(a version of this article first appeared in Fuel magazine, spring 2008)

It’s still early, but pretty soon people will start to think of losing weight for summer: shorts, tank tops, bathing suits….yikes! For a time, the gym will crowd like the week after New Year’s, and people will plan diets with their best intentions. Of those who set out to lose weight, though, how many will succeed? Study after study yields the same discouraging answer: very, very few. Most people who do lose, in fact, will end up regaining more than they lost within a year.

You could say that going on a diet, then, can end up making you fatter. When you eat significantly less, your metabolism slows down. It can remain slow after you return to your previous eating pattern, causing you to gain even more easily than before. Also, many people end up binging, or at least blowing their diets in big ways, because they are feeling too hungry or deprived. These episodes can damage your weight even more. This all results in discouragement, feelings of hopelessness or failure. For some, it adds to a “yo-yo” effect that may cause more health and weight problems than a less-than-desirable but consistent weight.

Reaching and staying at a weight that is right for you and your body is an important goal, though, for physical and psychological reasons. It’s just that “dieting”—significantly changing how you eat for a few weeks or months, and then stopping—isn’t a reliable method of achieving this goal. People who succeed do so by finding ways of changing how they eat, how they think about food, and how they exercise, in an ongoing way. “Ongoing” is a key word. This doesn’t mean “perfectly” or “instantly” or “all at once”. People can approach this kind of lifetime change in different ways; there is no single sure method.

Some people try their best to stick with the kind of eating they know makes them look and feel their best—say, a reasonably nutritious diet low in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates, with lots of vegetables, modest portions and occasional treats. They aim for this kind of diet consistently, not expecting instant perfection. They learn from mistakes. Like: “Maybe I shouldn’t order takeout from here….it’s gigantic and I have a hard time stopping.” Or, “When I go to that meeting, I’m going to bring my own lunch. Last time, I ended up eating that junky cafeteria stuff.” They may aim for the gym three times a week, but if something throws them off, they push themselves to start their routine again. Over time, the changes they make start to become more automatic and take less effort.

Others may struggle to even picture what it would be like to eat so well. Or maybe they’re not sure they’re ready to give up certain less-than-ideal habits. Here, it makes sense to introduce a change or two at a time, adding another and then another as months go by. Here are some good examples of single changes that can contribute to a real difference over time:

-replacing full-fat dairy products with low-fat (not fat free)

-choosing one meal—breakfast, maybe—to make more nutritious

-limiting dessert to one or two evenings per week if you’re on a nightly routine

-limiting dessert to “in restaurants on weekends only”

-adding one or two more vegetable servings each day

-replacing one fattening snack per day with a healthier one

-adding two extra walks to your week

-adding three servings per week of leafy greens

-replacing most white rice, pasta, and breads with whole-grain

In all of these cases, let some weeks pass before deciding how the change has worked. Usually, people grow accustomed to changes in time. So, if at first it feels uncomfortable, or even just less preferable to your old way, remind yourself of all the reasons you want to make diet changes. Think of the very big picture. Stick with it and reevaluate in another month. Habits and routines often change this way. What you couldn’t even picture starts to feel like what’s normal.

Change that lasts doesn’t happen all at once. Think of how people quit smoking or make other big habit changes. Mulling over a change, trying out different ways, learning from mistakes—all of these are part of the mind and body making needed adjustments. With food, making change that lasts can involve practical problem-solving and planning, as well as dealing with unhelpful thoughts and emotional stress. The shift from an unhealthy way of relating to food to a healthy one can realistically become a journey of a year or two or even more, depending on you and your particular circumstances.

Change is a process, in other words. Engaging in that process, even with bumps and zigzags along the way, will lead to better health and sanity in the long run. Starting yet another diet will not.