Video: Study: Diets start Monday, end Tuesday

By Brian Wansink, Ph.D. contributor
updated 5/14/2007 3:51:43 PM ET 2007-05-14T19:51:43

What day of the week did you start your most recent diet? Chances are it was a Monday.

Forty-six percent of people in our recent study said their last attempt launch a weight-loss plan started on a Monday morning.

Now, do you remember when you called it quits on that dieting attempt?

For 31 percent of people, the miserable experience is over by Tuesday evening.

Like most New Year's resolutions, Monday morning diets are doomed despite our very best intentions. That's because both are based on deprivation.

No matter what you're denying yourself — carbohydrates, fat, red meat, snacks, pizza, breakfast, chocolate —  you are setting yourself up for failure. It doesn't make much difference whether we are deprived of affection, vacation, television or our favorite foods. Being deprived of what we enjoy most is no way to live. It puts our nerves and our willpower on a hair trigger.

Instead, go back to where it all started.

Beware creeping calories
No one goes to bed skinny and wakes up fat. Most people gain (or lose) weight so gradually they cannot really figure out how it happened. They do not remember changing their eating or exercise patterns. All they remember is once being able to fit into their favorite pants without having to hold their breath to get the zipper to budge.

This is the danger of creeping calories. Just 25 extra calories a day — 1 Hershey’s Kiss or 5 M&Ms — will pack on 2 extra pounds of paunch one year from today. Only 5 M&Ms a day.

Fortunately, the same thing happens in the opposite direction. 

One colleague of mine lostabout 25 pounds during her first two years at a new job. When I asked how she lost the weight, she could not really answer. After some persistent questioning, it seemed that the only deliberate change she had made two years earlier was to give up caffeine. She switched from coffee to herbal tea. That did not seem to explain anything.

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“Oh, yeah,” she said, “and because I gave up caffeine, I also stopped drinking Coke.”

She had been drinking about six cans a week — far from a serious habit — but the 139 calories in each Coke translated into about 12 pounds a year. When she quit, she was not even aware of why she had lost weight. In her mind all she had done was cut out caffeine.

Small changes to your routine or to your environment can make a big difference. Nevertheless, making even three changes can have a gradual — but eventually giant — impact on our weight. They can be the difference between being 20 pounds heavier next New Year's Day or 20 pounds lighter.

What three changes should you make? There are hundreds to choose from, but the best ones fit your goals, your lifestyle, and they will probably change each month.

The best diet
Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, where I do my research, has just begun a study into which small changes result in the biggest, easiest, most mindless weight loss for a particular person. For example, for a mother who wants to lose 15 pounds and also improve what her two teenagers eat at mealtime, our research suggests she try these three changes for a month:

  • Pre-plate the high-calorie foods in the kitchen and leave the leftovers in the bowls in the kitchen. Do not serve what some call, "fat-family" style, unless it's the veggies and salad.
  • Allow yourself an afternoon snack only if you've first eaten a piece of fruit.
  • Use the half-plate rule: At dinner, load up the right side of your plate with salad, fruit, or vegetables.  The other side can be starches and meat.

When you no longer obsess over what you're not eating, you'll find it easier to improve your diet and lose weight. The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.

Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of "Mindless Eating— Why We Eat More Than We Think," is director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab

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