacked against you. 

Nicholson has some advice: try to live with more self-compassion and get in tune with what your body – and mind – wants and needs.

"To get to the point where you are truly taking care of the health of your body and living a meaningful life, the two ingredients are mindfulness, or self awareness, and self compassion," she says.

"Then you have the skills to be able to say, 'This thing I'm engaging in, maybe that's not the best thing for me'."

Sometimes, Nicholson says, it is perfectly okay to drink alcohol or eat chocolate – even if you splurge – because if the experience is enjoyable then it’s probably adding to your quality of life. 

"Choosing to not to partake in such pleasures may subtract from your quality of life and therefore overall health," she says.

"There is no one way of living well."

Nicholson says that when people can learn self-acceptance and self-compassion, healthy eating often becomes easy and a change in weight can be a natural by-product.

"You might say, '[What I just ate] is okay because I'm balancing it out with something else and I'm enjoying life'," she says.

Nicholson says that when people can learn self-acceptance and self-compassion, healthy eating often becomes easy and weight loss can be a natural by-product.

"People need an awareness of what works for them because there are so many different ways of eating well," she says.

Ultimately, Nicholson wants us to separate "slim" from "success" and take some time to think about what kind of choices would actually enrich your life. 

"Yes, your friend has lost 20kg and yes she's sporting some great new outfit, but what does that mean for her quality of life?" she asks.

"Explore how it has enriched their life – their self-care, their relationships, their values in terms of living a life that is meaningful to them. 

"If you want to take care of your health and look after your body, then do that, and if weight loss happens, it's a side effect – it needs not to be the primary goal."

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