Don't Think Diet, Think Thin

Change your lifestyle, not just your diet plan.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD

America has reached a crossroad.

We've tried the quick-fix diet plans. We've tried low-fat, low-cal, low-carb -- with low satisfaction. We've jumped from Jazzercise to spinning to yoga to tai chi.

So we're back on the couch, with the remote control and Rocky Road. Our weight problem is still a big problem. We've all been there. We feel our pain.

Pull up a cushion, America. It's time to meditate, tune into your natural tendencies. Then figure out a life path -- a lifestyle -- that will keep you healthy. For guidance, WebMD contacted two health and nutrition gurus.

Meditate on Your Motivators

On this path, one size doesn't fit all. This is all about you.

"It's important to understand yourself, what motivates you, what works for you," says Cindy Moore, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and director of nutrition therapy at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. "This is not about trying to change yourself. You're just working with who you are."

Are you a patient person? Do you need instant gratification? Are you adventurous, or does familiar and stable ring true? Are you a loner or a joiner? Do decisions come easily, or is structure better? These are questions you need to ask yourself, says Moore. "Be honest with yourself. There's no right or wrong answer. There's no need to change your basic nature."

Here's a happy note: That old harbinger -- willpower -- won't be part of your new path. "If you're relying on willpower every day, then you've made an error. Willpower should be used only on special occasions. Biology will defeat willpower every time," says Lisa Sanders, MD, professor at Yale University and author of the book, The Perfect Fit Diet.

However, you will need support, Sanders tells WebMD. "Women especially need encouragement. Women don't feel comfortable imposing their needs on other people. They find it difficult to make their home or workplace a 'safe' place to be -- to get rid of stuff they shouldn't be eating. They say, 'My husband, my kids, my niece, wants the cookies, the potato chips, the cake in the house."

But there's one basic fact that can't be denied: Healthy living is good for everyone. When you take a stand against junk food, everyone benefits. "You know it's the right thing to do," says Sanders.

Take the Lifestyle Personality Quiz

To reveal your inner tendencies -- and your best approach to lifestyle changes -- Moore has developed this simple quiz:

1. Tortoise or Hare?

Are you patient and process-oriented, like the fabled tortoise? Or does instant gratification sound better?

Tortoises are comfortable losing weight the prudent way, notes Moore. You make one or two diet changes at a time. For example, you will eat two servings of fruit every day for two weeks instead of other snacks. Then you'll add another goal -- to get two servings of low-fat dairy every day. "It's a gradual, long-term focus on changing habits, not a quick fix," explains Moore.

But the craving for instant gratification is what sells diet plan books. "If your goal is to lose weight quickly, you'll try any high-protein, low-carb, or very low-calorie diet," says Moore. "I'm not endorsing that kind of diet plan, but that's what people gravitate to."

The hitch: "Any fad diet will let you lose weight," she says. "But those diet plans don't let you maintain weight loss. You need be mindful that, unless you go to a transition diet plan, you will regain the weight."

2. Scheduler or Spontaneous?

If you're a planner, then grab your calendar. You prefer a more structured approach to meals -- even snacks -- as well as physical activity. Every week, map out the foods, meals, and workout schedule that work best for you. Make a grocery list at the same time, Moore suggests.

Spontaneous people must deal with their impulses. "They need discipline," she advises. "They need to make a healthful decision spontaneously. They must be judicious at every turn. They can have a small piece of cake, but have it less frequently."

3. Adventure or Tried and True?

The adventuresome soul loves to try new foods, new diet plans, new ways of eating, Moore says. "They need to select foods with fewer calories. It means eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat protein. It can also mean eating foods they didn't grow up with, like bulgar [wheat], couscous, barley, sushi. It can mean adding more legumes and beans. The key isn't to try just anything -- try something healthy."

Adventurous types also like trying new physical activities, new sports. Build on that love of diversity, advises Moore. If you normally take an aerobics or spinning class, try something else -- rebounding [using a mini trampoline] or Pilates or yoga -- or lift weights. "It will keep you from getting bored. And it will give balance to your physical activity," she says.

Familiarity lovers don't need to change their food choices -- just eat less of them, says Moore. "On the downside, you're going be hungrier because you're reducing volume. But at least you won't have to change the foods you eat."

However, the familiar walking or running routines should get bumped up a notch. Aim for longer or more frequent workouts. The downside: overuse of joints. "Doing step classes or running seven days a week is hard on your knees," she notes. "Diversity is more healthful. Do at least two different physical activities, one aerobic and the other a form of strength training."

4. Social Animal or Lone Wolf?

If social support keeps you motivated, seek out a buddy or group. You may even need a weight loss consultant or family "cheerleader" backing you up, says Moore. "Make sure your spouse and kids are supportive and won't undermine your efforts by buying foods not in the plan or discouraging you from exercising," she adds.

"If you're young, perfectly healthy, and have no family history of significant health problems, then you can try some crazy diet."

Some groups and plans provide social support, meetings, and cheering, Moore notes. "Weight management classes let you learn with a group, so you don't have to think of all the questions yourself. Or maybe you just want to meet with a weight management professional once or twice, to learn what you need to do."

For independent types, the Internet can provide a wealth of nutrition information. "The only danger is, you must make sure you can determine what's bogus and what's science-based," says Moore.

"Nutrition Navigator" on the Tufts University web site provides an evaluation of various diet web sites. Also, the American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture ( are good resources for recommended diet plan information. And WebMD has an independent review of the latest diets.

For independent people, exercise classes may be a total turn-off, says Moore. "They may prefer running in their neighborhood, step machines, or even weight resistance training -- things they can do on their own. These people are good at tracking their progress. That can be a great self motivator."

5. Long- vs. Short-Term Goal Setter?

If you prefer the long-term approach to good health, look to the American Dietetic Association, the American Health Association, and the American Association for Cancer Research web sites. They provide nutritional guidance aimed at preventing chronic diseases by eating a balanced, healthy diet, says Moore.

Short-termers will naturally try all the new diets and the bestselling diet books. "Just be careful that the diet plan is not harmful," she advises. Example: "If you have a family history of kidney problems, or if you have hypertension, eating a high-protein, low-carb diet makes kidneys work harder."

If you're young, perfectly healthy, and have no family history of significant health problems, "then you can try some crazy diet," Moore says. "You're not causing yourself too much harm short term. But if you're prone to heart disease or other health problems, following a plan where you have all the meat and fat your heart desires is not a good idea."

6. Controller or Follower?

Don't call them control freaks. They just like to control their own lifestyle and diet programs. They need to use good decision-making tools. Read the nutrition information panels on products. Check the USDA's food guide pyramid. Research fiber, soy, whole grains, and antioxidants.

"Followers" would rather have a step-by-step plan and weekly menus handed to them. They should see a nutritionist. They should also see an exercise physiologist or personal trainer to get a workout plan that works.

7. Creative or Crave Routine?

Creative people will try new recipes, new cooking techniques, and new restaurants. They may be more receptive to trying new sports. "The important thing is to tap into those creative urges," says Moore. "Try a new cookbook or vegetarian food just because it tastes good and is something different."

People who crave routine can stick to familiar foods, but should cut back on portions. For physical activity, they should identify one thing and stay with it. For example, resolve to walk several days a week -- whether it's around the neighborhood, at the gym, or on a treadmill at home.

8. Self-Motivated or Pressure-Sensitive?

Self-directed types have greater flexibility with diet plans and exercise. "They may not eat breakfast or work out at the same time every day, but they will fit it in. Some days, it will be earlier, some days later, but they will do it," says Moore.

Pressure-motivated people respond better to schedules. That's how they put pressure on themselves, explains Moore. "Put meals and exercise on your calendar, so you will do it. Otherwise, it will slip by you. Enroll in a class to force exercise onto your schedule -- otherwise you won't do it."

"It's a personal thing," Moore adds. "Those who are self-disciplined can do things on their own, work to their level of intensity and duration. People (like me) need to attend a class, so we won't come up with excuses. If we're paying for it, we'll do it. If we try doing it on our own, three minutes of exercise will seem like plenty."

Keep Changes Simple, Easy -- But Stick to Them

As you're implementing changes in your lifestyle, keep them simple and easy, says Sanders. "Look very seriously at your life to find what makes it unhealthy. Minimally change it to make it healthier. Ask, 'How have I organized my life, my eating habits, my kitchen, my work world?' Patients tell me, 'I know what I am supposed to do, I just can't make myself do it.'"

Also, make time in your busy life for yourself, Sanders adds. "Saying 'no' means you're going to disappoint some people. Otherwise, you end up disappointing yourself." Your new lifestyle -- your exercise and diet plan -- will never be a priority until you make it one.

Published May 5, 2004.

SOURCES: Cindy Moore, MS, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, director of nutrition therapy at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Lisa Sanders, MD, professor at Yale University, author, The Perfect Fit Diet.

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