Monday, 20 October 2008

When is a diet not a diet?

When is a diet not a diet? When does it become an eating plan? These are the questions I’ve been asking myself this weekend. I got very muddled, miserable and upset on Saturday, which was mainly down to the fact that I’d weighed myself that morning and I was a couple of pounds heavier. I panicked. I’m good at that. Although I kept reminding myself that my weight does go up slightly in the middle of my cycle and that I always feel bloated around this time, it didn’t help. I just felt fat, frumpy and useless. I guess we’ve all been there.
As you know I’d been trying to follow a low carb style eating plan for a couple of weeks or so. Why? Mmm, if I’m honest, it's partly because I’d bought India Knight’s book, Neris and India’s Idiot-Proof Diet as well as the accompanying cook book. I felt I had to get my money’s worth by trying the diet again. And why did I buy the books in the first place? I love books. I can’t stop myself buying new books, especially if they look as appealing as these two hardbacks and especially if they offer an idiot-proof way to lose weight easily. I’m a sucker for new diet books, basically. I first book India’s book back in 2007 at the Oxford Literary Festival. I read it in one go back in my hotel room. It seemed to make sense and I liked the friendly approach. I also liked the fact you could eat cheese without guilt and cook with fat/cream to make tasty meals. I tried the diet for about three days, felt dreadful and jacked it in. Then I discovered that India and Neris had set up an online forum (, so I registered and continued to check in from time to time. I like the book and I like the Forum (it’s a really friendly place full of women like me who have issues with food and weight, and there are some great recipes on there). India and Neris’s diet and forum are very attractive to foodies like me and it's easy to be seduced into thinking their way is the way to go. However, low carbing as strictly as this isn’t easy. In fact, it’s very difficult… for me, at least. Which brings me to my next point. . .
I’m easily taken in by eating plans or diets which promise that you can eat unlimited amounts of certain foods and still lose weight. Mmm…. I don’t know about you, but as soon as I see that word ‘unlimited’ then I tend to go a bit mad. My portion sizes increase threefold and I keep nibbling at those ‘free foods’ all day long. Then I wonder why I haven’t lost any weight or not enough to make a significant difference. I’m never hungry, which is great and I don’t gain weight, but I don’t lose either. In other words I’m in the same situation as if I’d had a bit of cake in the afternoon or overdid it on the wine most nights. Which is more enjoyable? And here’s the rub, surely anyone is going to feel deprived sooner or later if certain foods are off limits for weeks on end?
I mentioned in an earlier post that I managed to lose two stones between 2006 and 2007. This I did with a combination of exercise (at least three times a week and fairly intensive workouts) and eating according to Weightwatchers Points Plan. Basically, this gives every item of food and drink so many Points and you’re allowed a certain amount according to how much you weigh and how active you are. I lost most of my weight on 22-23 Points per day. You also gain ‘bonus Points’ for any exercise you do. It works. And it’s relatively easy once you get into it. I didn’t go to Weightwatchers meetings (heaven forbid! Can’t stand that sort of ‘meeting culture’ and the patronising attitude of the person who weighs you) and found their Shopping Guide (where Points of manufactured food as well as natural foods are listed) and a Points calculator, which allows you to work out the Points of any food by looking at the label on the packaging (calories and saturated fat) to be invaluable tools. It sounds complicated, but really it isn’t. The danger is with Points, however, is that if you don’t ensure you have three proper meals a day and if you waste Points on treats like alcohol and chocolate instead, then you get very hungry. The key is to plan three good (preferably homecooked) meals and if you have any Points left over, then by all means have a glass of wine or a packet of crisps, whatever takes your fancy.
One of the things I love about Weightwatchers is they have several online message boards, which are free to join. I’ve gained so much support, friendship, inspiration and tips from these (
Although I lost two stones doing the Points Plan, I still had more to lose. I was getting bored (a danger with any eating plan or diet). I started mucking about first with the low carb thing, then with Weightwatchers Core Plan, which gives you a long list of ‘free foods’ to choose from and three basic meals per day with fruit or vegetables as snacks in between, but only to snack if you feel hungry. You’re then allowed 21 Points per week for things like bread, sauces, alcohol or anything that isn’t on the basic food list. Again, this is a great healthy eating plan and easy to stick to, but you are limited to the basic Core food list. You have to plan fairly meticulously on a weekly basis otherwise you end up using all your 21 Points well before the week’s out. I’d rather do my planning on a day-to-day basis and I want the freedom to have a slice of toast with a poached egg if I want one and not take it out of my Points allowance. The other problem with Core, for me, is that there is no portion control so I end up eating too much at mealtimes and don’t lose weight or only lose very little each week, by which time my motivation and enthusiasm is waning considerably. I find that on the Points Plan (see previous paragraph) I lose weight more quickly, which is the biggest motivation of all for me.
How does one overcome the boredom factor? Not by reaching for another diet book, promising great things, that’s for sure! Maybe by trying some new recipes or having a day off the plan? I think the latter is fine as long as you get straight back on the wagon after a couple of days. There’s nothing worse than thinking, ‘I’ve blown it’ and jacking it all in. I’m very much an ‘all or nothing’ person, so I’m one of the worst culprits for this. I guess as long as one is ‘good’ 80% of the time, then the weight still comes off and all is not lost. We need to allow ourselves some leeway. After all, we’re only human. One slip doesn’t mean we’ve failed. All is not lost.
‘It is on our failures that we base a new and different and better success.’ Havelock Ellis
I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to choosing an eating plan for life, then it’s down to personal preference. I’ve heard many people bemoaning the fact that the Points Plan isn’t sustainable and certainly not something one can do day-in, day-out for life. I’m not so sure. I probably wouldn’t use it day-in, day-out if I’d reached my goal weight and wanted to maintain. If I gained a couple of pounds ‘doing my own thing’ when at goal weight, then I’d go back to the Points Plan for a week or so until they came off. I’m not sure whether this would work in practice, as I haven’t reached that enviable state yet!
I guess I’ve come to realise that my weight is going to be a life-long issue. If I want to be slim, then I have to work at it. I’d rather do this than be considerably overweight, which makes me grouchy, uncomfortable, unfit and miserable. If having to be constantly vigilant, watching my weight, exercising regularly and following that Points Plan is the price to pay, then so be it. We can’t have it all ways.
I realise that what works for someone else doesn’t necessarily work for me. That has been a hard lesson and one which has taken me a long time to learn. Buying into someone else’s way of eating and slimming down whether it’s a book, online programme, friend’s recommendation or whatever, is not the answer. They might give us inspiration, ideas or a nice new recipe but at the end of the day, an eating plan or ‘diet’ is a personal thing and you have to work it out for yourself.


Sue said...

Good morning Jo!

Thoughtful words as ever. It's certainly a minefield. As we've discussed before, I think you have to know yourself well to get it right, and even then you need a huge measure of discipline. It's never easy, that's for sure.

I'm managing to do some exercise again, which is good, and am trying to be sensible with food. What a slog!

Best of luck with it all :-)

Sally Zigmond said...

Relax, Jo, but ditch those those diets. They all work for a while but as you say because certain foodstuffs are restricted it leads to boredom after a while and you'll crave what you can't have and go mad!

Cutting out one food group such as fat or carbs completely is silly. Your body needs them all. Just eat and drink what you like but just eat less of it. (Eat off a smaller plate so it looks fuller!)Cut down (don't cut out)potatoes and pasta but fill up with veg--again don't go mad or your bowels will suffer! Go easy on the alcohol--it's loaded with calories--but don't beat yourself up if you go mad every so often. The same goes for cream and other self-indulgences. Just have them every so often but not every day. Don't ban them or you'll view them as bad and therefore crave them more.

And exercise is great but again, don't binge-exercise. Little and often is best.

Diet books just make money for the people who write them. Forget them.

PS. I have a great recipe for the most delicious way of cooking potatoes without fat. Wash and prick them and microwave in their skins whole until cooked. Then cut into chip sized pieces (careful as they'll be very hot) with skin on and then put in hot oven until crisp and brown. They taste fantastic--especially the very crisp edge bits--and no fat in sight!