6 Things I learned from dieters about how to make successful lifestyle changes
I'm doing a PhD thesis on the construction of authority in online nutrition communities. The first phase of my project was a six month observation ethnography on the reddit community /r/paleo, a site which has some 95,000 subscribers. It's declined a little since its heyday in 2012-14, when paleo was all the rage in the media and CrossFit was attracting new members who would arrive with a religious zeal in their dietary convictions. Still, there are usually 5-10 new posts per day, which is more than enough fodder for a single PhD student doing qualitative analysis. I spent a long time trying to get to grips with the diet, the gurus, the authoritative sources, the controversies and accepted wisdom. I still haven't finished analysing everything I collected, but I wouldn't be surprised if I ended up with more than enough data to fill a PhD thesis from that stage alone.
The second stage of research is a set of interviews with community members. As of the time of writing, I have around ten open interviews taking place primarily over email, some of which have been running for several weeks. I have to admit that I was a little worried about doing interviews: I'm quite uncomfortable approaching people and asking them to do things for me without any promise of reward. However, upon posting in the community asking for volunteers, I had a decent number of people respond, all of whom I took up on their offers. Everyone I've spoken to has been incredibly friendly and generous with their time, and in many instances they've spoken candidly about tough experiences with weight management and chronic illness.
As you would expect, it's been quite humbling to talk to so many people who have transformed their bodies and lives by picking up and sticking to eating habits that have worked for them. This is compounded for me by the fact that I have always struggled with the psychology of food and eating: I have reasonably significant issues with secret eating and binging, and quite a complicated relationship with the way that exercise and eating transform my body. One of the primary reasons that I chose to study fitness and nutrition communities in the first place was that I had spent so much time from my late teens onwards reading them and trying to learn from them. I was inspired by the progress posts and pictures, and I used more than one weightlifting routine I found on Reddit or elsewhere, as well as adopting eating and exercise habits that others said had worked for them. My body image has varied over time, but I've generally found it difficult to think of my body in a positive light. In addition, I was diagnosed with IBS towards the latter part of the ethnographic stage of the research, and trying to figure out how to deal with the issues I experience has taken up a lot of time and energy since then.
The upshot of all of this is that the process of reading others' stories and nutritional recommendations, as well as talking to people who have been through dietary and health difficulties far worse than mine, has been a fairly tough one. I've spoken at fair length about issues of reflexivity in studying nutrition communities elsewhere, so here I want to talk about the way that interacting with dieters and paleo adherents has influenced my understanding of what it is that makes successful dieting likely, as well as what "successful" dieting looks like.
1. They form good habits
The vast majority of the people that I've interviewed who have successfully achieved whatever aim that set out for have done so by making success a habit.
What does this look like? They often have a meal plan which they recycle from week to week, and they make sure that they can stick to it. They buy everything they need to prepare the meals in advance, they often use slow cookers to make sure there's hot food for them when they get home, they make time on a Sunday to batch cook their meals for the entire week, or (if they're more affluent) they order in from a site that delivers ready-made meals that fit their requirements.
Similarly, they have an exercise plan that they also stick to. The bulk of impressive "progress posts" that I've read have been made by people who have a routine that they've just consistently stuck to over a significant period of time. Lots of people come in to these communities looking for a quick fix, and they usually end up either dropping out pretty quickly or realising that there is no such thing and developing habits that allow them to achieve the consistency they need to attain their goals.
Other habits include not keeping snacks in the house, or not buying more of a snack food than you're going to eat in one sitting. They include allowing yourself a day off per week (don't call it a "cheat day" - for reasons I won't go into here), and putting all your "bad" eating on that day. They include weighing yourself at the time same time every morning, going to the gym at the same time every day, and going to bed at the same time each night.
Success, I've learned, is something that comes as a result of consistent, habitual action. It's not something that requires a massive effort of will. You have to change the environment around you so that success becomes something that can't not happen.
2. They set specific goals
The road behind me is littered with failed weight-loss and muscle-gain attempts. I've tried to get big and strong, and I've tried to get lean and ripped. In almost every instance, I've failed to achieve these things. I think one of the key reasons for this is that I've very rarely had specific, incremental goals that I've managed to stick to.
The people that I've spoken to and read who have had the most success have been those who have set their sights on a particular target, and then pursued it. They've marked off their weight loss on an excel graph, and set a timeline for when they want to achieve particular things. Their goals aren't just "I want to lose weight", but "I want to lose 10kg in 5 months, and I'm going to restrict my calories to 2300 per day and track them in order to get there". Not only is there a specific goal, but there are concrete steps in place in order to make sure that goal becomes a reality.
It also helps from a psychological perspective. If you don't have anything specific in mind when you're starting out on a diet or fitness protocol, it's really hard to consider anything to be a "success". This is particularly true if you're not doing something like losing a dramatic amount of weight, so the results aren't always clearly visible in a mirror. Ifyou don't have something you can chalk up as a success, then it's difficult to tell yourself that the effort and work are all worth it.
This leads in to…
3. They track their progress
They might take progress pictures, where they juxtapose pictures of themselves in the same poses, months apart. They might use a DEXA scan to get an accurate picture of their body composition and fat percentage. They might just weigh themselves on the scales and put the results on a graph so they can see the trend line. Many successful dieters have this in common: they measure how far they've come from the beginning of their journey, and they celebrate their successes.
For the people who are working to ameliorate the effects of chronic illness - things like MS, or fibromyalgia, or even psoriasis - they might keep a diary of how they feel over time. One person I interviewed, a competitive gamer, has even kept informal track of her kill scores to see how she feels when she eats well versus when she falls off the wagon. If you can find some way of visualising the changes you're making to your body or your health, then you've got a much better chance of sticking to the path you've chosen.
4. Some make incremental changes
For some people, the most effective way of making in a change in their life is to do a little bit at a time. They make some adjustment towards health - say, quitting carbonated beverages or going to the gym once a week - and when that becomes an effortless habit, they make the next change. For them, it helps that this feels like something manageable.
For example, on the paleo subreddit I study, a lot of people will begin by removing "junk food" from their diet, before taking the step of cutting out grains, legumes or dairy.
Not only does this cut changes into bite-sized chunks (as it were), it also means they treat their body as something like a science experiment. By changing one thing at a time and normalising it for a few weeks or months, and seeing how they feel or what changes, they're able to measure what it is that might be causing their biggest problems.*
*Of course, this doesn't account for the idea that many problems aren't monocausal, and might be caused by the interaction of a number of factors.
5. Others baptise themselves by fire
Whilst some might benefit from small adjustments, others prefer to make a commitment all at once and then try to stick to it. One of the most popular diet programmes at the moment is the "Whole 30", which attempts to reset its adherents' relationship with food and eating within the course of 30 days. There's a strict list of proscribed foods, and the proprietor of the diet has a no-nonsense, tough-love attitude towards those who want to get through it.
It's worth noting that for people who want to make a serious change and make it consistent, the way to change a lot at once is to make sure that you're thoroughly prepared. You'll need to do your research on what to buy and where to get it, what you're going to cook, how you're going to work that out logistically and fit it around work and family, and so on. People who go down this route tend to have been shocked into it, by a diagnosis or wake-up call of some kind. However, people who succeed in making changes of this kind still tend to make incremental changes, it's just that the increments are more severe. For people who are over 150kg, changes might first come in the form of cutting out all junk food and starting to calorie count, before introducing cardio, and finally weights. These are relatively large changes, but they're still going to be spread over time.
6. They have the support of family, friends, or community
This is probably one of the most important factors in successfully switching and adhering to a diet or lifestyle change. Lots of people try and fail to stick to diets, time and time again. One of the major reasons for this is that nobody around them is supportive. They go to the office and there are biscuit stations scattered around everywhere, and pressure to eat and drink with everyone else. Some people even encounter active resistance from those around them, reporting that people with habits they deem unhealthy want to try and prevent them from making changes. This is often called the "bucket of crabs" mentality, where crabs trying to exit the bucket are prevented from getting out by all of the other crabs around them.
Conversely, people who switch to a diet with their partner, or go to the gym regularly with their friends, or have the support of an internet community where they can post recipes and vent and chat, will often find changing their lifestyle substantially easier. Often it'll be the encouragement of a loved one that will nudge us into making a change (I know that for me this is really important), and if those around us make the process easier then consistency and making changes habitual is an awful lot easier.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of what allows people to be successful in their diets, fitness regimes or lifestyle changes. Rather, it's a small selection of the things I've noticed that seem to be common to a lot of people in the set of communities I've been reading and analysing over the last couple of years. If you find them helpful, all the better.