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If diets don’t work, what’s the alternative?

If diets don’t work, what's the alternative?

While we know that diets don’t work for long term sustainable weight loss, it can be a scary concept to grasp. If we don’t diet, what do we do if we want to lose weight?

The good news is that there’s an alternative; one that is easier, more fun and more likely to achieve long term success. It is also a way that looks after your health!

The alternative involves making tiny habit changes, one step at a time and in a way that requires the least sacrifice. Many tiny habit changes add up and soon start to make a difference to health and weight. The energy you reclaim motivates you to further change and so the process goes on. The important word here is ‘process’ – it is the journey that is important, not an impossible weight loss goal.

It does require commitment and practice, however, but as the process is step-by-step, the resolve and effort needed also happens in small manageable steps.  The main challenge is to put weight loss goals aside and focus instead on improving your health and vitality. Once you start you will be carried along by the increased energy and zest for life that you will begin to experience.

Getting started is the hardest part

This may be because we associate losing weight with dieting and we know this process is depressing. Who, apart from those with an indomitable iron-will, would willingly sign up for weeks of deprivation and self-discipline – particularly when they are likely to end up no better off or even worse off than when they started?

The best way is to start with one simple habit change. Choose one that requires little sacrifice and work on it until it becomes your new way of operating. This may be switching from blue top milk to light blue top milk or switching from white bread to a higher-fibre variety. One change at a time is the mantra and only when you are ready should you move on to another.

How do I know where to start?

In my last blog I talked about the value of a food diary (and how to do one). A food diary helps you learn about your eating and enables you to identify foods and habits that may be contributing to weight gain. I recommend listing these foods and habits and then prioritising those you would like to change. To keep it achievable, start working on the change that involves the least sacrifice first.

LOW-sacrifice foods are foods you could do without with little discomfort

Butter would be a low-sacrifice food if you would be just as happy to use an alternative.

HIGH-sacrifice foods are those you are not ready to do without

If you feel you could not do without chocolate or wine; these are your high-sacrifice foods / drinks. The challenge with high-sacrifice foods is to get satisfied with less of them, but this is something you can face later when you are more ready to do so.

As an example

Lisa identified the following habits and foods that were contributing to her weight gain:

I eat when I watch TV2
I drink wine every night3
I don't eat breakfast1
Full-cream milkLow
Morning-tea muffinMedium

Lisa decided to start her journey to health and a healthy weight by having a healthy breakfast. She also decided that she would use a lower-fat alternative to butter on her toast since butter was a low-sacrifice habit she would barely miss.


Focus on one achievable habit change at a time and go at a pace that works for you. For each unhelpful habit, think of a replacement behaviour that might work, eg. “I will use hummus or extra-light cream cheese on my bread instead of butter”.

Test this out and if the replacement behaviour or healthier food substitutions do not work for you, go back to the drawing board and look for other strategies that might work. The important thing is that whatever you do becomes your new enjoyable normal way of doing things. Above all, GO SLOWLY – you have the rest of your life after all!


Bronwen King is a NZ-registered nutritionist and qualified chef, and regular contributor to Healthy Food Guide magazine. She specialises in population health nutrition and weight management and currently manages Appetite for Life, a primary care-based healthy lifestyle and weight management programme in Canterbury. She enjoys everything about food! Check out Bronwen’s personal blog, www.eatlosewin.com.

First published: Oct 2012

Thanks, you're good to go!


Thanks, you're good to go!


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