The secret of a successful diet: a regular flow of treats

Everybody says diets don’t work. They would work if you actually stuck to them, but you won’t stick to them, because usually they are a bit silly. How do I know? Because I have been on millions of diets, and I have lost weight on every single one — but each time I put it back on. Allow me to introduce you to what I like to call the Dr Mike Cycle of Diet Woe and Misery. I’d really like this to catch on as a concept, so pay attention and tell your friends.

1. This isn’t so bad! I like this healthy food, I could do this forever!
2. The cravings start. I resist them. I feel virtuous. I can do this. It’s only cake.
3. The will power runs out; the cravings reach a mighty crescendo. ‘OK, let’s be reasonable, one biscuit won’t kill me.’
4. Forty-three biscuits later, there is no turning back — I’ve failed, everything is ruined and I resign myself to the fact that this will never work, because my affinity for carbs is just too strong. It’s how I was designed, and let’s face it — I’ve done so well. Enough is enough.
5. The clothes start getting too tight again and the cycle restarts.

Ultimately you can keep a lot of weight off this way, so you may think (as I did) that it’s not so bad, but the slips are demoralising, and the psychology of failure can be self-perpetuating. When you are making positive lifestyle changes you should feel amazing and proud, not bitter and miserable. Having done this for a while I was disillusioned, and if I was to truly achieve my masterplan of a healthy lifestyle I needed to change.

I had a chat to Emil Hodzovic, a doctor who has made waves in the fitness industry with his flexible approach to fat loss, an approach that I regularly rolled my eyes at, because you have to suffer to lose weight, right? He challenged me to try a tailored plan that he would write for me, and I accepted. I was terrified. I’d spent years trying to avoid ‘unhealthy’ food entirely, and was concerned that this freedom may be my undoing. It all seemed counter-intuitive, going against everything that we are told about dieting. Everything that, on reflection, never really worked.

The plan is based on tracking food intake with a daily protein target and calorie limit. It works on the acceptance that we are human. Will power has a limit, and if we ignore cravings completely, we risk getting frustrated and bitter, and ultimately, in my case at least, face planting the biscuit tin. The plan is written with the individual’s cravings (and how much they struggle with those cravings) in mind. Imagine using those cravings, modifying them in the process, all the while ensuring that the all important calorie deficit remains.

How are the cravings incorporated? With a #flexbowl (if you don’t use the hashtag it doesn’t work). In plain English, this is a bowl of yoghurt (for the protein) and a fixed amount (in my case 300 calories’ worth) of whatever I want. It doesn’t have to be something conventionally naughty, but it can be six Oreos, a Snickers, cake, or countless other options, including my personal favourite: a Magnum.

It doesn’t sound like rocket science, does it? It isn’t, it’s just regular science. No faddy eating, no ‘detox’ shakes or teas, just good food, regular exercise, and a controlled, limited dose of whatever you fancy, whether that is M&Ms or carrots.

Critics say that encouraging eating ‘unhealthy food’ promotes poor health and a poor relationship with food, but I would argue the opposite. Do you really have to suffer? Must you forsake certain foods entirely in order to be healthy? I no longer think so. Ultimately, one Magnum is not dangerous. (Unless something terrible and unprecedented happens with the stick.)

Food, and the enjoyment of food, has always been and will continue to be a huge part of our culture. It’s part of how we socialise, how we celebrate and even how we communicate. And we eat it every day. Surely the ultimate goal has to be balance and moderation, rather than perfection; particularly when we can’t seem to make our minds up about what perfection actually means.

Alongside my dieting I undertook a fitness programme guided by David Cox of Elitas Fitness, a man so passionate and knowledgeable that he even managed to convince me that I quite enjoy going to the gym.

As the weeks progressed I noticed significant positive physical changes, and also (I would argue more significantly) positive psychological changes. One of my favourite things about the eight-week programme is that I am writing this at the end of my 16th week of doing it. I still think that the very most important thing about a lifestyle change is making sure that it is realistic. Because you have to enjoy life as well as trying to prolong it.

  • Paul

    Brilliant article; well written as usual and I have seen that this genuinely works. For some it will be too much to accept that you can eat ‘naughty foods’ on a diet, but I guess that’s where you need to forget the term diet

  • George

    You’ll be continuing to eat foods that have been cunningly designed by diabolically clever food scientists to actually be addictive in the hope that you’ll make the company rich by overeating them. So that might stretch the endurance of many people who take this path. I mean, you wouldn’t take this approach to alcoholism or cocaine abuse.
    An alternative approach is to accept that there are “naughty” foods that taste good that can help break the chains of food addiction. If you eat a high-fat low-carb diet based around red meat, fatty pork, salt, and “saturated” full-fat dairy foods (as “treats” or as staples, however you like) for long enough, brightly packaged sweet “treats” come to seem as desirable as boxes of tampons, even if you do subsequently decide that it’s okay for you to eat potatoes and sweet fruit again. And the very occasional Magnum.
    The secret is much the same – not to see the “diet” as some book camp endurance trek across a flavour- and satiety-free wilderness, but enjoy it as the prison break it is.

    • jchunick

      How did you manage to compare eating foods – even “scientifically formulated addictive” foods – to alcoholism and cocaine and still manage to keep a straight face while writing that?… your points are all the weaker for it. Poor, poor comparison.

      • George

        That’s a really good question, and to be fair the comparison often seems exaggerated to me too.
        But I am coming from the experience of having been addicted to alcohol, amphetamines, and other drugs, giving them up with considerable difficulty, then finding that it was equally difficult for me to stop eating foods that were harming me.
        The definition of addiction that works for me is the compulsion to repeat a behaviour so as to remain affected by it even though one clearly understands the behaviour to have become harmful and no longer beneficial for oneself and one’s dependants. And not really very pleasurable any more either.
        This covers an alcoholic drinking despite losing his home and developing Korsakoff’s syndrome, or a diabetic drinking sugar-sweetened beverages and eating crisps despite being on dialysis.
        The latter may even be the more common fate these days.

      • Robert Spornak
    • Giuseppe Cappa

      Well said. In essence a junk-free diet high in fat and extremely low in carbohydrates is the only way. Exercise and low-calorie regime are not effective in losing weight.

      • George

        I don’t mean to suggest that other approaches don’t work, they do work for some people. Not everyone’s appetite decreases on the LCHF diet, and it’s not culturally appropriate for some, or it can be hard to get good blood lipids for a few. But overall – statistically – it works so well, especially for diabetes of both sorts, that it should be the first thing tried, not the last as it is now.
        Dr Tim isn’t obviously overweight – his interest in decreasing his biscuit intake may be due to an interest in improving his triglycerides and blood pressure, or for avoiding GERD, or for the long-term sake of his dental health, as much as weight loss. We don’t know. In his case the method that gives him the control he needs is sufficient. Other people might find it doesn’t go far enough.
        My response was a little facetious, but I do notice that the contrarian appeal of using “unhealthy” foods to fix an unhealthy way of eating really is in fact an advantage when it comes to the all-important factor of adhering to a beneficial change.

  • CalUKGR

    Speaking as someone who came down from nearly 16st to 12.5st (almost three years ago – and holding) by just cutting out most of the naughty foods and still managing to eat pretty well, I tend to agree with the article. I still allow myself the odd indulgence with chocolate biscuits – the trick is not to over-do it (historically, always my Achilles Heel).

    Restraint and self-control (as in not eating the entire packet of biscuits in one sitting – no, really; it’s that simple) is the key. Smaller portions certainly help, but making sure you don’t deny yourself a fairly regular taste of the naughty stuff that gives your taste buds satisfaction is vital to making any new diet plan work successfully.

  • Ingmar Blessing

    And I always thought it’s the old input/output trick…

    Here is how I lost 35kg:
    1. you need muscles, they need 40% more energy than fat. The best and least stressful way to get that is swimming. Go swimming 3 times a week with one day break and do not swim more than 5 rows per session the first week and make 3 minutes break between the rows. Then add 1 row every week until you reach 20 rows. After 3 weeks you’ll notice something and after 8 weeks it’s gonna be a tremendous body feeling.

    2. Your digestive system has to speed up. Some people have fast ones that process the food within hours. Others need days. That results in a difference of another 40% in what the body takes out of the food during the processing. So, after every meal eat something that speeds up your guts and then you have to walk 2 minutes (maybe take a few stairs) to get things mixed inside. For the substance, every person has something specific, just test stuff and you’ll find yours. Mine is margarine.

    3. Replace soft drinks with calories with soft drinks without calories. They are out there and they are not soo bad.. and also drink 3 liters of water every day. Not more, not less.

    Anything else is not neccessary. You like chocolate, chips, fries and creamy cake? Eat as much as you like! Just stick to the above rules and you’ll lose 2-3 kg every month. Personally I reached my goals after 10 months and I’m still there, because swimming is relaxing, water is sufficient and the spoon full of margarine became a normal habit.

    Good luck with it!