Diet Transitions are Dangerous: Here’s How to Deal with Them

Diet transitions are life events that disrupt your weekly meal cycle and transition (nudge/push) you into a new eating pattern.  The reason diet transitions are so dangerous is that they a) usually happen without you even noticing them, b) occur far more frequently than you realize, and c) if left unchecked, will become your new, permanent way of eating.

Diet transitions can be stressful, highly emotionally charged events (i.e., the death of a loved one) or mundane seasonal changes (i.e., increased kid’s extracurricular activities).  Either way, they take your time, attention, and focus away from meal planning and towards quick fixes.

During diet transitions, the type of meal planning and calorie control tactics you were accustomed to using are no longer appropriate for the current situation.  You just don’t have the time, energy or resources to meal plan and cook like you did just a few short weeks ago.  You may be able to still meal plan and grocery shop, but you just can’t find the time to make the meals.

This leaves you prone to eating out and snacking (indulging) more than you otherwise would have.  If this was a one-time occurrence, no big deal.  But the problem is that these “one-time occurrences” slowly and oftentimes without you knowing it become your new normal.  This is now how you eat.

There’s an almost infinite number of diet transitions and I encourage you to list yours in the comments section or send me a message directly.  Tables 1 and 2 show a short list of the diet transitions that I have frequently come across.

Table 1. Examples of Events Leading to Diet Transitions (1 of 2).

Table 2. Examples of Events Leading to Diet Transitions (2 of 2).

While there’s no magic formula for dealing with diet transitions, I would advise you to use some of the same strategies I outlined in How to Create a Weight Loss Diet You Can Stick To, but with an additional emphasis on

  1. Controlling Your Food Environment: when your meal plan falls apart (i.e., logistically impossible to cook) having too many indulgences available will only lead to one thing – too many calories.

A good meal plan should account for meals, snacks, and indulgences.  Even if you can’t cook (meals) you should have plenty of snacks available (the good stuff) and have a limited number of indulgences available.  There is just no substitute for limiting the number of temptations you are exposed to by controlling your food environment.  There is absolutely no sense in relying on willpower and playing with fire.

If you can’t control your food environment, say you have children in the house or donuts in the office, you are going to control what you can (i.e., kid’s snacks in different cabinets, no eating in the break room) and make nutrition rules for the rest.

  1. Restriction can be a Form of Control: diet transitions are oftentimes chaotic and make you feel like you don’t have control over anything. It is super tempting to eat ultra-processed, highly palatable food for some temporary pleasure relief.  However, this relief is short-lived and difficult to quench.  One food often leads to the next and the next and the next (a binge).  Rather than chasing that short-term relief, try to reframe your food situation as one thing that you can actually control amidst the chaos.

By choosing not to eat that ultra-processed, highly palatable snack you have made the decision to exert some control over your situation.  I do caution here, however, that severe restriction (not eating anything) can lead to/expose an underlying eating disorder.  A sense of “control” is often what anorexics are chasing.  There is a fine line that must be walked between exerting control and going overboard.  There’s no easy answer but by restricting your access to ultra-processed, highly palatable foods you can gain some sense of control over the chaos of the diet transition.

  1. Anticipating Events: your weekly meal plan should already be built around the nuances of your schedule: kid’s events, working late, happy hour, etc. However, there are other events (i.e., seasons, holidays, work trips) that you should be able to see coming and account for.  I realize that some things are just out of your control (i.e., death in family, car crash) but by anticipating upcoming events you will reduce the frustration of having meals planned but not having the time to make them.  By better anticipating upcoming events you can also be better about utilizing an array of meal methods and back up plans (4 below).
  1. Utilize an Array of Meal Methods and Back-Up Plans: if you don’t have time (60-90 minutes) to prepare a traditional home cooked meal be sure to try to incorporate as many 30-minute meals, bridge/emergency meals, breakfast foods, crockpot meals, and ready to eat foods as possible to reduce the burden of cooking. Your meals will probably look more like The Toddler Diet for Weight Loss or The Science of Dieting’s Phase I Weight Loss.
  1. “Go To” Fast Foods: people view fast food as being completely “off limits” but this shouldn’t be the case. The problem with fast food (and most restaurants for that matter) is that people do not plan ahead and instead order their “regular” or what appeals to them at the time.  This is calorie suicide.

Also, please also don’t make the mistake of confusing “healthy” with “low-calorie”.  Panera, Chipotle, and countless others offer “fresh”, “healthy” ingredients that contain just as many calories as a typical fast food meal.

There are tons of fast-food options that will not break the calorie bank and it is worth your time to figure out what a few of these are for you.  I used to eat a McDonald’s double cheeseburger before teaching one of my evening nutrition classes at the local community college – but I didn’t have fries or a drink.  I’m sure some people would view this as completely unacceptable, and I even sometimes felt half-guilty about it, but I was in-between classes and as an adjunct didn’t have cold storage.  I also wasn’t about to lug around a portable cooler.  I just needed something cheap and relatively filling to get me through my class.

There are times where you’re not home or don’t even have the time to make/heat up or carry a meal with you.  In this case, it is a great idea to have a few “go to” fast food meals available.  Put the stigma aside and just focus on the calories.

  1. Lower Your Expectations: sometimes you just need to survive and limit the calorie damage that you would otherwise incur. Maybe you were in a weight loss cycle but it’s just not going to happen.  Rather than say, “ah screw it, I’m just going to eat what I want to”, try instead to focus on weight maintenance.  Hopefully the transition you’re going through is temporary and you can weather the storm or at least give you the time to figure out a new meal planning system to meet the demands of your new life.

In addition to diet transitions there are also built in day-to-day obstacles that you need to deal with and plan around in your everyday life such as time, money, nutrition knowledge or culinary skills and equipment.  Unlike transitions, obstacles tend to be more constant, built in, background features of your diet, exercise, and lifestyle.

Much of traditional diet therapy/lifestyle coaching works to solve common obstacles to healthy eating and The Science of Dieting’s program is no different (part of our weekly phone calls).  In the future (summer 2023) I plan on addressing many of the most common obstacles in a series of blog posts.

The bottom line is that diet transitions and obstacles need to be carefully monitored and addressed in a timely fashion.  It is of utmost importance that you get back on track (back to your weekly meal cycle) as quickly as possible.  Your new weekly meal cycle may be more reliant on the strategies that I outlined above – but hang in there, you can do it. 

A one-time event or short occurrence won’t kill you but the longer it takes you to get back on track, the easier it becomes to slip into bad habits.  Before you know it, your diet is a disaster and so is the number on the scale.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Treat diet transitions for what they are, dangerous, and take care of them as quickly as possible.

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