Forget Your New Year’s Diet, Try Mindfulness Instead

asian woman eating breakfast looks off into the distance

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Key Takeaways

  • Many New Year's resolutions revolve around losing weight, but restrictive diets tend not to work, and leave you feeling bad about yourself.
  • There are healthy ways to drop weight, including figuring why you want to, taking small steps, and practicing mindful eating.

For many people, the new year and dieting go hand-in-hand. However, a 2020 study that compared 14 popular diets found that while some weight loss occurred after six months of following a diet, most was regained within the year.

“Diets, and particularly fad diets, are often restrictive, highly rule-based, and sometimes downright punitive. Eating should be pleasurable: a diet that is too restrictive often leads to rebound overeating, and research suggests that restrained eating patterns may actually predict weight gain rather than loss,” says Uma Naidoo, MD, nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, and director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. 

Instead of basing your new year goals or sense of accomplishment on how much weight you've lost, experts recommend taking a more mindful approach. That means reevaluating how you relate to your food, finding purpose, and accepting your body wholeheartedly throughout the process.

Focus on Your Relationship With Food

Because diets are created to get people to lose weight quickly, Christina Brown, MS, ACSM CPT, nutrition and weight loss coach, says people reach for the quick win by often attaining their weight loss goals, but as soon as they stop following the diet, they end up gaining back weight.

“Diets do not teach people to look at their relationship with food. Instead, they allow food to control a person's behavior by creating a set of food rules. As soon as those rules are no longer being followed, people fall back into their previous relationship with food, which most likely was not a healthy relationship,” says Brown. 

Christina Brown, MS, ACSM CPT

Diets do not teach people to look at their relationship with food. Instead, they allow food to control a person's behavior by creating a set of food rules. 

— Christina Brown, MS, ACSM CPT

Also, she says sticking to diets is hard because when you deny yourself a certain type of food or food group, the only thing you want to eat is that particular food or food group, which can lead to binging. “[This is because people] get to a point in which they can no longer handle the cravings they have for that food and ‘give up’ and eat as much of it as they can, and eventually ending up giving up on the diet altogether,” says Brown. 

Because diets restrict food freedom, she says many people can’t follow them for the rest of their life. Rather, creating sustainable healthy eating habits and a positive relationship with food is the
long-term solution for weight loss, notes Brown. 

It’s About Purpose, Not Willpower

Losing weight and healthy eating is predicated on a strong sense of purpose, not will, says Naidoo. For sustainable habit change to occur, she says it’s important to first determine your “why.” 

Brown agrees. To help her clients understand their “why,” she pushes them to answer the question.

For example, she might ask them: Why do you want to lose 20 pounds? They may say: Because I want more energy. Then she will ask: Why do you want more energy? They may respond: Because I'm tired of sitting on the bench at the park while my kids are playing. Brown may ask: Why are you tired of sitting on the bench? Her client may answer: Because I want to be able to play with my kids and keep up with them at the park.

Uma Naidoo, MD

Eating should be pleasurable: a diet that is too restrictive often leads to rebound overeating, and research suggests that restrained eating patterns may actually predict weight gain rather than loss

— Uma Naidoo, MD

“And so on and so forth. You keep going through the whys until you've reached that deep-down reason. Once a person knows what their deep-down reason is, then they are much more likely to stick to whatever plan it is they have for reaching their goal, for example, a diet,” explains Brown. 

Small Steps Are the Way to Start

Once purpose is defined, Naidoo encourages her patients to start with small change by identifying just one or two ways they want to improve their eating. “Maybe you’ve been leaning on ice cream or bags of pretzels during the pandemic. Simply work towards a brain-healthy swap by choosing a handful of nuts and 80% natural dark chocolate. Expand your palate to more flavors and textures and you will find that healthier food can also be tasty,” she says. 

Other swaps might include choosing raw vegetables over potato chips. “The fiber, vitamins and phytochemicals from the veggies nourish our all-important gut microbes,” says Naidoo. 

Eating a rainbow of colors can also be a good guide, she adds. For example, one new fruit at breakfast, one folate-rich side salad with lunch, one new roasted vegetable at dinner. “All of these small changes add up, in ways that don’t overwhelm your workload or your palate,” Naidoo says. 

To avoid feeling limited, she encourages a balanced plan for nutrition wherein you eat as healthfully as possible 80 percent of the time, and leave some flexibility for 20 percent of the time. She finds that this approach affords maximum benefit and long-term sustainability. 

Learn What Hungry Feels Like

Determining what your relationship with food is like is key to creating sustainable healthy eating habits, says Brown. She suggests using a hunger scale and only eating when you are truly hungry. “Many people eat for dozens of other reasons besides hunger—most emotional or stress related. Many of us don't really listen to our bodies and thus don't really know what it feels like to be hungry,” she says. “Truly understanding what it feels like when you are hungry can have a huge impact on creating those sustainable habits.” 

Keeping a food diary in which, you write down the food you eat, how you feel before you eat and after you finish eating, can help understand your relationship with food. Brown suggests keeping a
diary for several weeks can help reveal feelings and emotions associated with eating. “Once you are aware of this, then it can be dealt with, but if we don't know that our emotions are causing us to eat, we can't make any changes,” she says. 

Add Mindfulness to Your Meals

By slowing down and enjoying the taste and texture of food, Brown says you are more likely to stop eating before you are too full. “It takes a while for the stomach to signal the brain that it is full and oftentimes if we are eating too fast, we end up overeating and overfilling ourselves [before] the stomach [has] the time it needs to signal the brain,” she says. 

Naidoo suggests the following to integrate mindful practices to your meals: 

  • Sit down. “Much like the phrase 'be where your feet are,' when we sit with our meals, we bring our attention in that moment of space and time to our meal,” she says.
  • Follow a single bite from its start to finish. Naidoo says to pay attention to the sounds of cutting the food, the smell, the texture as it is placed in your mouth, the flavors that change as you chew, and the feeling as you swallow your food.
  • Enjoy dining out or meals on the go with the same mindfulness. “Acknowledging the nature of that meal without judgment of yourself or the meal, is also a profound exercise in mindfulness,” says Naidoo. 

While it takes time and patience to develop mindfulness while eating, Naidoo says it’s worth the effort. “Developing a healthy, keen sense of body awareness naturally attunes us to the foods which serve us best in any given moment,” she says. 

Drop the Guilt

When you eat in a way that you perceive to be healthy, Brown says you tend to feel good about yourself. However, as soon as you eat what you believe to be a forbidden or bad food, it can be easy to feel guilty. “The guilt can oftentimes be overwhelming, and it becomes a slippery slope
because we then often throw in the towel and tell ourselves that we will ‘start again on Monday,’” she says. 

This thought process becomes a vicious cycle and can have a negative impact on mental health. Rather, Brown says, by creating a healthy relationship with your eating habits and understanding that you don’t have to restrict yourself, you are more likely to enjoy all foods in moderation, “[which] puts us in a much healthier state of mind overall.” 

What This Means For You

While losing weight may be your New Year’s resolution, understanding your relationship with food, why you want to lose weight, and how to do so mindfully, can help get you on track to healthier eating.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ge L, Sadeghirad B, Ball GDC, et al. Comparison of dietary macronutrient patterns of 14 popular named dietary programmes for weight and cardiovascular risk factor reduction in adults: Systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomised trials. BMJ. 2020;369:m696. doi:10.1136/bmj.m696

  2. Lowe MR, Doshi SD, Katterman SN, Feig EH. Dieting and restrained eating as prospective predictors of weight gainFront Psychol. 2013;4:577. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00577

By Cathy Cassata
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, medical news, and inspirational people.