How to Stick to a Diet: 5 Simple Rules for Eating Right

How to stick to a diet - a healthy meal
Photo: Ella Olsson


It’s one of the few things that brings equal parts joy and pain to our lives.

Eating is euphoric. Imagine yourself on a scorching summer day, a scoop of strawberry ice cream in hand. The very thought likely brought you some delight.

But, that same pleasure can be offset when you have too much. The short-term buzz turns into long-term hurt if you eat that scoop every day.

Sticking to a diet mitigates the health risks, but eating right isn’t easy. In parts of the world where food is abundant, maintaining a diet is a practice that eludes most people.

Whether keto or paleo, one of the most important factors of sticking to any diet is discipline. If you believe you can reshape your habits, you can transform the way you eat.

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    Understanding the Habit Loop

    I’ve written before about habits and how they work. But, it’s a subject worth revisiting, especially when it comes to sticking to a diet.

    In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg details that habits work in a loop. The loop is made up of three key parts.

    • First, there’s the cue. It’s a trigger that launches the automatic response and behavior of your habit. Cues can be anything. They can be visual reminders, places, times of day, emotions, or even thoughts.
    • Next is the routine. It’s the physical, mental, or emotional response that’s activated by the cue. Routines vary and are either complex or simple behaviors.
    • Finally, there’s the reward. This assists the brain in determining if the loop is worth remembering. Rewards are the physical sensations and emotional gains that come following the routine.

    Over time, the habit loop becomes automatic. Cues and rewards become so connected that cravings manifest themselves.

    “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.”

    Journalist Charles Duhigg on the habit loop

    Why the Habit Loop Matters to Eating Well

    Understanding the structure of the habit loop allows you to gain more control over how you eat. By breaking down your cues, routines, and rewards, you can change, replace, or ignore your bad habits. You become less likely to stray from your diet as a result.

    Identifying your cues and rewards allows you to adjust your eating routine. How you eat is what you control most when it comes to dieting. Duhigg notes that any behavior is transformable, even if the cue and reward stay the same.

    How to Stick to a Diet: The 5 Rules to Follow

    When attempting to eat better, a few general guidelines can help. Mental shortcuts ease the process, and increase the chances of sticking to your diet. You can apply the rules I’ve outlined below to any plan.

    Rule #1: Simplify

    Complexity is one of the reasons why many people fail to stick to a diet.

    Counting calories or tracking other nutritional details are useful. But, doing so puts too much too soon on the plate of a beginner. Planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning are already plenty to handle.

    Instead, make the process of sticking to a diet as easy as possible. One way to do this is by eating the same foods over and over again. For example, I eat the same meal for breakfast almost every day:

    • Three eggs scrambled with vegetables, like onions, spinach, or bell peppers.
    • Four to six slices of Canadian, turkey, or traditional bacon.
    • A cup of oatmeal, sometimes mixed with plain Greek or regular yogurt.

    Eating the same thing every day sounds boring. But over time, you’ll adapt.

    Another way to simplify is by eliminating junk foods from your kitchen. When grocery shopping, don’t buy processed foods, desserts, and sugary drinks. Doing so removes the chance of falling to their temptation. Rid yourself of junk food by spending little time in the middle aisles of your grocery store. Most of the healthy stuff, like vegetables or meats, are on the perimeter, anyways.

    Rule #2: Plan Ahead

    Sticking to a diet requires thinking in advance.

    Many people fail to eat healthy, because they believe they don’t have time. Jobs, school, or family obligations all seem to get in the way. Tack on food prep and cleanup, and sticking to a diet becomes another chore in your already busy life.

    But, planning ahead turns this notion into an excuse rather than a fact. Consider this stat about entertainment consumption in research by Deloitte: One-third of American Millennials spend about four hours binge-watching in a single sitting. If we can do that, then we should have time to shop, cook, and prepare a few healthy meals a week.

    When I lived in Colombia, I’d often go grocery shopping on weekends. Then on Sundays, I’d prep and cook everything I’d eat for the next few days. I know some of you might have groaned about eating what are essentially leftovers. But, it’s a worthwhile sacrifice to make that saves you time and money.

    Rule #3: Indulge Once a Week

    No matter what diet you’re on, have a cheat day. Allow yourself to go nuts, and eat everything and anything your heart (and stomach) desires.

    “I recommend Saturdays as your “Dieters Gone Wild” day. I am allowed to eat whatever I want on Saturdays, and I go out of my way to eat ice cream, Snickers, Take 5, and all of my other vices in excess. I make myself a little sick and don’t want to look at any of it for the rest of the week. Paradoxically, dramatically spiking caloric intake in this way once per week increases fat loss by ensuring that your metabolic rate (thyroid function, etc.) doesn’t downregulate from extended caloric restriction. That’s right: eating pure crap can help you lose fat. Welcome to Utopia.”

    Author/Self-Experimenter Tim Ferriss on cheat days

    Like Ferriss, I go crazy on Saturdays. But sometimes, I’ll move my cheat day around the week depending on what I have planned. And, I enjoy them to the fullest. I’ve started some cheat days with brownies and chocolate cake for breakfast. My cheat days are no holds barred, and I don’t allow myself to feel guilty about what I eat.

    There’s plenty research that suggests people with cheat days stick to their diets. One study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology examined 36 people, split into two groups. For two weeks, one group consumed a steady, 1,500-calorie-a-day diet. Meanwhile, the other group ate 1,300 calories a day, except for one 2,700-calorie cheat day.

    Both groups lost the same amount of weight during that time frame. But, the group that had a cheat day reported having more motivation and self control.

    Rule #4: Process Over Results

    Most diets market to us with a focus on weight loss. Before and after pictures highlighting the pounds or kilos lost are standard. It’s rare, though, to hear a diet program discuss the process behind reaching that result. And as a consequence, we only see success without understanding how it was earned.

    So instead of focusing on the pounds or kilos you want to lose, shift your attention to your behavior. When it comes to the dietary habit loop,  altering your routine is the top priority. Aim to reach a point where you no longer think about eating healthy. Instead, it should be automatic.

    Before I left my job in Las Vegas to travel, I decided to lose weight.  At over 180 pounds, I hoped to lose 10. To reach my goal, I started the Whole30 diet and implemented a bodyweight exercise program. I managed to drop 20 pounds in a month, but my weight loss was short-lived. I backslid into old habits.

    It took me more than two years to rethink my approach. When I went to Colombia, changing my lifestyle became the priority. I altered how I ate, and even hired a personal trainer. Focusing on the process, rather than result, led me to real, meaningful change.

    Rule #5: Make Room for Mistakes

    Expect to fall off the wagon sometimes. But when you do, don’t beat yourself up. You’re human, and you’re bound to make mistakes.

    Sticking to a diet is an infinite, not zero-sum, game. A key to success is having more good days than bad. When you fall off track, analyze what went wrong, but don’t sweat it too much. Being harsh on yourself wastes time you could otherwise spend finding a solution.

    During my last few weeks in Colombia, I fell to the temptation of sugar. More often than not, I visited this delicious bakery right around the corner of my home. I went every day, usually grabbing one (or two) of their chocolate or caramel pasteles.

    Short-term, breaking my diet wasn’t good for my health. But dwelling on that wasn’t going to change what already had happened. Also, a few weeks of unhealthy eating was nothing compared to the health capital I built over five months. The big-picture perspective made it easy for me to get back on track.

    How I Stick to My Diet: The Essential Details of How I Eat

    How you eat is up to you. What works for me may not work for you.

    The following section details the specifics of my diet. Like the rules above, feel free to broadly use my insights as a model to build your own eating habits.

    How Often Do I Eat?

    Three meals a day. No more, no less. No snacks or anything between.

    In the past, I’ve ate my breakfast within an hour of waking up. But on weekdays, since I like to write for three hours before 12 p.m., I don’t eat my first meal until 10 to 11. Right now, I eat lunch in the late afternoon before going to the gym. I have dinner at around 7 p.m.

    What Do I Eat

    These days, I eat my own variation of the slow-carb diet as recommended by Tim Ferriss. It’s worked for me, because it requires little thinking and is very simple.

    Here are a few examples of what you can eat on the slow-carb diet.

    • Proteins: Eggs, chicken, turkey, beans, beef, pork, fish, and shellfish.
    • Legumes: Lentils, soybeans, chickpeas, peas, or peanuts.
    • Vegetables: Spinach, asparagus, peas, broccoli, green beans, carrots, onions, or garlic.

    And here’s what you can’t eat.

    • White Carbohydrates: No breads, rice, cereal, potatoes, pasta, or fried breaded foods. There is one exception. You can eat these foods within 1.5 hours of finishing a resistance training workout of at least 20 minutes.
    • Dairy: No milk, yogurt, or cheese.
    • Sugar: This includes fruits because fructose slows weight loss. No juice or sports drinks like Gatorade. And of course, no soda.

    I’ve changed the way I follow this diet since I’m no longer trying to cut weight. Instead, I’m grateful to be in a position to gain it. This is why I’ve made exceptions for foods like yogurt and oatmeal, because they’re rich in protein.

    A High-Protein Breakfast

    I try to eat at least 30 grams of protein in my first meal of the day. This isn’t the norm in the US, where most people opt for a bowl of cereal or toast, instead.

    What’s the benefit? Well, there are studies that correlate lower hunger cravings with higher protein consumption. Researchers studied the diets of white adult women, ages 21 and older. They found those that ate more protein-rich meals enjoyed increased feelings of fullness.

    Why You Might Fail

    Even if you follow the rules I recommend, there’s still a chance you won’t succeed. There’s plenty data that suggests that the odds aren’t in your favor.

    “For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little…” writes Yuval Harari in Sapiens, his seminal book on the history of humanity.

    Harari notes 3 million people died from obesity in 2010. That’s more than three times the amount of people who died due to malnutrition in the same year. Around the world, there are more people who are out of shape than the opposite.

    Harari also points out that more than 2.1 billion people were overweight in 2014. By comparison, 850 million people suffered from malnutrition. By 2030, more than half of humanity will be overweight.

    To overcome the odds, you need the right mindset. Unfortunately, most people don’t, so they lose before they start. Most people can’t stick to a diet, because they don’t believe they can change.

    But if you do, I’m willing to gamble on your odds instead.

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    Jon is a freelance writer who authors this site. Learn more about him here. You can also follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram.