The Life Cycle of a Diet
I never realized that a diet had a life cycle until I read Don Kelley and Daryl Conner’s research, “The Emotional Cycle of Change.” They found that major changes follow a consistent emotional pattern from beginning to end. Being aware of that helps a person reach their goals because they can anticipate what’s coming up next in the process. This of course applies perfectly to diets, which can bring major changes to a person’s life.
Kelly and Conner identified these five phases of change:
Stage 1: Uninformed optimism
Stage 2: Informed pessimism
Stage 3: Hopeful realism
Stage 4: Informed optimism
Stage 5: Completion
Here’s how each of the phases look as they apply to a new diet:
1 Uninformed optimism. Let’s say December 31 comes around and we realize we need to do something about our weight. It’s an exciting idea because the thought of weighing less is pure emotional pump at this point. The goal hasn’t cost us anything. Yet.
2 Informed pessimism: We’ve made some changes and we’re getting some good results, but not all the changes are good. We go through a period of what I call “food grief,” where we experience emotional withdrawals from food as well as physical ones, and we realize just how much the new diet is going to cost us in terms of preference, taste, convenience, comfort, and just having our own way. Still, we’ve seen some success, so it’s not all bad. Weight comes off pretty easily at first and that helps, but it usually tapers off.
It’s at this stage where people sink or swim. Negative self talk grabs a megaphone right about now and says things like, “it’s just going to take too long to reach the goal,” or, “I don’t have the stamina for a diet,”or, “I’m addicted to sugar and it’s stronger than me,” or, “it’s impossible to stay out of the kids’ junk food,” and worst of all, “now’s just not a good time for this,” when it really isn’t all that different from any other time/week/month/year/decade.
With all this nasty self-talk going on, the stage is set for failure and we start to rationalize the way things were before. “It wasn’t so bad at that size,” or, “my blood sugar level isn’t in a danger zone or anything…” or, “I feel okay, I’m just tired,” and so on.
What’s happening here is that the law of diminishing returns is playing out. In other words, what we’re investing in terms of emotion, time, and preference is not proportionate to the benefits we thought we’d be getting at this point.
Why? We know this. We gain weight a lot easier than we lose it.
How do we get out of this pit and keep moving forward? By focusing on the wins we have already seen and by keeping the inner dialogue honest. We can’t let us get away with believing half truths. While yes, any major change is hard, it’s also true that our health forecast is grim if we don’t get healthy, and we’re not going to get any smaller automatically, and it’s not going to be any easier to lose weight when we get heavier – which is the inevitable outcome if we don’t do something about the extra weight right now.
3 Hopeful realism. Armed with an honest look at the cost and the payoff of the changes, now we start to talk some sense into ourselves and adjust the inner dialogue. We remind ourselves that we’ll get paybacks with compounded interest if we stick with it. Our blood pressure will lower and stay low, our veins will get healthy and stay healthy, our heart won’t be stressed, our clothes will look fabulous, we’ll feel more optimistic, and we’ll just be generally healthier.
And, incidentally, let’s be people who keep the commitments we make to ourselves. Integrity isn’t just about keeping our promises to other people; it starts by keeping the promises we make to ourselves. It needs to start at home. Like, inside us home, where we are all the time.
4 Informed Optimism: At this point the changes don’t feel like changes any more, they look and feel normal. The family’s on board, sugary food and junk food have been dealt with, and no one is surprised by the way we’re eating now. We realistic, ready, and set for a win.
At this stage we might experiment a bit and add to or take away some of the elements of the plan. Sometimes the experiments work, sometimes they don’t, but we know how to get back on course when things don’t work out. For example, we might try having a cheat meal once a week and see if it has a positive or negative impact on our overall success.
It’s also here where we merge into a lifestyle that’s sustainable with our new plan, and that includes having a fallback plan when we need it. For example, maybe we stay on a VLC (Very Low Calorie) eating plan as a norm but we switch to low-carb eating when we go out with friends, say, we might eat pizza toppings but not the crust. The point is that we stay in control even when circumstances are not.
5 Completion: There are two ways to look at this stage: that we’ve either reached our desired weight, or we’ve reached the point where the weight is coming off consistently and we will continue to lose weight by staying the course. We know what works for us and what it will take to get us to the goal line.
Diets are never easy, but they are predictable, and that predictability leverages power for us. By knowing the life cycle of a diet we can identify where we are in the process at any time, realize that what we’re experiencing is normal in the big picture, and we can take charge and move forward from any place in the cycle. We can get our lives back and get healthy, and finally get on with the life we want to life.
We’re stronger together,