broccoli with butter on top

We have all at some point fallen for the attraction of the January crash diet. Endless rounds of mince pies, mulled wine and Terry’s chocolate orange has left you feeling “bloated”, to put it lightly – and it’s likely that the constant question of New Year’s resolutions has resulted in many of us promising ourselves this year we WILL lose two stone.

Unfortunately we are not all programmed to be gym-bunnies and live off green juice, so come the first of February the gym regulars tend to get their normal routine back, while many of us might find ourselves with a glass of wine in one hand and a piece of pizza in another, not really understanding how it happened. It feels as though you’ve failed, but you’ve really just been unrealistic.

A big part of the problem when it comes diet-related disease is the pressure associated with weight. Somewhere along the line, the desire has moved from being healthy to being thin, and I think this is a very damaging idea.

In many societies there is an association made between weight and success from a very young age. “Thin” people tend to be perceived as “successful”, whereas someone bigger is likely to be thought of as being greedy. The part that is missed out from this argument is that many people being admitted to hospital with diet-related disease are of normal weight, while many people who might be labelled “overweight” are perfectly fit and healthy. I’m not saying there isn’t a global problem with lifestyle and diet, but if we were all slightly more honest with ourselves, made small changes that are achievable in the long term and try and take the stress away from food, we might all have a better chance of being the healthiest versions of ourselves.

As part of my research I went to a mindful-eating course that changed my perception of food. I have always struggled to leave food on my plate, as if every meal was my last. The course made me realise that craving food and overeating is often a result of restricting oneself – take away the guilt of having something naughty and become more in-tune with what the body actually wants, and you will find that over time we crave things that are healthy purely because they are the foods that make us feel good.

crash diet

If we eat a whole pack of biscuits it’s not because our bodies needed them – it won’t make us feel good (and I guarantee the first one tasted better than the ninth), but let it go and move on. Try to understand if there was a stress associated with the behaviour and target the source of the stress, sit with the feeling so that you’re less likely to do it again, and try not to cure the feeling with another packet. By doing this over time you can start to eat intuitively, something that I believe is the key to people really changing their attitudes towards food.

Recent research* is showing that weight-cycling and crash-dieting is actually very damaging to our bodies, and that the biggest association with the pursuit of dieting is, in fact, weight gain. It makes sense: if we have a natual weight that we are meant to be and we continuously try to defy this by lowering the number of calories we consume, our bodies are going to try to adjust. We can go all-out on the cabbage soup diet, and it is likely that we will lose weight initially, but we all know that we won’t be a very nice to be around while we’re doing so and as soon as we return to eating normally our bodies will put the weight back on. Why? Because our bodies are designed to conserve energy. For generations food has been scarce and so our bodies have adapted to accommodate to this. So if you starve yourself, your body is going to do everything it can to hang on to the energy it’s given.

And how long is that cabbage soup diet achievable for? Say you managed to keep it going for two weeks and each day you were in a daily calorie deficit of 700 calories; over the course of two weeks this would account for 9,800 calories. However, by making small, achievable changes you will avoid messing with your metabolism and be more likely to continue maintain that change in the long term. Say you were to drink one less fizzy drink a day, but managed to do this for 1 year, you would save yourself 50,735 calories. Or if you were to walk up the stairs once a day every day for a year rather than stand you would burn about 10,000 additional calories. The likelihood of you eating cabbage soup for the rest of your life is slim to none. I believe small changes like this can make a real difference – you will hardly notice the difference but accumulatively your body benefits hugely.

My final piece of advice would be to let go of any fixation on the newest “superfood”, or one particular vitamin or mineral. We eat food, not nutrients. Focusing on how a new super-berry from the Amazon will solve all your problems will waste time; time that could be spent learning how to prepare fresh, beautiful, healthy dishes that are good for you, and those around you. For more information on simple basic principles to help you live a healthy lifestyle, click here.

The best thing you can do is swap your New Year crash diet with the New Year resolution to take the stress out of eating – enjoy good food and exercise – and remember, small changes can make a huge difference over time!

*Mann et al 2007 AM Psyc Vol. 62, no 3, 220-233

About the author

Mary Lynch

Mary Lynch is a registered nutritionist, and an ex-member of Jamie Oliver's nutrition team. Mary grew up in the middle East in Qatar and so her favourite cuisine is Arabic food, but she loves to experiment and create healthier versions of indulgent treats and dishes. She is a massive foodie and gym bunny, and is passionate about creating change. Follow her on Instagram at @maryflynch.

Mary Lynch