Fallen Off the Diet Wagon? Don't Despair

Indulge your sweet tooth and maintain your diet

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on May 26, 2005
4 min read

You know how it goes. You're cruising along, following your eating plan, working out -- in general, doing everything right. The next thing you know, one slice of pizza turns into six, one scoop of ice cream turns into a pint, and you're banging your head against the wall asking yourself where you went wrong.

The answer is, you didn't.

"Having a dieting relapse isn't a matter of if, it's a matter of when," says Karen Miller-Kovach, MS, RD, chief scientist for Weight Watchers International in Woodbury, N.Y.

Ann Kramer, EdS, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor in Florida, agrees. "I constantly encourage my clients not to go on a diet, but to live a diet," she says. "They need to focus their lives on the development of their 'wholeness' -- in terms of their physical, emotional, intellectual, sexual, and spiritual selves."

Since falling off the diet wagon is almost a given, what's important, says Miller-Kovach, is knowing what to do when it happens. "When it comes to maintaining weight loss, people who have developed good relapse skills during the weight-loss process are much more likely to keep the weight off."

There are two different kinds of relapses, says Miller-Kovach. The first -- and the easier one to deal with -- is the acute relapse. You're going along fine and then, "you just lose it."

The reasons for it are as unique as the individual. One of the more common ones, though, she says, is being too strict with yourself and putting yourself into a mindset of deprivation. "When you just can't take it anymore, you break out," she says.

Another reason is stress. You've had a fight with your spouse, or a bad day at the office, and you decide you need a time-out. "Life happens," Miller-Kovach says. "If you have a piece of chocolate to deal with that, that doesn't mean you're a bad person -- just that you've had a bad day."

When that happens, it's important to learn from the experience, Miller-Kovach advises. Ask yourself what happened. If you don't recognize what triggered the relapse, you're more likely to react the same way the next time the situation arises.

The more difficult type of relapse is the chronic variety, says Miller-Kovach. Somewhere along the line you loosen up. You can't really pinpoint when, but you realize you haven't been to the gym. You're snacking -- and not on broccoli -- far too much. In short, you've given up, even if only temporarily.

"Usually what this means is that you've lost your motivation and need to renew it," Miller-Kovach says. Sit down and take stock, she advises. When you were following your program, how did you feel? What was motivating you then? "If you can recreate those feelings, you can get your desire back."

When you do have a lapse, says Gay Riley, MS, RD, LD, pick yourself up and return to your maintenance plan.

"Write a list of these situations and then plan an alternative for each risk," says Riley. For example: You're on a business trip and staying in a hotel. Don't order room service, and don't get the key to the convenience bar. Or: You and your toddler are having lunch. Instead of reaching for the fries, take a drink of water instead.

Reinforce the new behaviors with small rewards that will keep you motivated. If you do not eat off your child's plate for 2 weeks, have a pedicure. In addition, exercise and move your body every chance you get, says Riley. "Exercise and physical activity relieve stress, raise endorphins, and most important of all, burn calories."

You can avoid thinking in terms of a relapse by changing your relationship with food, says Howard Shapiro, DO, a specialist in bariatric (weight control) medicine and author of Picture Perfect Weight Loss and Picture Perfect Weight Loss Shopper's Guide.

"If you learn to make the right choices, you won't feel that you're dieting, and then there will be no need for you to go off your plan in the first place," says Shapiro. "That means, don't deprive yourself of a snack at night, if that's what you want. But trade in the high-fat ice cream for low-calorie popsicles, or realize that if you do eat the ice cream, you will plan for it appropriately during the day."

"Don't ever forbid yourself," Shapiro says. "As soon as you do, you'll feel deprived, you'll wind up eating what you really wanted, and then you'll feel guilty."

"Never say never," agrees Riley. "That only sets yourself up for an all-or-nothing response. No one is perfect."