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The Difference Between Dieting and Lasting Lifestyle Changes

Nutritional experts share five tips on how you can make lifestyle changes permanent, rather than losing weight only to gain it back.

By Jeanne ErdmannApr 28, 2022 4:00 PM
Mindful eating
(Credit: VectorMine/Shutterstock)


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Over the past few months, I’ve watched my husband change his eating habits and steadily lose weight, including those pandemic pounds. He’s cut back on his beloved sweet tea, passing up chocolate, and eating fish without drowning it in tartar sauce. He’s notching his belt, and buying clothes in a smaller size.

This all came as a surprise to me, given his long-term struggle with weight gain and high blood pressure. He had a pattern of crash dieting every two years before his physical came due, only to gain back every pound and then some. I worried about him, but I’d pretty much given up. And then, our primary care physician casually mentioned a lifestyle program the practice offered, and my husband agreed to try it. It entails weekly visits, and a modest weight loss of six pound in six months. My husband’s done that and more.

He's not alone in facing the reality that diets often don’t work. Changing lifestyle can be much more effective — if you manage to stick with it. That journey takes honesty, goal setting and vigilance. And if you want to go that route, here’s what to consider as you decide what works best for you:

1. Set Your Goals

Before committing to a lifestyle change, set long-term goals, says Michelle Edacheril-Moore, a family nurse practitioner at BJC Health Care in O’Fallon, Missouri. Be honest with yourself. Decide whether you want to eat healthier meals, exercise more, lose weight quickly or reduce weight and keep it off for the long run. Usually losing weight fast and keeping it off are not accomplished at the same time, says Edacheril-Moore.

Then commit to your goals. “We all have things that we want to do, but sometimes we’re not willing to put in the work to achieve all that we want,” Edarcheril-Moore adds. Finding your internal motivation can hinge on knowing that you’re making changes because you can see the health benefits, says Elisabetta Politi, a dietician at the Duke Lifestyle and Health Management Center in Durham, North Carolina.

2. Plan Your Meals

Take time to plan your meals, which is different than meal prepping. With meal planning, you can adjust for your nutritional goals and also make room for what’s going on in your daily life, says Edacheril-Moore. You’ll waste less food, and you won’t end up feeling that you’ve missed any goals because life happens, says Edacheril-Moore.

To avoid feeling hungry in between meals, snack on some protein. Nibble a piece of low-fat string cheese, or sip a protein shake. During meals, eat a bite of protein first, and then a bite of carbs.

Wondering what to stock in your pantry? Choose foods that you don’t find boring. And remember this basic rule of thumb from Edacheril-Moore: “Food that goes bad is probably good for you. Food that stays good is probably bad for you.” 

3. Eat Mindfully

There’s a right way to eat according to nutritionists. If you want to get the most out of your meal, take some time to slowly consume your food. Mindful eating can make you more aware of what and how much you are eating, and can enhance the social aspect of eating, by enjoying a meal with others. Pay attention to those times when you overeat. For some, overeating is more common while reading, or scrolling on an electronic device. Find and stick with habits that help you achieve mindful eating.

4. Be Accountable

When I asked my husband what made him so determined to stick with this lifestyle change, he said it was the accountability via weekly meetings with Edacheril-Moore. You can find that support with friends and family, or with a lifestyle program in your community or a local university.

Inversely, lack of support can push you back into old habits. “I have seen where the lack of support, whether it’s friends and/or family, has caused people to return to previous habits. Who you surround yourself with really does make a significant impact on your actions and thought processes,” says Edacheril-Moore.

Remember, too, that we all slip up. Give yourself grace. If you’re trying to turn around choices you’ve made for decades, it will take time for you to start feeling like you’ve established new routines. “Understand that changing your lifestyle means that you are changing your style of life. This is no simple task,” she says.

5. Stay Vigilant

Losing weight and committing to healthy choices, or an exercise routine, is a tough battle, says Politi. Even though we know more about nutrition and fitness than, say, 40 years ago, our environment can work against weight loss. We rely on cars, and we’re probably not as active as our parents or grandparents used to be.

Internal motivation matters, she adds. Take a problem-solving approach to lifestyle change. Monitor your stress. Take note if your exercise habits start to drop off, or overeating kicks back in. Think of excess weight as a relapsing condition, like controlling your blood pressure. Life gets complicated. We lose jobs, people we love get sick or die, and the weight comes back on, says Politi.

As for my husband, he’s energetic and staying motivated. The more he sees the benefits, the harder he digs into the commitment. Not every day brings success. He stresses over things. Some days I watch him head to the pantry and just walk back out. Most days, he’d much rather polish off anything than head out for a walk. Every stage of life provides a different challenge. “It’s not lack of willpower, it’s just hard,” says Politi.

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