If you know consistency matters when it comes to your diet but struggle to stay committed, don’t miss this article all about how to stick to your diet.
For context, when we refer to “your diet,” we’ll be talking about the eating habits you’ve adopted to live your best life.
That might involve eating less, eating more, moderation, abstinence, intuition, counting calories, or whatever.
However your ideal diet looks, we’ll be talking about strategies you can take to stick to it more consistently.
That is, of course, if that’s what you want to do.
If you have any questions after reading, let me know in the comments 🙂
The importance of consistency
There’s a ton of evidence pointing to the importance of consistency in improving one’s health through dietary changes.
For example, one study in 2005 randomized participants into one of four diet groups – Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone (1).
There was no significant difference in weight loss or cardiovascular risk factor improvements between the groups.
However, the most successful participants were those who most consistently stuck to their assigned diet.
Similarly, a 2009 experiment compared weight loss results between diets with varying carbohydrate, protein, and fat levels (2).
After two years, participants’ weight loss did not vary according to differences in macronutrient ratios.
Again, though, there was an association between dietary adherence and weight loss.
Finally, in a 2018 experiment, participants were instructed to restrict either fat or carbohydrates (3).
Furthermore, they were evaluated for genetic or metabolic traits that might indicate favoring one approach over the other.
Participants saw similar weight loss and health risk factor improvements regardless of whether they restricted carbohydrates or fats.
Moreover, this was the case even for those participants whose assigned strategy didn’t align with the strategy for which they appeared to be predisposed.
Unfortunately, we seem to have a harder time sticking to our diets than we do giving up alcohol, cocaine, heroin, smoking, or gambling (4).
So, let’s talk about some steps you might take to help make sticking to your diet a bit easier.
How to manage your appetite
One challenge you might face, particularly if you’ve been losing weight, is increased appetite (5).
Of course, if you’re looking to lean out, some hunger is probably necessary.
However, you don’t have to white-knuckle your way through feelings of starvation or battle cravings left and right.
Here are some strategies you might use to control your appetite.
Eat slowly and chew thoroughly
One of the first steps you can take to control your appetite has nothing to do with what you eat.
Rather, it has to do with how you eat.
Specifically, you might consider eating slowly and chewing thoroughly.
For instance, eating slowly might help you eat less without feeling hungrier (6).
Chewing thoroughly, too, might help you eat less, as well as promote the release of digestion and satiety hormones (7).
This can be a major change for many of us.
You might find it easier if you set clearly defined goals like chewing each bite 20 times or putting your fork down between bites.
Setting aside time to eat, and only eat, might help you make sure you’re not rushing through your meals.
You can read more about eating slowly here.
Eat more protein
One of your most powerful tools for appetite control is eating more protein.
Doing so won’t only help you feel more full, but also promote higher metabolism and losing more fat – not precious muscle, organs, or other lean mass tissue – if weight loss is your goal (8).
Compared to plant sources of protein, animal sources typically offer more digestible, bio-available, complete amino acid profiles, plus a wide range of nutrients not found in plant sources (9).
So, you might want to get your protein mainly from meat, dairy, fish, and eggs.
You’ll likely look, feel, and perform your best with around one gram of protein per pound of body weight (10).
This is usually about one or two palm-sized servings with each meal, assuming three or four meals per day.
You can read more about protein here.
Prioritize minimally processed foods
You’ll probably be adding some carbs, fats, vegetables, and/or fruit to that protein you’re eating.
Regardless of whether you prefer more carbs and less fat, less fat and more carbs, tons of fruits and vegetables, or none at all, you’ll benefit from prioritizing minimally-processed foods.
In fact, in a 2019 trial, participants freely eating ultra-processed foods consumed 500 calories more per day than those freely eating unprocessed foods with the same nutrient profile (11).
You can read more about how to identify and prioritize minimally-processed foods here.
Another factor that might make it harder for you to stick to your diet is stress.
For example, one of the primary ways stress causes weight gain is through the cravings it can promote (12).
What makes stress a particularly challenging obstacle to overcome is that we can’t always eliminate its sources.
So, let’s cover some steps we can take to better manage how we respond to the stressors in our lives.
Establish a mindfulness practice and self-awareness
Establishing a mindfulness practice, such as meditation, is a popular method for managing stress (13).
One area where mindfulness really shines is in promoting self-control when making changes to improve your health (14).
Perhaps most relevant to sticking to your diet, mindfulness might help reduce binge eating and impulsive eating (15).
Developing a strong sense of self-awareness is another strategy that might come hand-in-hand with your mindfulness practice to promote self-control (16).
Another stress management technique you might consider is breathing deeply.
In a 2014 experiment, researchers tested the effects of breathing rate and length of inhalation and exhalation on participants’ emotional states (17).
After five minutes of a lower inhalation to exhalation ratio, participants reported increased relaxation, stress reduction, mindfulness and positive energy.
After five minutes of a lower breathing rate, participants reported increased positive energy.
In a 2016 experiment, participants practicing deep breathing for 90 minutes once per week for 10 weeks had decreased heart rate and salivary cortisol levels, while improving mood and perceived stress (18).
In a 2017 experiment, participants who practiced 20 15-minute sessions of diaphragmatic breathing over eight weeks reported improved attention, mood, and cortisol levels (19).
A 2018 review paper explains how the natural melatonin release from slow, deep breathing might even help you fall asleep without the drowsiness, headache, and dizziness of supplemental melatonin (20).
You can read more about how to breathe deeply here.
Speaking of sleep, that’s another factor you’ll want to dial in to help you stick to your diet.
Another often overlooked factor that might be derailing your efforts is poor sleep.
Sleep deprivation appears to affect our nervous systems in ways that drive our appetite for high-calorie foods (21).
Even one night of sleep curtailment may promote increased hunger, cravings, food reward, and portion sizes (22).
So, if you’re struggling with hunger and cravings no matter what you eat, you might consider your sleep habits as a culprit.
You can read more about how and why to sleep better here.
Other strategies for sticking to your diet
So far, we’ve been covering some of the “big rocks” to take care of when you’re struggling to stick to your diet.
The steps we’ve covered won’t only help you there, but also improve your health in general.
Next, we’ll talk about a few more dietary adherence-specific strategies you might consider.
Prioritize foods you enjoy
You don’t have to hear choirs of angels every time you take a bite of food.
However, life’s too short to go through it eating food you hate.
Thus, staying flexible and aligning your new eating habits with your preferences may help you stay consistent.
In fact, a 2017 study found that patients with Type 2 diabetes found it easier to stick to their diets when their diets aligned with their socio-cultural and individual attitudes and preferences (23).
Thus, it’s important that you find foods that align with both your goals and your preferences.
For some of us, this might even mean eating for reasons other than health or body composition on occasion.
Such mindful deviations just might help us stay consistent in the long-run.
Meal planning and food journaling
You might also consider meal planning or keeping a food journal.
For instance, a 2017 study of over 40,000 participants revealed that those who planned their meals ahead of time were more likely to consistently stick to their diets and to have higher overall food variety (24).
Similarly, several studies have self-monitoring of dietary intake to promote long-term success with eating behaviors and health improvements (25).
If you think meal planning and food journaling sounds tedious or neurotic, that’s totally cool.
They’re not strategies for everybody.
That said, you might consider these as short-term strategies to learn what works for you.
Similar to using training wheels to learn how to ride a bike, meal planning and food journaling might help you learn how to eat for your goals.
You might end up using these tools indefinitely.
You might eventually learn to eat more intuitively.
You’ll want to find what works for you.
Seek support and build problem solving skills
A 2013 paper titled “Long-Term Adherence to Health Behavior Change” explores some of the reasons we don’t stick to healthy habits and what we might do about it (26).
Most relevant to sticking to your diet are the suggestions to seek regular coaching or guidance, learn to identify and address potential challenges, and recruit social support .
There’s nothing wrong with asking for help, especially if you feel like you’re in over your head.
You might not know where to start with your eating habits.
This is where coaching or guidance might come in handy.
You might be the only person you know who’s taking steps to improve their eating habits.
This is where finding social support might come in handy.
You might run into obstacles and challenges along the way.
This is where learning to identify problems and solve them might come in handy.
Focus on building long-term habits
Many of us make changes to what we eat with the mindset of “going on a diet.”
We see our changes as a short-term sacrifice to get a result.
The problem is, a short-term mindset often yields only short-term results.
Approaches that emphasize building long-term habits, on the other hand, are more likely to yield long-term results (27).
So, take things one step at a time, always working toward creating new lifelong habits.
Focus on taking steps that fit into your lifestyle, that you can maintain.
Take things slowly
You may be tempted to see results as fast as possible, there’s much to be said for having some patience.
A 2009 study found that weight loss maintenance was inversely associated with the severity of participants’ caloric restriction (28).
That is, those who took a more aggressive approach with their eating habits were less likely to maintain their results.
Repeatedly ask yourself whether the steps you’re taking are steps you can take for the long haul.
After all, whatever steps you take to reach your goals are steps you’ll likely have to take to maintain them.
Have some self-compassion
Finally, don’t beat yourself up when you struggle or make mistakes.
Have some self-compassion.
Building self-compassion can help you find and maintain motivation, particularly when you make mistakes, experience setbacks, or want to give up or quit (29).
Sticking to any change – diet or otherwise – can be really freaking hard.
It’s even harder when we’re beating ourselves up all along the way, thinking we’ll stop once we reach our goals.
Don’t do this thinking you’ll love yourself once you reach some shape or size.
Do this because you are already worthy of that love.
Right now, as you are, you are worthy.
You’ll take steps forward.
You’ll take steps backward.
Keep taking steps.
You’ve got this.