A better new year’s resolution: this year, stop dieting

Every year, January hits us hard with the “New Year, New Me” messaging. A tradition as time-honored as rampant consumerism and seasonal depression, the beginning of the year reminds us of all the goals we have failed to achieve the previous twelve months, and instills within us a fervor to get it right this time. The most popular resolution is some rendition of “get healthy” or, more overtly, “lose weight.” January seduces us with the tantalizing promise that a total overhaul of our body will translate to an improvement in our quality of life– finally, when we shake that last ten (or twenty, or fifty) pounds, eat only kale, and run a 5k every morning, our real lives can begin.

Of course, this promise is patently false. If people actually achieved that goal, we would not have a mass exodus of hopefuls buying gym memberships and subscriptions to Weight Watchers every January. If people actually lost weight and kept it off, companies like that would not make the bulk of their business off repeat customers. Weight loss is a promise that dieting and exercise cannot fulfill; studies show that >95% of dieters do not succeed in maintaining weight loss past two years, and many end up gaining past their initial weight as a result of slowed metabolism. This is the body’s natural response to famine, intended to protect us from starvation by reducing energy consumption of all but necessary functioning. Chronic dieting and weight cycling have also been proven to increase cardiovascular disease risk, among other ill health effects.

Despite the failure of diets to provide any tangible results, many people still cling to weight-related resolutions in the guise of health. Maybe they know that Dieting Is Bad, but surely going to the gym every day or starting a juice cleanse will be different! The problem is, behaviors that began in the spirit of health can quickly become disordered or obsessive if they are fueled by the desire for body changes. If the behavior becomes compulsive– that is, if you experience guilt or stress when you deviate from your exercise or meal plan– chances are, you are engaging in the behavior for reasons other than the desire for improved physical health. If you measure your progress by pounds lost, calories burned, or food restricted, you are using weight and energy consumption as misguided measures of wellness.

Health is a complex journey that lasts throughout our lives; integral aspects of our wellbeing are often lost in the New Year’s resolution messaging. If you feel exhausted and cranky when you force yourself to run every morning instead of sleeping in, consider that a different form of movement might be better suited to your existing lifestyle. If you cancel dinner with friends because it doesn’t fit your new meal plan, you are missing out on social health opportunities. If your eating disorder is triggered by restricting or eliminating food groups, going vegan for January is probably not the best idea. And in the long run, a month of vigorous exercise and “healthy eating” followed by eleven months of beating yourself up for not sticking to the routine, is not doing your health any favors. If you really want to set health-related goals for yourself in 2019, focus on sustainability over sweeping changes that, realistically, you will be unable to implement long-term. When you find familiarity and enjoyment in a new habit, you will be less likely to abandon it by the time February rolls around.