A Diet Is Not Just For January – So Why Not Tweak Your Life Instead?

An apple a day keeps the doctor away - apples are proven to lower cholesterol.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away – apples are proven to lower cholesterol.

Have you started your post Christmas diet yet? Or embarked on a dry January? Or even joined the local gym?

You are not alone. Millions of your fellow Britons will be sharing your pain, restraint and self sacrifice over the next month or so, aiming for slimmer, fitter, detoxed bodies. You know the cold turkey drill: crash diet, cut the booze and ratchet up the exercise. Many drop out early but some of you will succeed in shedding a few pounds and maybe even rediscovering lost muscles…

But to what end? How many will actually manage to keep off that lost weight? For a while, the scales point to a smaller number, the waistline shrinks and some of the flab turns to muscle – and you feel good about yourself. Until slowly, ever so slowly, and inevitably, the pounds begin to creep back on and before you know it, you are back where you started and it is January again and you feel like it is ground hog day!

Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past

There is no point in repeating the mistakes of the past. If you have tried this approach before and it has not delivered a sustainable weight loss or fitness improvement, then there is no reason to believe that it will work again. That is why I have resolved to try something new this year.

People are not good at modifying their habits – me included. So no sudden changes. No big sacrifices. Instead, I am going to break down the process of changing my eating habits into bite-sized chunks. I shall make a number of small, incremental changes to my lifestyle. Taken together, these tweaks should help me to lose some weight and improve my fitness in a sustainable and permanent way rather than as a one-off temporary blip.

There is some scientific evidence to suggest that this approach might just work. Back in the 1970s, two psychologists, James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente, developed what has become known as the Transtheoretical Model of behavioural change – also known as the Stages Of Change model. And one of their key insights is that people change their behaviour gradually and that small steps taken early on are a key part of the process of making any successful behavioural change. The process is tailored to the needs and pace of the individual. Incremental baby steps are re-enforced and built on. Eventually, over time an accumulation of actions adds up to a sustainable change in behaviour. There is research evidence to suggest that this approach has worked in helping people to lose weight and overcome addictions.

Try these tweaks

So, to begin with, here are five suggested tweaks. Remember, the idea is to make long term permanent improvements through small changes. Too much change too quickly increases the risks of failure. So do not try all of these in one go. Implement them one at a time and fashion each into a habit before moving on to the next.

  • Weight. Cut down on calories by gradually substituting greens for carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice and pasta with main meals. Carbs mean calories. Broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage and green beans all make healthy, tasty, alternatives that pack fewer calories than mash and spaghetti. Start by giving yourself a slightly larger portion of greens and a slightly smaller portion of carbs; and move on from there.
  • Cholesterol. Switch to apples for snacks to cut down on your cholesterol. Scientific evidence suggests that two apples a day cuts your cholesterol. If you have a regular snacking time – say with your mid morning coffee or afternoon tea – then try swapping the cake or toast or crisps for an apple. An easy change.
  • Alcohol. Try substituting red wine for beer, white wine and spirits. Now volume for volume, wine has more calories and more alcohol than beer but we don’t drink wine in pint glasses… A glass of wine has roughly half the calories of a pint of beer. And because you tend to sip red wine slowly, you may find that you cut down on your alcohol consumption too. Also, red wine in moderation reportedly has beneficial effects thanks to a powerful antioxidant – a polyphenol called resveratrol.
  • Chocolate. Eat high quality cocoa-rich chocolate rather than cheaper, sugary alternatives. This for the chocoholics amongst us. You will find that one or two squares satisfies your chocolate craving with only a fraction of the calories in a bar of some of the well known but cheaper brands that skimp on the cocoa. Check the labels for cocoa content. This is a real case of less is more.
  • Healthy eating. Substitute home made food for processed foods, pre-packed foods and ready-meals. You just need to look at the ingredient lists on shop-bought food to get the point. Home made food has less salt, less saturated fat, less sugar and fewer calories. You will find yourself eating more healthily by default. The trick here is to plan each meal, shop for the ingredients and then make the time to cook it. If you eat mainly pre-packed food then start with one meal a week and build up…

You get the idea. Small changes. Small steps. Banish the big bang January diet and say hello to a whole new approach to losing weight and getting fit.

Welcome to tweaking!

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References

You can read more about the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) also known as the Stages Of Change model here  and here.

And here are three papers that show how it has been used in dieting, smoking and drinking:
Kristal AR, Glanz K, Curry SJ, Patterson RE.  How Can Sytages Of Change Be Used In Dietary Interventions Journal of The American Dietic Association June 1999 Vol 99 Number 6 – here.

Miller NH, Smith PM, DeBusk RF, Sobel DS, Taylor CB. Smoking cessation in hospitalized patients.Arch Intern Med. 1997;157:409–15 – here.

Kahan M, Wilson L, Becker L. Effectiveness of physician-based interventions with problem drinkers: a review. CMAJ. 1995;152:851–9 – here.

Here is some research about the benefits of apples for cholesterol: Adam D M Briggs, Anja Mizdrak, Peter Scarborough. A statin a day keeps the doctor away: comparative proverb assessment modelling study. BMJ 2013;347:f7267 .

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