Food for Thought: 3 Deadly “Dieting” Traps…and How to Avoid Them

What are the key differences between “finding your fuel” vs. “dieting?” These differences are small mindset shifts that can make or break your efforts to eat for long-term fitness and health.

Check out the 3 dieting traps from the tabata times below, and see if any of them sound familiar to you.

Trap #1: Eating short-term foods.

To get fast results, you might be tempted to eat nothing but chicken breasts and steamed broccoli 5 times a day. But how long do you think you’d be able to keep this up? (If you’re like me, not very long at all!) Even far less extreme examples like swearing off chocolate, steak, or rice, can be okay in the short-term, but less realistic in the long run.

The problem with short-term food avoidance? It’s…well…short-term. If you exert your willpower for X number of weeks and avoid eating any carbohydrates, but spend every day daydreaming about cake and potato chips, you’re setting yourself up for rebound weight gain, and no real change in your relationship with food.

food for thought

But avoiding “food avoidance” isn’t just mentally beneficial; it’s also physically the better way to go. The more variety you incorporate into your diet, the more likely you are to cover the range of nutrients your body needs. (One example – eating both potatoes AND sweet potatoes gives you a better nutrient profile than only ever eating one variety.)

So find ways to honor your taste buds. Think twice before using food avoidance as a long-term strategy. Ask yourself: Are you eating in a way that you’ll honestly be satisfied with at least 80% of the time for the foreseeable future? Or are you just gritting your teeth through something temporary?

And most importantly, get out of the habit of labeling foods as either “good” or “bad.” Unless you’re allergic or intolerant to some food in particular, focus instead on eating food in the right amounts, in the right contexts, and for the right reasons.

Trap #2: Being on or off the “wagon.”

One risk of doing some sort of “diet plan” or “diet challenge” is that it can make healthy eating seem like a light switch with only 2 modes: ON or OFF.

Either you’re “on the wagon,” eating “clean,” “on a diet,” on track; or you’re “off the wagon,” “cheating,” “eating bad,” or “between diets.”

We all know how bad yo-yo diets are for your health. Losing weight, then gaining it back over and over again can actually make you worse off than before you started dieting.

The root of this problem is, again, mindset. When we’re “on” the wagon, we feel deprived of the foods we love. We worry about falling off the wagon, about temptations, and about failure.

And when we inevitably do fall “off” the wagon…oh boy. We feel shame, we wonder if there’s something wrong with us, and we reinforce a story that being fit or lean just isn’t in our nature. (And since we’re now off the wagon, we make it okay to binge eat for hours, days, or weeks before we muster up the willpower to get back on the wagon.)

Sound familiar?

The bottom line: Healthy habits cannot be built on a foundation of shame and guilt.

But there’s more. When we focus on temporary diets, we not only set ourselves up for unhealthy attitudes and eventual fallout; we also ignore the crucial task of making habit shifts that are realistic, enjoyable, and that will work with our real lives in the long run. Which brings me to the last trap:

Trap #3: Focusing on the prize rather than on making it stick.

In this mindset, you may choose to enjoy a piece of cake at a birthday party – and that doesn’t change your commitment to nourishing yourself well after you leave the party.


And finally, in this mindset, you find ways to enjoy the process. You might make cooking a new passion, or find foods that you love to eat that also make you feel good, or fall in love with a sport that encourages you to fuel it with a healthy diet.

I once wrote a blog post about Steven Pressfield’s book, “The War of Art,” where he discusses the difference between the amateur (who dabbles in something, but never puts in consistent work) and the professional (who shows up, day in and day out with total commitment). I’ll close with another quote from Pressfield’s book that really speaks to the “lifelong” mindset:

The professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work … He conserves his energy. He prepares his mind for the long haul. He sustains himself with the knowledge that if he can just keep those huskies mushing, sooner or later the sled will pull in to Nome. — Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Now, even though you’ll find the most success with food changes when you can settle into an 80/20 approach most of the time, there are certain times when it’s useful, even necessary, to go 100% into a food plan for a shorter period of time. I’ll save that topic for another day soon.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below: When, if ever, have you veered off the path of lifelong nutrition, and onto the “dieting” cul-de-sac? Which of the 3 dieting traps could you shift your mindset around – as you approach the FYF Challenge, or whatever your next personal food experiment might be?

It’s easy to convince ourselves that we can slog through an inconvenient diet for X number of weeks, just to “lose those 10 pounds.”

But true success with food means committing to nourishing yourself for life.

In this “lifelong” paradigm, you’re always exploring, refining, and adjusting your way of eating, over the long haul. Your goal isn’t to be perfect, but to learn and evolve.

In this mindset, you don’t simply give up, if something you try doesn’t work. There are 2 possible outcomes: success, or learning. (Failure only happens if you give up.)

In this mindset, you make the effort to integrate your new food habits with your family, relationships, traditions and lifestyle. Challenging as that may be, you recognize that you need to navigate and talk through these issues.