Diet as an Iterative Process

It would be nice if one attempt at a new diet or participation in a 30-day challenge would result in your desired body composition, ever-improving performance, complete resolution of your vices, and a fail-safe nutrition blueprint for the rest of your life. 

However, consider this expectation in comparison to any other learned skill or habit. Nowhere is 30 days enough for mastery. At the end of 30 days, did you just give up on pull-ups because you did not get them? How much improvement did you see in your back squat after 30 days on a strength program? Yet people often bring an expectation of perfection to new diet plans and get more frustrated by their failure versus other endeavors.    

For a diet to be successful, it must strike the correct balance between quality and quantity in the context of your life. Successful diets require getting the physiology right, (often the easier part) while aligning with the very real constraints of your life (often the harder part). Your “life” means your own specific goals, beliefs, habits, and lifestyle. This can be the harder part, particularly considering these factors change over time.     

There are some people who can go “cold turkey” and never go back to their old ways. This permanent change may just be the result of hard work and willpower. It also may be aided by the addition of a coach, a friendly gym competition, or some dramatic changes in health which makes it easier to adhere to a new diet. But even for those that have huge breakthroughs after 30 days, know that you do not always see the iterations they have already been through. You do not get to see all their lessons learned.  

Strict-thirty day challenges are great even if you do not adhere to it after it is done or even if you do not make it through. Perhaps you learned more about food quality, or which ingredients are in what food, or maybe you learned some new healthy recipes you enjoy. And even if you fail and break on day 21, you learn the diet changes were too much or perhaps the expectations were too high.  

This is why doing many different nutrition challenges is valuable and even failed diets have great value. Take on new challenges and see what you learn. Look at diet failures not just as “Paleo didn’t work for me,” but understand what about it didn’t work. It is typically a failure of quality and quantity (physiology) in the context of your life.  Were you overeating “approved” items that were too calorically dense (your physiology)? Were you overwhelmed by the rules (your life)?   

This is not about giving everyone a trophy for signing up for a 30-day challenge and going off the rails on day two. Rather, it is to set expectations regarding dietary changes. If the new diet is dramatically different from your current one, failure is (almost) inevitable. Know when to consider a gradual approach.  If you keep failing at Paleo, maybe try just removing grains before you also cut out dairy or legumes. If you keep failing at weighing and measuring, maybe weigh and measure the meal you tend to overeat. There are plenty of ways to scale each dietary habit or vice. 

Each time you feel you are back at square one to “clean-up” your diet, know that you have increased knowledge about what foods you like, what quantities are appropriate, what behaviors or foods lead to less optimal choices.  “Enjoy the journey” and “trust the process” are phrases that should also be hashtagged to diet.  We must recognize and value the small dietary changes that stick with every iteration.