A woman standing in a kitchen using a smartphone.
Sudden extreme changes to your diet often aren’t sustainable, but health experts say there’s a simpler, healthier way to improve your diet for long-term success. Pekic/Getty Images
  •  Studies suggest that making sudden extreme changes to your diet often isn’t sustainable.
  • According to research, people are more likely to give up on their goals if they feel too challenged.
  • Experts agree that extreme, abrupt changes can be challenging both mentally and physically.
  • Focusing on tiny improvements you can make daily is key.

For many people, the new year is an opportunity to overhaul habits and make big changes to their lifestyle, particularly when it comes to diet. Sometimes that means eating a diet that’s very different from the one you had before.

It can be tempting to go to extremes at the cusp of a new year, but abrupt changes can be difficult to stick to, and often, many people quickly fall back into old habits.

In fact, scientific studies suggest that making big, sweeping changes to your diet may not produce the best results.

A 2018 review, for example, concluded that not only are many extreme diets unbalanced and potentially unsafe, but they’re not sustainable in the long run either, with many people regaining the weight lost within a short period of time.

Another study suggests that people tend to choose the path of least resistance, and when it comes to changing our behaviors, dietary or otherwise, we’re more likely to give up if change feels too challenging.

If you’re on a mission to overhaul your eating habits this year, the results of the above studies might feel discouraging, but health experts suggest there are other ways to form healthy habits.

How sudden extreme changes in diet can affect your body

According to Sasha Parkin, nutritional therapist at Wild Nutrition, one reason it’s so difficult to stick with extreme changes, is that it takes your body a while to adjust.

“If you were to sign up to run a marathon, you wouldn’t expect your body to be able to complete it the day after you signed up,” she points out. “Making massive dietary overhauls is a little like this. It is hugely demanding on the body, and when it doesn’t work out, which research shows is often the case, it is extremely demotivating.”

Waning motivation aside, there’s a lot happening at a physical level when you try to change too much too fast.

“If we have been eating the same type of diet for months or years, then decide to dramatically change this in a short period of time, it will be a shock to the system,” says Parkin.

“This can cause unfavorable effects such as blood sugar control issues, feeling fatigued, and even spiking our stress hormone cortisol, which in turn tells our body we need to hold on to excess fat.”

Over time, Parkin says extreme dieting can eventually lead to dysregulation of the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, which, frustratingly, can make it even harder to make improvements if you decide to try again.

Sudden extreme changes in diet can have a negative effect on mental health, too

Of course, it’s not all physical. When you overhaul your eating habits, there’s often a lot going on mentally too.

“Studies show that when people severely change and restrict their diet, they tend to become preoccupied with thoughts of food and feel intense urges to eat. As willpower and motivation are finite, the level of restriction is usually unsustainable,” explains chartered psychologist Catherine Hallissey.

In turn, this can lead to feelings of personal failure, self-criticism, and guilt, and increases the likelihood of you seeking solace through familiar comfort foods.  

Small changes to your diet over time may be the secret to success

Hallissey says it comes down to instant gratification. We want to see results fast. But it’s by delaying gratification and implementing small, manageable changes that we can really make sustainable improvements.

Whether it’s adding in an extra portion of veg at dinner or making a commitment to reducing your portion sizes, making one or two small changes at a time is undeniably easier to stick to and less challenging mentally and physically.

“Starting small avoids unnecessary stress on the body and can make it a more enjoyable experience, focused on self-care rather than self-depreciation,” says Parkin. “In turn, this promotes a feeling of accomplishment when we can tick new habits off, for example having a healthy lunch or avoiding that second biscuit.”

Parkin says the dopamine hit we get when we achieve something, furthers the positive cycle which encourages us to continue on the path.

It takes time to build new habits

Another reason small changes are easier to maintain is that it takes time to build a habit.

You might have heard that it takes 21 days for a new behavior to become a habit, but some estimates suggest it may take much longer.

According to one study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a new behavior to become automatic.

When it comes to diet, your new habits need time to take hold.

“Small changes require less willpower to sustain. This means over a gradual period they’re easier to maintain and are more likely to become habitual,” Hallissey explains.

Parkin points out that bad habits weren’t formed overnight, and unraveling them won’t be a quick process either.

How to slowly change your diet

So, exactly how do you adopt a more gradual approach to forming healthier habits?

Parkin says it’s highly individual, but ideally, you’ll want to allow three months to really see a positive change.

She advises mastering one change at a time and taking a meal-by-meal approach. “Start with a healthy breakfast. Once you are happy with this, move to lunch and see what improvements you can make there.

Hallissey recommends a similar approach. She says it’s about focusing on tiny behaviors you can do daily, like gradually increasing your water intake from three glasses to four or slowly reducing the number of spoons of sugar you take in your tea.

“Once these changes become automatic, consider adding in new changes,” she advises, pointing out that it’s about adding in new healthy habits one by one, instead of attempting to do them all at once.

Adapting your surroundings to support your goals can further solidify your new habits.

“Lasting change is easier when you change your environment to support your new habit, rather than relying on willpower and motivation,” Hallissey explains. “This is even more important when you’re busy, tired, or stressed.”

To create an environment that sets you up for success, she advises prepping meals, always having healthy snacks on hand, and keeping a bottle of water close by.

Hallissey also believes dropping the perfectionist mindset is key.

“Remember that perfection is not the goal, so do not take an all-or-nothing approach,” she advises. “Instead, make use of the two-day rule. The two-day rule simply means you do your best not to skip the new habit a second time. So, for example, if you missed the gym one day, you’d make sure you go the following day.”

When approaching any new goal, it can be tempting to make extreme changes, but the experts say abrupt, quick-fix solutions are unlikely to lead to lasting change.

You might find that de-motivating, but you could choose to see it as a positive. You don’t have to deprive yourself or go to extremes to make improvements. You can make positive changes with less effort, and those new habits are more likely to stick as a result. It’s a win-win.

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