The New Year’s Diet. Cheat your way to weight loss?

What’s in your post-holiday grocery cart?

If you’re like the average person, the groceries in your cart after New Year’s Resolution time includes 55% more spent on food and twice as many calories per serving purchased. That’s according to a 2014 study. What’s going on here? Consumers purchased not only more healthy foods in keeping with their dietary hopes, but also more unhealthy ones. Why? The experimenters concluded that eating these healthy foods produced a “halo effect,” a feeling of having succeeded in behaving healthfully. As a result, people felt as though they were then free to indulge more in unhealthy foods. Which they did.

This study sheds some light on the common holiday weight gain and gradual increase in weight over the years. At the moment when we feel the most hopeful about losing weight, (Happy New Year!) we sabotage our efforts by giving ourselves free reign to eat the way we ate during the holidays, with healthy foods added to our total caloric intake.

The study authors suggest making a list before shopping to avoid impulse buys. I’d add to their commonsense advice; pause before the checkout and look at the overall quantity as well as the ratio of healthy to unhealthy foods. A reasonable diet will normally have some exceptions, of course, but clearly most of your diet ought to be nutritious foods that fits the eating patterns you’ve decided upon.

As for the rest of your shopping cart? Weight loss researchers don’t seem to have studied how much unhealthy foods we ought to consume—those that are low in micronutrients and ones that don’t fit one’s diet. That’s because during the studies participants are encouraged to adhere strictly to a particular diet, of course. Yet the best correlation with long-term diet success is not the type of diet but rather the ability to adhere to the diet beyond the normal six to nine month diet failure point, when most people gain back all the weight they lost, and then some. As a result, choosing a diet you can stick to is going to be most vital in the long run. Perhaps that means that some small percentage of your diet might contain foods that aren’t exactly health food?

What’s the ideal junk food to health food ratio?

Just as there’s no one diet that would be right for everyone, there’s no exact science to cheat foods. Among other factors, the percentage of healthy to unhealthy foods depends on your diet, the kinds of unhealthy foods you choose, your metabolism, your gut biome and other individual factors. Consider, too, whether or not the particular unhealthy foods you choose will help you stick to a diet that works for you by avoiding feeling deprived. On the other hand, do these cheat foods end up making you feel hungrier and craving more unhealthy foods? You may already know which foods have which effect. If you have a little sugar or white flour do you find yourself feeling the need for more and more, perhaps even binging on these or other foods as a result? Other people find salty foods too tempting in the same way. That probably means these are foods you need to avoid because you are actually addicted to them. You may be aware that sugar in particular sets off the same pleasure centers in your brain as addictive drugs.

I know some people who (claim, at least) to be able to have one square of chocolate or one spoonful of ice cream. I can’t even imagine! Sugar-free alternatives get some people through sugar cravings, but for others these can become binge-foods as well because of the reward of the sweet taste.

Our genes haven’t changed significantly over time, so why are we globally gaining weight? We can blame this on our modern food environment: quick, cheap access to salt, sugar, and fat—calorically dense foods that were scarce for our distant ancestors. We evolved to have a taste for these foods, and food manufacturers know that the magic combination of these three elements will keep customers coming back for more and more and more.

Taking away the temptations in your house is one solution, thought that’s easiest if one lives alone, or everyone in the household is on the same diet plan. Maddeningly, for some of us, not everyone is affected by the same foods in the same way. Maybe someone in your household can have one square of chocolate per day, but you cannot. In my pantry I try to keep the starchy sugary foods hidden in boxes so while I know they are there, cookies, breads and chocolates are not staring me in the face every time I go for some raw pumpkin seeds or almonds.

While the percentage of cheat food will vary (from zero up), I think we can all agree that most of our food ought to be nutrient dense, whole foods, without added sweeteners. This is true whether we need to lose, gain or maintain weight. Your family cart, then, ought to be heaped with mounds of vegetables, not crammed with containers of packaged foods, meal replacement or snack bars, soda, juice, eggnog or desserts, even if they’re on sale.

What makes diets ultimately fail? Two main factors, according to a National Institutes of Health analysis of weight loss studies. One is behavioral: people stopped adhering to their diet and exercise plans that were working. Why? NIH researchers suggest that the rewards for dieting including losing weight, feeling healthier, fitting better in clothes, start to fall off when one hits the maintenance phase. The rewards no longer outweighs the efforts.

The second weight loss factor is physiological: when you lose weight, the body goes through a number of transitions determined to help the body quickly and easily gain it back. Thanks a lot, right? Your hormones change so that you feel hungrier in general and less likely to feel satiated after eating the same amount. At the same time, your metabolism slows down so that you need fewer calories to stay the same weight.

An interesting weight loss fact not commonly mentioned in the mainstream press is that weight loss and maintenance is highly variable amongst individuals within the studies. That means even in the short term, and in the same study, some participants will lose a significant amount of weight, others will lose a moderate amount, some a small amount, some none at all, and some will even gain some weight. In the long term, while most participants will regain all or some of the weight within six to nine months, some people will be quite successful in losing and keeping the weight off. According to the NIH, the people most likely to keep the weight off are the ones who are most successful early in the study losing weight. If only we knew what made these people respond better than others to the weight loss interventions! Unfortunately, this is an area for future study.