First, I have to make a confession: New Year's resolutions are one of my least-favorite methods of goal setting. Even though I’m writing this article, I actually wish that people would stop making New Year’s resolutions , period—I think they’re a total setup for failure. Why wait for one day out of the year to start making changes to your life? Talk about pressure!
However, I still do have some clients who feel that New Year's resolutions are a good way to jump-start their nutrition goals. You know what works best for you. So if you’re set on making some resolutions, let me caution you about some mistakes that I see people repeat every single year. Not just in January, either!
I should note that many of the resolutions I hear deal with weight loss. Since I'm a registered dietitian, a lot of my clients come to me for help changing their eating habits to reach a weight loss goal. This doesn't mean that weight loss needs to be one of your goals, though. There are so many other important reasons to want to eat healthier , like improving your energy, preventing chronic diseases associated with a poor diet, and just feeling better overall.
Here are the three most common New Year’s resolution mistakes that I see in my practice:
1. Setting an unrealistic number goal for weight loss (or setting a number at all)
I actually don’t set number goals with clients (I don’t weigh most of my clients, either) because it’s impossible to predict how much weight someone is going to lose in a period of time. I also prefer to take the focus off the scale and put it somewhere more meaningful, like on a person’s eating habits and lifestyle. People tend to want to set number goals for how much weight they’d like to lose, but more often than not these goals work against them.
Setting a number goal for weight loss can be motivating, but it can be equally demotivating if you’re aiming for a number that’s simply unattainable and unrealistic. If you must set a number goal, do it in small increments. Account for situations like holidays, plateaus, and anything else that can affect weight loss. Consider your lifestyle, your weight history (have you ever been that exact weight that you’re aiming to achieve, at least in your adult life?), your work hours, and your life situation now . It can be unwise to set a goal based on your weight in the distant past. Are you living the same life now as you were then? Are there kids, a job, or a different living situation in the picture now? Are you a lot older? These are all important considerations that can impact your success in achieving that specific weight goal, so if the answer is yes to any of those factors, you may need to readjust your expectations (and your goal number).
More importantly, focusing on your overall health and wellness, the quality of food you eat, and loving yourself can help you step away from the diet mentality and the constant focus on weight and numbers. If you find yourself constantly dieting, you may need to take a different, less number-focused view of your weight and leave the number goals behind.
One final caution: If you have a history of disordered eating, I strongly suggest that you stay away from the scale altogether. (And, it's worth adding, be sure to talk with your doctor before making any changes to your nutrition habits.)
The lesson? Inflated expectations and goals can derail your weight loss success. You might want to stop fixating on numbers and diets and start living in a way that makes you physically and emotionally happy and sound.
2. Falling for diet scare tactics
It’s pretty appalling how often scare tactics are used to sell diets, but luckily, they’re easy to spot. Any program using words like “toxic ” or “harmful” to describe food, or that tells you to cut out entire food groups with no credible research or good reason, fall into this category. (Note: Just because a diet claims to have credible research, that doesn’t make it so.) Unless a food has been adulterated with an actual poison, it’s not “toxic”, and most healthy people—even those who are trying to lose weight—can include every food in their diets, at least in measured amounts.
For example, you may have heard of a diet that proclaims that gluten is harmful for everyone and should be cut out forever. There's absolutely no scientific backing to support that claim. Gluten is harmful only for people who are allergic to it, so a blanket statement that suggests that we all react negatively to one ingredient or another is a red flag. If you feel better after you eliminate a certain food group or ingredient from your diet , go right ahead—but if you’re fine with certain foods like gluten for example, there’s zero reason to cut it out.
Sugar is another ingredient that’s often targeted by fear mongering. A diet that warns that sugar is “toxic” and should be cut out altogether creates a negative association with an ingredient that yes, isn’t good for anyone—but has never been proved to be harmful in small amounts. What happens if you are on a “sugar-free” diet and end up eating a slice of cake? That’s a recipe for guilt, shame, and fear, and repeatedly experiencing this may really mess up your relationship with food. If you aim to eat less sugar, it’s probably more realistic than cutting it—or anything—out of your diet altogether.
The lesson? It’s fantastic that you want to eat healthier, but don’t fall for scare tactics. Food shouldn’t be feared, and it should never be associated with guilt and shame.
3. Taking celebrity nutrition advice seriously
There are far too many celebrities and celebrity "health gurus" giving crappy nutrition advice, and the best thing to do is to ignore them.
Believing that you can look like a celebrity if you replicate their diet doesn’t work, simply because there’s a lot more to how people look and how they live than meets the eye—like personal trainers, chefs, and a job that depends on how they look (unfortunately).
More importantly, these people rarely have any legit nutrition training, and they have products to sell along with their program. Be very suspicious of anyone who doles out advice that stipulates or strongly suggests that you need to purchase a certain product in order to be successful on their program. Nope. Nope. Nope.
On that note, you should also be wary of nutrition advice that’s coming from someone who isn’t a registered nutritionist or other qualified nutrition expert (that is, a person with a Master’s degree or Ph.D. in nutrition). Personal trainers are experts at exercise, not nutrition. And remember: Just because someone has lost weight on a certain diet, doesn’t make them a diet expert. Everybody eats, but that doesn’t make everybody an authority on food.
The lesson? If it seems too good (or too wacky) to be true and sustainable, and/or the person is selling a product/supplement that they say is mandatory to be successful on their program, take a pass.