12 Diets in 12 Months: A Chronic Dieter Looks At 40

Every new year begins in the same way—choosing the diet that will ultimately fail. In 2018, this was "the soup diet." Everything I ate for one month was pureed like baby food. By February, I lost 26 pounds on this odd diet before going back to my old habits. I knew the soup diet was not a lifelong plan, but I thought it might kickstart something greater. In truth, I've completed (and failed to complete) dozens of kickstart diets and none of them have included a continuation plan.

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In early March, I realized I was gaining back the weight I'd lost on the soup diet and thought, "I can do anything successfully for about a month." It's as though someone hands me a challenging book and I can read several pages, but won't finish a chapter, and certainly not the entire book.

If you’re tired of the same old story, turn some pages.
— REO Speedwagon

I'm a consumer psychologist by trade, so instead of brushing the soup diet off as another failure, I decided to take note of how my brain works.

  1. When progress slows down, I have lower autonomous motivation. I lose mostly water weight in Weeks 1 and 2, then the pounds fall off more gradually. Despite assurance that this is "healthy", the thrill is gone.
  2. Perhaps paradoxically given my first point, progress seems sufficient in some respects. Clothes are fitting better and I'm feeling better, so this seems like a good stopping point based on short-term goals.
  3. I crave variety. Restrictive diets like low-carb bore me after a while. The things I can't have become even more tempting like forbidden fruit (though definitely never fruit).
  4. Once a diet ends, I immediately start gaining. See the chart below which shows my weight fluctuations since 2013. Look how steep the valleys are. Some are worse than they look but delaying a weigh-in for several months makes the upslope seem flatter.
  5. Dieting is private and no one will know I failed. Usually only one or two people even know I've been trying to lose weight. There is very little external accountability.
  6. I eat poorly when I am gloomy, angry, bored, rejected, stressed, or annoyed. Re-engineering the way I respond to all of these moods is a tall order.
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Enter my 12 diets in 12 months plan. I hoped to attack several of the commonly recurring problems above with a strange approach that has drawn criticism. I understand the criticism and probably agree with much of it, but I am not a conventional patient. I cannot simply do what I know is best in the domain of eating self-control.

To address problems 1-4 (progress slow-down, sufficient short-term progress, lack of variety, and immediate gains), this plan introduces a mix of short-term and long-term goals. Remember that I can do anything for one month.

If at the beginning of each month, I start something new, I should increase my likelihood of continuing. I will be excited about a new variety of foods, a new plan to learn and adopt. I will recognize that I've made no progress yet toward the new month's goal, but at the same time, I've notched another month toward the ultimate goal. There's no stopping now. Instead or regaining the weight lost in one month, I move on to the next month. I hope, over the 12 different diets, to also discover the best style for maintaining my weight at the end of the year.

To address point 5 of dieting privately, I have made this plan public here and on my LinkedIn profile (weekly updates) and my Instagram profile (daily updates). This adds external motivation but also replaces the rewards that come from unhealthy eating and satiety with social celebration via likes and comments.

The last issue of having poor eating behaviors triggered by so many different cues, many of them common moods, poses a bigger problem. How do I stick to something when any transgression can set me off the path? I am encouraged by my Whole 30 (month 1) experience in New Orleans. On day 2 of a conference, I ate some baked ham which I knew contained sugar and then I ate gumbo. I continued to eat foods that violated the diet for two days. This is usually a death sentence for any diet of mine. Instead, I was honest about what I did on my daily Instagram feed, and I got back on track the day I returned home. I think it was the social accountability that reined me in this time.

The Power of Habit is a worthwhile read and discusses habit loops that involve cues, routines, and rewards. Effective change, the author proposes, requires keeping the cues and rewards the same but replacing the routine. For me, the complex cues involving a range of moods lead to routines of binge eating. I think, for now, I've replaced the routine with engaging on social media. I have access at all times via my phone. This could be an ultimately unhealthy routine in its own right, but the eating issues are more pressing for my health. The rewards of social media provide catharsis and release which seem to overlap with what I got out of poor eating.

Combining the soup diet which started a few days before January 1, the subsequent gains, and the loss from Whole 30, I am down 38 pounds since Christmas. Twenty of those pounds come from my first month of my 12 in 12 plan. I am just starting Weight Watchers, and I already overate carbs a bit on day one. Every diet is going to pose challenges, but I know I can finish one more month. 

dietScott Davis