Don't Get Burned by Diet Burnout

How to stay psyched for the long term

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on February 24, 2006
5 min read

Jan. 1 you resolved to finally lose that extra weight and start living healthier. You began your weight loss program full of enthusiasm and willpower. The pounds started coming off, you felt terrific, and the compliments kept coming your way.But along the way to your goal, something happened. The idea of living a healthier lifestyle forever began to feel more confining than freeing. You're struggling to remember just why you thought it was so important to lose weight anyway. The Krispy Kremes are calling your name -- loudly.

You're suffering from diet burnout. What to do?

First, make sure you're not being too hard on yourself, says fitness and stress management expert Debbie Mandel, MA. The "all-or-nothing" mindset so many dieters have is a big reason for burnout, she says: "Going off a diet for holidays or vacation and then thinking, 'I can't succeed at anything,' is a sure way to get you off track."

That kind of thinking tripped up Janette Barber on her way to shedding more than 125 pounds. But once she gave up her "demand for perfection," the pounds kept coming off -- and they've stayed off, says Barber, former supervising producer and head writer for The Rosie O'Donnell Show.

Barber lives by the "80% rule" -- that is, she sticks to her healthy plan 80% of the time. Her motto: "You don't have to be perfect; you just have to be better."

"By including mistakes in my planning, I was able to avoid the pitfall of eating a cookie and feeling so guilty that I went into the old 'I-ruined-it-anyway-so-I-might-as-well-pig-out' syndrome that ends most diets," she says.

Barber's maintenance strategy is simple: "No matter what I eat, my plan never ends. I never start over. I maintain my weight without obsession or torture."

Aside from all-or-nothing thinking, Mandel says, other common reasons for diet burnout include:

  • Unrealistic goals and expectations for weight and body image
  • Trying to stick to a fad diet
  • Stress
  • Hitting a weight plateau

For those with lots of weight to lose, "there is a short window of opportunity -- about six months -- before the dreaded plateau occurs," says Cathy Nonas, MS, RD, CDE, co-editor of Managing Obesity: A Clinical Guide.

"People get burned out on their weight loss program because they don't know about the plateau," says Nonas. "They expect to lose a lot more and are not satisfied. … But even a 5%-10% weight loss improves your health."

The plateau stage is undeniably frustrating, says clinical psychologist and therapeutic hypnotist Nancy B. Irwin. But it's important to keep in mind that, even though you aren't seeing the numbers on the scale go down, things are happening.

"The body has thousands of switches and levers and buttons that are all readjusting to the weight loss," says Irwin. "During these plateaus when it seems as if nothing is happening, the whole body is 'catching up' to the new settings and waiting patiently for every other part of the body to readjust before going farther."

Sticking to a weight loss program is, obviously, a matter of motivation, and the key is to be motivated for the right reasons, says Paul P. Baard, PhD, an organizational and sports psychologist at Fordham University.

Intrinsic motivation -- which comes from inside us -- creates the energy to succeed because we want to do it, Baard says. But extrinsic motivation -- say, losing weight because your partner or physician wants you to -- is hard to maintain because it comes from outside.

So how do you gain (and maintain) intrinsic motivation? Baard has created the acronym ACRE to explain it:

"If a peanut butter sandwich for lunch every day works for you...fine."

  • A is for autonomy. "When you're losing weight for yourself, you feel excited," says Baard, "You're not feeling pressured from the outside."
  • C is for competence. "Setting your own, achievable goals gives you competence, and confidence, that you are able to do this," Baard says.
  • R is for relatedness. Choose an "accountability partner" so you're not alone in your efforts. "This person isn't a taskmaster, but someone who genuinely cares for you and who can help you establish realistic goals," he says.
  • E is for environment. "Create an environment that motivates you," Baard says. That also means realizing that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work: "Take elements of different programs and use what works for you."

For Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, the antidote for diet burnout is menu creativity.

"When you think you're going to hurt someone if you see one more asparagus spear, it's time to shake it on up," says Peeke, the medical advisor for Discovery Health Channel's National Body Challenge.

Instead of spending mental energy beating yourself up over your lack of motivation, put that energy into thinking differently about your diet.

"Experiment with different foods," Peeke suggests. "Don't get stuck in the rut of the same foods over and over again." Try a fruit or vegetable you've never had, or prepare a favorite food in a new way.

But if a peanut butter sandwich for lunch every day works for you, that's fine, says Peeke. Choose dinnertime or weekends to be adventuresome.

Lisa Cicciarello Andrews, MEd, RD, LD, of Cincinnati's VA Medical Center, offers these 10 tips for avoiding burnout and staying motivated:

  • Work on one goal at a time. Rather than vowing to give up soda, desserts, and fried foods all at once, start gradually -- say, by switching to diet drinks. "Once you've mastered that goal, you'll gain confidence to work on another," says Andrews.
  • Make a plan. Don't get caught with an empty stomach in a boardroom full of doughnuts. Plan healthy meals and snacks throughout the day to prevent temptation.
  • Find an exercise buddy. A companion will keep you entertained while you exercise and will keep you accountable for your workouts.
  • Get some new food ideas. Dieters often lose motivation when they get bored with the same old low-calorie foods. For meal planning and menu ideas, check out the Weight Loss Clinic's recipe collection, and visit these message boards: Ask the Dietitian, "Recipe Doctor," and Snack Attack!
  • Treat yourself (not to food, of course) whenever you meet a goal. Buy a new DVD or exercise outfit, or get a massage, manicure, or facial.
  • Don't sabotage yourself. For example, "don't volunteer to bake cookies for the kids' bake sale if you're too tempted to sample the goods," Andrews says.
  • Allow yourself an "off-limits" food at least once a week. "No one can diet 24/7," Andrews says. "If that chocolate craving just won't go away, give in to a fun-sized candy bar and move on."
  • Aim for short bouts of activity throughout the day to burn extra calories. Skip the phone call or email, and deliver a message in person. Climb the stairs to the office restroom on the third floor. Chase your 3-year-old around your living room for 10 minutes.
  • Buy an affordable piece of exercise equipment you'll actually use and put it where you'll see it. "You can't use bad weather as an excuse not to exercise if the treadmill is in your bedroom," Andrews says.
  • Stay positive. "Think of dieting as taking care of your health, not as punishment."