Overcoming Dieting Slumps

Dieting can be a drag but it doesn't have to with these energy-boosting tips.

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD on July 20, 2009
5 min read

Whether shopping or thinking about food; approaching the table with a plan or with trepidation;or talking about what you want to eat or will try not to eat, dieting can be sort of exhausting, just from the sheer concentration of it all. Yet -- ironically -- food is your best tool to gain and maintain energy, resolve, and clear thinking. You just have to do it right.

"I don't call it dieting," Miriam Nelson, PhD, director of the John Hancock Center on Physical Activity and Nutrition of the Friedman School at Tufts University in Boston, tells WebMD. "I call it a pattern of eating. You are trying to strive for the energy coming in being a little less than the energy going out. You balance the calories you take in with the activity it takes to burn them."

According to Nelson, one trick is to close down parts of your pantry and pick foods from a different cupboard. "You want to be eating whole foods, grains, fruits, and vegetables," she says. "For protein, eat lean meats, chicken, and fish; and also legumes, nuts, and seeds."

What about those pantry shelves stuffed with chips, cakes, pies, fruit drinks, and other treats? Well, she says, those can still have a place in your diet once in a while, but not as the norm and not as lunch or dinner in its entirety. "I believe you need to cut the crappy carbs," she says, "but not all carbs."

Caffeine has been known to jumpstart even the weariest dieter. "Mild stimulants, such as coffee, tea, or chocolate, are OK in moderation," William Hart, PhD, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at the St. Louis University School of Allied Health Professions, tells WebMD. "But if you are drinking three pots of coffee a day, you want to think about that."

Nelson agrees a few cups of coffee won't hurt you.

The trick with fluids, as well as food, Hart says, is don't overdo it.

There are many schools of thought on combining foods. Nelson recommends eating protein alongside carbohydrates. For breakfast, instead of half a bagel and jam, she recommends adding a protein for staying power. Having fruit, cheese, and a half bagel is a good combination -- but in modest portions.

"People are opportunistic carnivores," Hart explains. "We don't eat all grass or all meat, like some animals do. We attack almost anything and eat it. There is really no science to support various ways of combining [as diet aids].

"But," Hart explains, "there is an advantage to mixing food groups." Different types of foods are absorbed at different rates and can feed brain cells continuously, keeping us alert and energetic.

A quick energy boost may come from a carb (banana), but if lunch is going to be late, you can add protein or a bit of fat (a tablespoon of peanut butter) to sustain your energy through that droning meeting before the midday meal.

Some experts recommend eating snacks between meals or eating six times a day instead of three. "This takes discipline," Hart says. "People tend not to keep them small." The need for this also has not been proven, he says, although eating small meals thorough the day may help regulate the secretion of insulin better. Excess insulin has been associated with type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

"I can recommend a diet, but people need discipline," he says. "If you are the type to run around starving and then throw in anything you can find, a diet may not be for you."

Both nutritionists say that eating breakfast is necessary for any successful eating plan. Many researchers believe that eating breakfast helps the body burn more calories by revving the metabolism into action.

"I am a firm believer," Hart says, "but you need something more substantial than pure carbs like a bagel or toast. Otherwise your body will be ready for more food at 10:00 a.m. How about yogurt on your cereal? Or peanut butter on toast?" Adding proteins and fibers can help you stay full longer and staves off hunger.

"Don't overeat" may seem like moronic advice to dieters. Duh! But Hart says the biggest obstacle to feeling energetic is to not eat too much -- no matter how healthy the food. "Water makes up a big part of blood -- and water is needed to push food through the gut," he says. "If your stomach is constantly working on digesting food, your brain is not getting all the fuel it needs." Voila -- a slump.

This is also why dieters need to keep up fluid intake. Dehydration can be subtle -- at first, it's a dragged out feeling, a lack of energy. Or it can be a headache -- which dieters often attribute to low blood sugar. In actuality, a glass of water might send head pains packing better than an apple or a sugary so-called energy bar.

That dragged-out feeling can also be an anemia caused by a lack of iron, especially in menstruating women who lose iron in their menses. Counteract this with a fortified cereal, some tofu, or even a lean burger.

Many people overeat, Hart says. "This is a big cause of sluggishness. You may go to a restaurant and feel cheated if you get a normal serving. Most restaurant servings are four normal servings."

  • You need to eat the right things in all food groups.
  • You need to phase out the energy-robbing processed carbs. These give you the buzz, then the slight headache, and then the yawning begins.
  • You need to eat regularly, maybe from more than one food group.
  • You need to avoid overeating and robbing your brain of the ability to digest your food.
  • You need to do what your body demands. What someone else eats in a day may put weight on you. Life is unfair.
  • You need to burn more than you ingest.

The bottom line: Calories still count. You need to burn more than you take in. This means exercise. The good side, though, is that exercise builds muscle -- and muscle is more active than fat tissue so it burns calories faster. The next time you exercise, the muscle burns more ... you get the picture. And through it all -- you are feeling perky!