The Science of Lifestyle Changing Diet

February 16, 2011

Best Approaches to Dietary Changes

It is easy to become overwhelmed with all the “free advice” out there on how to improve your health.   Everyone knows that healthy eating is incredibly important.  But, with literally hundreds (if not thousands) of diets, diet products, diet classes, diet supplements and diet books, it is hard to know where to start or which information to believe.  In fact, when you study the available information, many seem to actually contradict each other!

There are, however, some things that pretty much all of them agree on.  Green vegetables are good.  Fewer calories are generally better than more calories.  Your body needs some calories from each of fat, protein and complex carbohydrates.  Beyond this, there is lots of conflicting information.

So, if everyone more or less agrees on the basics, why aren’t more people being successful?  It’s probably a complex answer – having to do with sociology (conflicting social pressures), psychology (food as comfort) and physiology (our bodies haven’t adjusted yet to having access to “nearly unlimited” food – remember that only a little while ago, in evolutionary terms, our bodies basically rewarded us for all calories because they were so scarce!).

The good news is that there is now a large body of research on how to overcome these.  In other words, science has been testing what works in helping people make lifestyle changes in their diets.  This essay attempts to organize some of that research into practical suggestions about what does and doesn’t work – if you’re trying to overcome these natural roadblocks.



To start with, researchers believe that the beginning of one’s eating habits come from their parents. Dr. Robert K. Ross, president and chief executive officer of the California Endowment, stated therefore that one of the keys to solving the obesity crisis starts with parents. Most of our parents set bad examples by eating and feeding their kids fast foods, sodas, processed foods of all sorts and other junk foods.  The problem is that we tend to follow what they eat.  While it may seem obvious, it is remarkably important to teach your children good eating habits – and to lead by example.  It pays huge dividends for the rest of their lives.

Golan and Crow (2004) used a family-based health-centered approach for the treatment of childhood obesity rather than a conventional approach that focuses only on children. They concluded that parents’ involvement is critical for introducing a healthy environment, modelling healthy eating patterns, and improving child’s practices and weight status in the long term. The environment that parents create based on their own dietary and physical activity behaviors have a lasting negative effect on children’s dietary lifestyle (Davinson, Francis, & Birch, 2005).


There is an on-going debate about whether it is better to “go cold turkey” or to gradually start a new diet.  The research seems to suggest that the best way to start is through a supervised fast. This will give your body a “new baseline” to react to. Then, you should introduce the changes gradually. Rapid changes in the diet usually fail. It is extremely difficult to change overnight.

A study made by the American Association for Cancer Research suggests that it is better to change one’s eating habits gradually to prevent adverse reactions. The key is to make the changes gradually through portion control (Windhauser, Ernst, Karanja, Crawford, Redican, Swain, Karimbakas, Champagne, Hoben, & Evans, 1999). You don’t need to eliminate those processed or junk foods entirely at once, just eat a little less of them and substitute them with healthy foods. You should cut calories gradually while trying to shift yourself into a more balanced, healthier diet (Karanja, Obarzanek, Lin, & McCullough, et. al 1999). A study at Colorado University supported the notion that any diet change needs to be made gradually over the course of 4 or 5 days for best results.

Another clinical study conducted at Johns Hopkins University found that dietary changes can be made more easily if done after a period of fasting. However, this must be done in the presence of an experienced practitioner to avoid any problems.


The next key is to try to make these changes with the help of a group.  If you are around peers going through the same thing – you can both relate to them and support each other.  It also helps to have positive reinforcement in the context of surrounding yourself with people eating the same things you want to.  In the book entitled, “Weight Loss Confidential: How Teens Lose Weight and Keep It Off–And What” by Anne M. Fletcher and Holly Wyatt, the authors recommend a group approach to improving teens’ eating habits. This approach is particularly helpful when the teens don’t have the same support and role models at home.

Oygard and Klepp (1995) found out that the most influential factor for predicting eating patterns among young adults was the perceived norms of social groups. Their research showed that based on the Lifelong Openness Model, individuals are always open to persuasion from socialization agents throughout life. According to Dr. Antronette K. Yancey, lead author of the study and associate professor of health services at the UCLA School of Public Health, to successfully improve one’s eating habits, he or she needs to create a culture of healthy living within an organizational framework. Therefore, it is better to make these dietary changes with a group of individuals having the same faith as yours.



Next, though it might be counter-intuitive, it is actually useful to create your own customized diet program.  The more you invest in the process and can take pride in the diet, the more likely you are to follow it – and to share it with your community – again, creating positive feedback mechanisms.  In the book entitled, “The Flex Diet: Design-Your-Own Weight Loss Plan,” Dr. James Beckerman shares techniques on how to create a unique weight-loss program depending on your own needs and lifestyle. He pointed out that one of the best ways to dieting is to customize it with your own nutrition guide. Before designing your own diet plan, enough time for self-reflection is needed. According to Heather K. Jones, RD, co-author of What’s Your Diet Type? Use the Power of Your Personality to Discover Your Best Way to Lose Weight, when it comes to weight loss, healthy eating and lifestyle change, it is very important to know who you are and what you need. He further stressed that our personality explains why some dieting approaches work and others fail.  


The last major concept, of course, is to add exercise to your diet plans.  The combination of the two has a compounding effect.  A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association suggests that adding yoga, CrossFit or similar structured exercise routines to a standard weight-loss or dieting program makes it more effective. The discipline and control required in yoga or CrossFit, for example, teaches you the same skills needed to cope with the challenging situations incurred in a structured diet, such as not eating when you are not hungry. Exercise and diet are more effective at producing weight loss and staying fit when done together than either is  alone. The Centers for Disease Control recommended a minimum of 30 minutes of light to moderate exercise each day for good health.  If your doctor says that you are healthy enough, you may also want to consider HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) as a more effective approach to exercise.  Counter to common knowledge, short, intense exercise routines can actually be much more effective at burning calories, building muscle and conditioning the body than the traditional “more is better” approach.  CrossFit is a great example of the HIIT methodology.

            Importantly, you should always consult with medical professionals before making any dietary changes. It is important to consult a doctor or a dietician first to ensure proper and balance nutrition and to avoid any adverse effect from the changes in your daily eating lifestyle. It is important to take note that dietary changes need discipline, commitment of willpower, and sacrifice for the diet transition to be successful.  But, the rewards are far greater!



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2 Responses to The Science of Lifestyle Changing Diet

  1. milestonecrossfit on February 16, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    We really enjoyed this especially the references and will share it!

  2. […] The Science of Lifestyle Changing Diet […]

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