Why an Elimination Diet Won't Help You Lose Weight
Giving up your favorite food sucks—and it isn't effective either.
"The one thing XYZ celebrity stopped eating to look this good." "Cut out carbs to drop 10 pounds fast!" "Get summer-body ready by eliminating dairy." You've seen the headlines. You've read the ads, and, hey, maybe you've even considered or tried one of these too-good-to-be-true tactics yourself. I completely understand why. We live in a diet-obsessed culture, where images of women with killer abs and the "quick fixes" that make them possible help sell magazines, products, and aspirations. It's actually one of the reasons I changed careers to become a registered dietitian. Not to help with the quick fixes, but quite the opposite. I became a dietitian to help people learn what it really takes to get healthy. And eliminating foods or going on a severe diet to drop pounds quickly is a method that will fail time and time again. (Here are the other outdated diet mistakes you need to stop making once and for all.)
First, let's get on thing out in the open. I'm a vegetarian.
You may be thinking it's a bit hypocritical of me to speak out against elimination diets when I'm cutting an entire food group. And you may have a point. But my decision to not eat meat has nothing to do with weight loss. As a matter of fact, as someone who knows what it's like to eliminate a food group, I know that it doesn't magically melt away pounds. I also recognize that elimination diets are medically necessary for a large group of people. For instance, those with irritable bowel diseases follow a low-FODMAP diet to help ease symptoms. (See what happened when one editor tried the diet in an attempt to solve her tummy troubles.) Those with celiac disease can't eat gluten. Diabetics have to watch their added sugar intake. Some people with a history of high blood pressure need to be mindful of the salt in their diet. And let's not forget about the dreaded-and sometimes deadly-food allergies. For people with these conditions, elimination diets are necessary. They don't eliminate food groups with the goal of losing weight, but with the goal of staying alive and feeling well.
I'm talking about using a short- or long-term elimination diet as a means to lose weight.
Now if you're thinking, "Well my bestie stopped eating gluten and lost 25 pounds," I will admit that there are the people out there that eliminated gluten/sugar/dairy/etc. from their diet and they lost weight. (Remember when Khloé Kardashian credited dairy with helping her lose 35 pounds?) To those people, I salute you. But I bet it wasn't easy. You are the exception, not the rule. And let me tell you why.
While we all want the quick fix to lose 10 pounds and look great in our jeans, that unicorn just doesn't exist. If it did, we would all look like Jessica Alba and Kate Upton. Instead, losing weight requires hard work and "behavior modification." This jargony term appears a lot within the nutrition world. It's one that dietitians and other health professionals use to explain how they help people lose weight and keep it off-and it's been a proven method of weight loss dating way back to the 1970s.
Quite simply, the term means a change in your behavior, and not just something simple, like cutting out a food group. Research has found that these behavioral modifications should focus on psychological interventions. As a matter of fact, a recently published review claims that cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most preferred intervention for treating obesity. In other words, the modified behavior has nothing to do with cutting out one food from your life. Instead, behavioral interventions help people recognize why they always opt for that food in the first place.
So what does this actually look like in practice? Have you ever made a grand pronouncement like "I'm never eating a brownie again"? Behavioral modification is about thinking why you chose the brownie. Were you emotional at the time and eating out of stress? Do brownies help you cope with other circumstances that don't involve food? Once you recognize those behaviors, it's easier to make changes to avoid those actions.
Behavioral modification may also entail long-term nutrition education. Rather than cutting out one food because it's high in calories, it's better to learn about the nutrients that come from that food and figure out how to make all foods fit within a healthy diet and lifestyle. Not only will this approach help you feel less deprived, but it will help you make better choices in the long run. It may sound like a cliché, but weight loss is a journey. It's not a switch you can flip one day to easily drop 20 pounds. I know that you "know" this, but it's so easy to believe what sounds easier and faster than something that looks like hard work. Losing weight or getting fit doesn't happen by arbitrarily cutting out red foods, starches, milk products, gluten or anything else that's part of a balanced, healthy diet. It happens with time, energy, and hard work. (Related: What People Don't Realize When They Talk About Weight and Health)
So, now what? Here are some success-proven ways to start a weight loss journey:
Meet with a registered dietitian. Dietitians take classes in nutrition counseling to help you make behavioral modifications. Because nutrition is so different for everyone, a nutritionist will help you create a plan that will work for you and your lifestyle.
Start with small changes. If you meet with a healthy eating pro, he or she will likely help you create a plan that introduces small diet and lifestyle changes. Instead of cutting all sugar from your diet, focus on reducing dessert one or two nights a week. Don't eat enough veggies? Try adding one to your morning smoothie a couple days a week. Small changes add up to big habits over time.
Create a support group. The foundation of tried-and-true "diet" programs, such as Weight Watchers is moderation, not elimination, and, with WW specifically, it creates a sense of camaraderie and accountability with in-person check-ins. There's no reason you can't create the same thing with any of your own friends who are trying to lose weight. How about a "dessert one night a week" club or a "fill half your plate with veggies" group pledge? Doing it together can make it easier to commit and more fun.